The Alchemical Possibilities of Failure
by Alicia Hoffman
“My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.” – Bono.
I agree with Bono; surviving a mistake or a perceived failure and transforming it into wisdom or a life lesson is inspiring. If you do an internet search for quotes or articles on failure, there seems to be a never-ending supply. Like love, heartbreak, or jealousy, failure is a natural and challenging part of the human experience from which none of us is exempt.
Failure can be bitter and hard swallow. We often cannot accept it very easily. It is a strong and intense experience that we may hide from, or refuse to admit to others because we are embarrassed, shamed, or defeated. However, like other bitter things found in nature such as the coffee or coco bean we have process it to extract its rich gifts and reframe into an insight, strength, or a life lesson.
We all have different experiences with failure. Some of us are afraid to even begin an endeavor out of fear that an idea or plan won’t work out, never even giving ourselves the chance to fail or succeed. I openly admit I used to find myself falling into this category but my view of failure changed profoundly and was redefined when working with a personal trainer. Like many trainers he utilized the word “failure” differently then most of us. “Going to failure” in the context of personal training means to do an exercise or go through a workout until you are no longer physically capable of completing another repetition with good form. In this context it is not only a good thing, it is a great thing, and always congratulated with a high five and an “Awesome!”
Charles F. Kettering, an inventor said “ One fails forward toward success,” and that is just what I planned to do. I started to make it my goal to “fail,” knowing that I was transferring this experience into my daily living. I wanted to get practice failing because I knew it would lead me to success. Going through the act of physically failing and understanding it was bringing me physical benefit and allowed me to reap benefit from mistakes in every day life, and learn and apply knowledge gained from situations that ended differently then intended or planned rather then give up or be hard on myself.
Processing the feelings associated with failure can uncover and cultivate valuable strength that can be shared with others for their benefit and our own. A familiar place to witness this dynamic is at an AA or any 12-step program. Everyone starts attending for the same reason; because the addiction was bigger then they were and life had become unmanageable. Many walk in with shame and embarrassment believing they have failed themselves, life, relationship, or career. However, many recovered members are able to speak with abundant pride about their transformation and recovery. They are able to wear it like a badge of honor, and rightfully so. They can speak without shame about their lives prior to abstinence, mistakes, and give examples of how different and meaningful their experiences are now. Without the roughness and bitterness of the past, or the experience of transforming their perceived failure into knowledge and awareness, they would not have the same inspiring stories and insights that can be so healing and motivating for other members struggling with addiction.
Another example of transforming failure comes from a client who stayed at a job much longer then was healthy for her, which led to frequent physical illness and depression. She expressed feeling like a failure because she was not doing the job she planned to do while in school, felt she made little impact, and was judgmental of her self for experiencing depression. The client did not find another job before resigning and made a gutsy decision leave her position in spite of pending unemployment. She left her position with the inner conflict of feeling courageous and feeling defeat that mounted as time went by and she had not found a job that was in alignment with who she was. Eventually she found a career path where she was able to be herself put the judgmental voices to rest. She remains empowered by her decision and frequently advocates for others to trust their intuition about challenging decisions even when it might look like failure to another. Her once perceived failure now serves as inspiration for those around her experiencing similar challenges. She used the process of therapy to stay connected with her intuition and authentic self while reframing her judgment of failure into a story of bold success.
The client I mentioned, as well as people who overcome addiction, anyone who ever made a mistake, failed at something, or overcame a difficult life circumstance and were able to reframe the experience into something positive are all heroes, just as Bono said. It can take a lot of brave honesty to go through therapy, a 12-step program, or take any healing measure and look at intense experiences like failure. It is no easy task to be so honest with oneself much less with another person but when key elements like have a safe place to share are present like having a safe space to share, non judgmental whiteness, and sharing your experience, healing can take place and failure can be cultivated into a powerful perspective change. Perhaps this type of thinking can help all of us reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth, healing and development.
For more information about Urban Balance, please visit www.urbanbalance.org.
This article was written by UB therapist, Alicia Hoffman, LPC