The Shame of Failure

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Common Beliefs about Failure are: 

You are a bad ____ because you failed.  Failure is NOT an option.  Failures are losers.  If you’re not first place, you’ve failed.  Why try if you might fail?  Avoid failure at all costs.

 If you failed, you:  Didn’t try hard enough.  Weren’t prepared.  Didn’t do the research.  Weren’t organized.  Weren’t consistent.  Gave up.  Copped out.  Set yourself up for failure.  Didn’t set your goals.  Have no self-discipline.  Are lazy.  Are not living up to your potential.  Are stupid.

Do these sound familiar???  We have been living with most of these our entire life.  To turn this type of shameful thinking around, takes a lot of work.  But it is this challenging work that brings more joy and freedom into your life through truth and acceptance.

 There are levels of shame that come with failure.  There is private failure, public failure, and then there is failure that involves hurting another – collateral damage.  This, for me, brings the highest level of shame, guilt, remorse, and self-punishment.  That’s what shame is, right?  Self-punishment.  We call ourselves names.  We feel bad, evil, or dirty. 

 If we don’t do our best on a paper while in school or if we trip while going up the stairs of our empty house, it is easy to push this minor slip to the side.  If it’s a small faux pas, we can cover it with humor.  Like tripping in public and giving a curtsey, perhaps.   But if we fail at something we care about or we hurt another in the process, it is a different story.   Maybe we tell someone’s secret.  We cheat on our partner.  We separate our family through divorce.  We “step” on a co-worker on our rise to professional success.  We miss a client appointment.  What if we can’t be present – with our partner, children, or clients – as we are too wrapped up in our own stuff…  All of these actions (and I have named just a few) happen.  Maybe we are the perpetrator of the “incident”/failure or maybe we are the victim.  Yet, whether you are doing the failing or being the victim of the failure the consequences are painful for all involved.

 Beliefs around failure come from our family and from our school years.  We learn about failing in sports. Our parents, teachers, coaches and mentors shape most of our current beliefs around defining failure.  We look for validation from these people.  Society judges these people as well.  If a coach has a team that continually loses, it means that they are a bad coach are they will be fired.  If a child doesn’t do well in school (or does very well in school), it is somehow a reflection of how well they are parented.  None of these things might be the truth.  There is shame and disappointment for being different, learning differently, needing more.  There is competition that brings shame.  I call it the “My dog is bigger than your dog” thinking.  

Failure versus Mistakes

 We have all failed at something in life.  Unfortunately, we ALL carry shame due to these MISTAKES.  So, what’s the difference between failure and a mistake?  My opinion is that in failing we have let the shame win.  There is no lesson learned.  When we make a mistake, we take responsibility for the failure, we clean up our mess if we need to, we look for the lesson in this failure, and we try, try again!  The Mirriam Webster Dictionary defines failure as:  weak, falling short, a disappointment, decificient, negligent, not successful.  It defines mistake as:  a blunder in choice.

Let’s look at “famous” people who have “failed”.  In our society we consider filing bankruptcy a failure.  A failure to manage your money well.  A failure in managing your business or making adequate business decisions.  Larry King, who is now worth $50 million, filed bankruptcy in 1978 (Million Dollar Ideas Guide, online magazine, February 1, 2009).  Donald Trump has filed bankruptcy four times during his adult career.  Abraham Lincoln filed bankruptcy two times.  (Financial Edge by, February 4, 2010).  By the definitions given, would you consider Larry King, Donald Trump or Abraham Lincoln:  weak, falling short, a disappointment, deficient, etc.?  Sorry.  Not me.  Did they make a “blunder in choice?”  Did they make a wrong judgment?  Most obviously.  However, the difference between these men – making mistakes versus failing – is that they:  Learned from the events that brought them to bankruptcy.  They were not overcome by shame.  In fact, they used these events to better themselves as people and businessmen.

 Who would you rather learn from?  Someone who has “never” failed?  To do this would be a big risk, in my opinion.  They might not have the compassion and patience that you will need if you fail.  They might not know where to look for the lesson that is the integral part of the failure.  They may bring shame with:  “Why couldn’t you see ___.  Why can’t you do ____.  This is easy stuff.”  Or would you want to learn from someone who has tried a different way, risked, failed, and risen above the shame to find the lessons that have brought them another step closer to their destiny.  They understand the VALUE of risk, truth, and endurance.  They understand the VALUE of the lessons and the wisdom they bring.

Cleaning Up Your Mess

In the case of injuring another because of our failure, it is imperative that you do all that you can to clean up your mess.  It takes an enormous amount of courage and strength to take responsibility for the pain you caused.  The process of apologizing and trying to make things “right” is like taking a shower and washing the shame from your soul.  It reinforces the knowledge that you are human and imperfect, but you have integrity and courage.  Sharing your lesson with the other might help them see that you have gained wisdom and insight to prevent making this same mistake again.  Even if you are not forgiven by the other, you know that you have done all you can do in the moment to clean up the mess you created. 

 Alternate beliefs around Failure:

Failure is normal and human.  Failure means there is a lesson for me to learn.  Failure brings me tenacity, courage, and strength.  Failure means I might need help –  For support, objectivity, or a specialist.   Failure involves grieving.  It is important that you grieve the failure.  It is the dying of the original dream/longing/goal that won’t come true the way you had originally planned.  This grieving process allows your dream/longing/goal to still manifest, but in a different way. 

 The truth is that the only time there is failure is when you take on the shame and believe the lie:  “I can’t do it.  It’s too hard.  I won’t try again.”  So, I encourage you.  No, I implore you!  Use your mistakes to your advantage!  Stand up, dust off the shame and then look around.  See this as an opportunity to become stronger, more tenacious, wiser, more vulnerable, and more accepting of yourself and others!

Love to you