The Power of Failure – And How to Cope

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Everyone experiences failure at some point in their lives – failing a checkride, failing that interview, or a failing relationship. Though everyone experiences failure, there seems to be no place for failure in today’s success-oriented society. However, experts say we need to make mistakes to learn and become good at something. So why do we find it so hard to fail?

Failing, in this context, refers to the inability to successfully complete a task or failing to achieve a goal you have set for yourself – or that has been set by someone else. Behind failure, or rather the feeling of having failed, are deep emotions that can resemble feelings of grief. Taking a moment to process and recover is allowed and needed. This article provides insight into coping with failure from which we can learn and grow.

Often, received responses such as “Cheer up,” “Better tomorrow,” or “Failure is a steppingstone to success,” are expressions intended to put failure into a more positive perspective. Despite the pretense of cheerful advice, we are allowed to experience our feelings and take some time to recover. In fact, we must. Therefore, the first tool to cope with failure is to allow ourselves to experience the feelings that failure causes. 

Failing at something can cause a whirlwind of emotions, such as feelings of alienation, anger, self-judgment, disgust, and even depression. Failure can evoke feelings similar to grief, depending on how much importance assigned to the failed goal which makes sense since something important was lost. A goal or expectation is now out of sight. This setback disappoints you and possibly others. However, we forget one critical aspect; failures are a crucial part of success. For example, inventors worldwide made thousands of failed attempts to find ways to fly. The inventions continued because with each failed attempt persistent inventors like the Wright brothers learned why their tried methods of flying were not working. After all, we are human beings who are not always in control of outcomes, no matter what books about success try to tell us. 

Societal Pressure

Why is failure experienced as something negative instead of an important lesson? We live in a society in which performance is valued; it is about success and profiling yourself. Therefore, failure prompts feelings that something is wrong with you as a person:

  1. The general focus is often on what can be improved and less on our successes. For example, a debrief after a training event usually focuses on what should be improved.
  2. Failures are often kept away as secrets or shared as success stories later. Therefore, we hardly encounter examples of failure in our culture.
  3. We are expected to try greater challenges to make up for the failure. Paradoxically, as a result, failure becomes an even heavier burden. 

Those experiences combine to cast a negative light on the experience of failing. As a result, we become overly critical and negative towards ourselves leaving no room for failure. 

Healthier Ways of Coping with Failure

1. Lay Still and Stay Calm

Why should we have to create a huge success story when struggling with reduced self-confidence and a lack of energy that might come with failure? Good news! It doesn’t have to be this way. Apply the similar advice given after an accident; stay still and stay calm to ensure everything is alright before getting up. Do not force yourself to jump up and exhibit positivity immediately. Instead, allow space and time for failure by experiencing feelings such as anger and sadness. 

2. Recognize and Reframe

As humans, we have learned to take failure personally. We identify ourselves with what we do – or do not do and what we have – or do not have. However, this does not make sense; do your possessions define you? Does one specific competence define you? Accepting the statements “I failed,” “It had no chance of success,” or “I knew it would not work,” permits you to stay in your comfort zone. Your brain uses this mindset to keep you from growth and change. These thoughts prevent you from internalizing future mistakes or failings, though failure is necessary for growth. 

Recognizing these thought patterns is the essential first step to reframing failure. Counter those thoughts by telling yourself that making mistakes is allowed. You do not have to be good at everything. Additionally, think of failure as feedback – it is not about winning or losing. The real strength comes when you decide what to do with that feedback. 

3. Get Up

Limit the period of mourning the failure. Processing should not lead to despair. Give yourself 24 to 48 hours to allow and feel those emotions. Afterward, try to focus on what you can and want to do. Start easy and be kind to yourself; it does not have to succeed immediately. You do not have to prove anything at all to anyone.

4. Use Humor

Humor is a healthy coping mechanism to deal with mistakes and failures. However big the setback feels, try to bring lightness to the situation. You cannot change anything about it any longer. Instead, analyze why you made a mistake and learn from it. Take that experience with you to move forward. If you get stuck in the emotions of failure or try to cover up a mistake and suppress the shame, the feelings only become more intense and frustrating. 

5. Determine Intentions vs. Expectations

Failure does not exist without expectations. If there were no expectations, there would be no failure. Failure exists because the reality we experience is not what we expected. Therefore, it is more constructive to determine intentions instead of creating expectations. Now that intentions replace your expectations, that can help you cope with failure by replacing it with feedback. 

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What do I want?
  • What happened?
  • What are the facts?
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What went wrong?
  • What part am I responsible for?
  • What assumptions do I make?
  • What information do I have to understand why it did not work out? 
  • What can I adjust to improve the situation? 
  • Who can I ask for input or feedback to tell me their honest opinion?
  • What choices do I have?

Use What Works and Adapt
Based on your answers to the above questions, you decide whether to proceed. 

  • What decisions can you make based on the answers to the above questions?
  • What information will you take to heart, and will you act on it?
  • Which information offers no added value?
  • What information might you have overlooked?
  • What feedback might you get from those around you that could help you adjust your plans or ideas?

General questions to reflect on failure

  • What has been your experience with failure so far?
  • What thoughts do you have about failure?
  • What impact has that had on you?
  • What changes if you can reframe failure into feedback?

Final Thoughts

Failure is exhausting and often can make us feel lonely. However, the energy to set new goals and plans will eventually come back naturally. Patience helps to give failure a place. Do not underestimate your resilience. Are you able to get up? Are you ready to gradually get things back on track? That is a great start. Well done! 

Reach out for support

If you are having difficulty recovering from failure or experiencing fear of failure, it can help to speak with a professional. As a counselor, I specialize in working with aviation professionals, especially those with unique medical requirements. I offer crew discounts and flexible scheduling. Reach out for a free consultation today. Visit www.emeraldmentalhealth.com for more information.

SOURCEAero Crew News, June 2022
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Reini Thijssen is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHCA) and certified life coach specializing in working with aerospace professionals. She has been a writer for Aero Crew News since 2019 and covers various topics related to aviation concerning life- and career changes, relationships, and overall mental health. Reini is in private practice at Emerald Mental Health. She offers online mental health support to adult individuals and couples coping with a wide range of challenges such as anxiety, burnout, grief, and stress. For more information and questions, contact reini@emeraldmentalhealth.com

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