Learning to fail

I’m rubbish at failing. Not in the sense that I don’t fail at things – I do so a great deal. More about how I don’t deal with it. Being able to fail is essential for learning. There is no way of learning without making mistakes, and feeling safe to experiment and getting things wrong is essential. Most of us aren’t psychic enough to be able to negotiate all of our human interactions and life choices perfectly, so we need room there to deal with mistakes as well.

When it comes to other people messing up, I think I do ok. There’s room in my head for honest human mess, for good intentions that played out badly, for people not knowing, or realising. Most of the time I can accommodate that.

It’s when it comes to me that the problems start. I expect perfection. It doesn’t matter if I’m under-informed, or under a lot of stress, or haven’t got the skills. I expect myself to get everything absolutely right in all ways for all people all of the time. I know that’s not even possible, but even so, faced with a cock-up or a shortcoming, my body response is panic. I expect to be told off, put down, ridiculed. I expect to be kicked out of spaces for the slightest error. I find it very hard to imagine that anyone can tolerate or forgive me for being less than perfect, and it has to be said that this anxiety puts a lot of strain on my relationships.

It takes a lot of time for me to learn to trust that someone will be ok with me being human.

Of course there’s a lot of personal history tied up in these reactions – I know what of the past is shaping it. Knowing, I have also found, is not the same as being able to not get caught up in something. The head is faster than the rest of the body and unlearning a long-established fear response takes time. I can do it, I have done it in some key relationships.

One of the problems this causes me is that, faced with complaint or criticism, my automatic response is to feel guilt and responsibility and to try and turn myself inside out to appease the person I have offended. I’ve spent much of my life accepting the idea that it is ok for other people to punish me for failing, and the fear of punishment is a big part of my bodily reactions to my own inevitable shortcomings.

One of the big changes this year has been to question this. I’ve become suspicious of the people who want to hurt me for honest mistakes, human imperfections and not magically knowing what they wanted. I’ve become able to hold the idea that I shouldn’t stay in spaces where I am required to hold some kind of superhuman level of all-pleasing perfection.

Perfection is not a human quality. Life is too full of contradictions and conflicting needs for any of us to be able to do all the things perfectly for everyone all of the time. The person who demands that, and who won’t tolerate any kind of mistakes or shortcomings, is basically saying ‘you aren’t a person’. There’s no room in a world where you have to strive for people-pleasing perfection, to have thoughts, feelings or needs that are your own, and that aren’t perfectly convenient to everyone else.

My challenge moving forward is to be kinder to myself around mistakes. Getting something wrong does not make me a failure as a human being. It doesn’t prove that I’m useless and worthless. It doesn’t entitle anyone to attack or hurt me. I don’t have to keep doing on the inside what others have done from the outside. And when someone saunters into my life and demands, and derides, and doesn’t want to hear my side of things, I can use some choice, short Anglo Saxon words to tell them where to go. It’s a theory, at any rate.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Learning to fail

  • Caerlynn Nash

    We are our own worst critics. We do indeed have to learn how to fail in order to grow. I used to call my early paintings failures, but after a year or two, I decided they weren’t failures, they were learning experiences. The only way we’re a true failure if what we do hurts someone else. I too grew up in a very critical, non-encouraging environment and it has taken me years to realize that it’s not me — it’s them. The only person you can control is yourself. Best of luck with your growth. You are okay! 🙂

  • Scott Tizzard

    I have failed, a lot. But I have also succeeded many times. Each of my failures had their emotional and sometimes financial consequences. But, through these experiences, I also learned and developed. Sometimes, you are set up to fail.. to be the “fall guy” sort of speak. Sometimes you recognize these traps too late. But I have never regretted my decisions to take risk. I have come to conclude as I get older (and I hope a wiser), that often times both failure and success are simply a point of view at a specific time in a socially relativistic context. If life is a continuity of learning opportunities perhaps “failures” were simply more difficult lessons to learn. If we learnt the lesson, then was it not a success?

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