Failure, Zohre Nemati @ Unsplash

The illusionary perception of failure

Sometimes I feel like a challenging topic comes up in a conversation and then suddenly permeates a bunch of different conversations. I wonder if it is me and my usual tendency to connect the dots or if it is serendipity. I love the word serendipity. But that is not the common theme. This week, I was in multiple conversations about the perception of failure. And it makes me feel like writing a 4-part essay on i) what is failure, ii) how to define success and iii) our self-judgement that we are failing and iv) the importance of self-kindness to deal with all this, I know I am terrible at multiple parts articles (I fail to follow-through), so I will just do it all in one.

What is failure?

As a recovering perfectionist that still has a long way to go, this is always a fascinating topic for me. Failure, in reality has no universal definition. The dictionary says:

“Failure is the neglect or omission of expected or required action”

The trick is in the “expected”. Required would be just fine! Let’s face it, failure is hardly an objective term. You can fail at the test, fail to get admitted to a school, fail to get through a job interview. All of these have required criteria and a relatively narrow definition. But let’s not go into the “expected” part just yet.

One thing worth reflecting about, is that failing in a required action hardly means that you are a failure. You don’t suddenly become a failure by failing at any of these events (or rather an aggregation of events of your choosing). But somehow most of us are too quick to go from failing to failure as if they are interchangeable. They are not, let’s look:

“I failed at the test I can still be a good student”

“I failed at the test. I’m such a loser. I am a failure”

Which one is yours?

Defining success

The other way to define failure (also according to the dictionary) is “lack of success”. And what is success? This brings a slippery slope of different realities that each of us can (and should) define success in a certain way. However, this is often defined by the society around us and does not always have to do with our core values. It is not everyone that can choose to operate according to independent metrics of success that go beyond money and power (alike Arianna Huffington in Thrive). And whilst many people do operate despite the society’s expectations, I am more often than not surrounded by people who have been formatted towards success. And the opposite of success is… failure!

This means that to define failure, you need to define success, perhaps have a few goals and metrics. Isn’t that what life is about? I am being sarcastic, in case you are new here. However, the reality is we mostly grow up conditioned by certain expectations and it is sometimes hard to see through them. You conform, you excel, you perfect the art of achieving. Rarely do you stop to think about what in reality achievement means.

As I worked on my own goal setting in these last few years, I had to pin down what mattered to me and which areas did I really want to focus my attention on. And whilst one can argue that goal setting can be a good pathway to feeling like a failure, I am still in the camp that goals can be a good exercise to find out your own North. As long as you don’t call yourself a failure when progress is slow.

The great perception

So I don’t have a general problem with the definition of goals and success, as long as these are not unidimensional and we recognise how much we are conditioned by what others think of our goals. In reality I have a problem with the “expected” part of failure in the definition.

This week, I gave a talk to a group of return to work women (and some men to be fair), who all justified their career break to me. One by one, I had to stop myself from interrupting. As I started my (not really prepared) remarks, I told them we needed to work on their language. There was hardly a break any of them had as they took difficult choices of caring for their families or reallocating continents, all while developing new inter-personal and time management skills. There was no failure there and it was an important starting point for them to look at it that way.

The problem with failure is that you feel it when it’s not real and you augment it with every small perception of the famous negative self-talk. The biggest failure of failure is that it is based on what people expect of you (not always transparent and often conditioned on cultural beliefs) and what you expect of yourself (often a moving target). You think everyone is looking (and possibly talking about it) when in reality the magnitude is only larger in your own head. Failure, unlike the act of objectively failing at a test, is in the eye of the beholder. And dare I say women beholders often need stronger glasses.

The women Interpretation

Women are said to over analyse, overthink, over judge and over criticise, with a special eye on themselves (and sadly other women). I am not a researcher ready to make a dissertation on the topic, but the empirical evidence that comes towards me is indeed quite gender biased, so forgive me if I sound biased myself.

  • The woman that goes back to work and feels ill-equipped and less able and assumes she no longer has a place in the team (without asking);
  • The woman who comes out of her toxic relationship and feels like a failure for wasting her life for many years (despite the win of ending it);
  • The woman that gives a presentation that generates so many questions that leads her to believe she did a poor job (when it was likely the opposite);
  • The woman that had to stop working to support her kids in a difficult life moment and believes she is failing in her career (despite a career successful in all fronts before this);
  • The woman whose body is saying no and can’t keep up with the pace of career and life demands unless she paces herself and says her body is failing (despite all the ill-treatment she is giving it).

I have mixed examples and added my own, as each of these has much more personal stories behind that I would not dare go into as they are not mine to share. I do it because of the prevalence, not about the individual events. They all came to me in the space of 24 hours. Unsolicited. And next week may not be any different.

We think we are failing

I have written before about my struggles with perfectionism and how I worry (big time) about role modelling and living imperfection in my own life. All of the above could have been me. In fact, all of them have indeed been me at different parts of my life. I would run out of ink if I listed out all of my “failures” and it is only by doing that (and saying it out loud) that I can see the ridicule in my own list of failures (I hope you can spot it too in your own list – tell me what your naughty voice is telling you).

Failure leads to shame and shame lives better in the dark. This isn’t me talking, it’s BrenĂ© Brown again. Shame thrives in silence but when it’s put out in the light of day and it meets empathy, it can’t thrive. Honestly, if I start quoting her on this I will be here all night. Go read her books. Any of them will do.

As I spoke to a friend about all of her “failures” she laughed in disbelief. How could I guess what she thought and wanted to hide? How could I say these things out loud?

“I have been there. I see you and I know you’re angry and the reason I say it is to show you the silliness in this non reality. And to show you that you would be kind to me if I said this. So it’s time you are kind to yourself.”

One of my most difficult sessions in therapy, and I think I have mentioned this one a few times, but here goes more, has been when Catia asked me to sit in a different chair and speak to me like I was my “naughty voice” (that was easy) and then speak to me like I was my best friend, from another chair. I failed. I am playing with words, but I did. I could not speak or articulate anything kind to say to myself.

That has changed, even if I have to remind myself of it often (with some help from Hubby B no doubt). I use the word failure more carefully these days. And I apply kindness often, even if I don’t feel it there and then. I hope it becomes a reality.

There is no failure in failing

There is only living and trying, adjusting the best we know along the way. If only we just start believing that. The funny quote we tell our children:

“Don’t worry, FAIL means First Attempt In Learning”

When will we really start believing that and tell that to ourselves when we “fail”? I don’t know why we are so dumb funded on this idea that we are either succeeding or failing. I will blame the dictionary for that.

I finish with a story I tell widely about the perception of failure. A few years back, I agreed to drop off Little Girl C on Friday mornings, and therefore come to the office later than usual. Stop judging (whatever your judgement is). I did it for over a year and well into my pregnancy #2, as I arrived “late” one Friday, one of my bosses at the time came to me and asked if I was feeling OK given the time, as I was never late. I smiled as I realised I had spent over a year feeling guilty and almost ashamed at my potential appearance of lack of commitment and he had never noticed it before. I wasn’t failing after all. Except in my mind.

What is the story you are telling yourself?

Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

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