Have your dreams been crushed? Are you sitting there reading this devastated by failure or betrayal and wondering if you’ll ever feel like yourself again? You are not alone. But I can promise you that you too can recover from failure.
Having an apartment in San Francisco closer to my job means that my husband is now the traveling wayfarer in our marriage. (Someday remind me to write a post about how hot long distance relationships can be, okay?) But every three or four weeks, I head up the mountain to see my grandchildren.
Because I want my grandchildren remembering me as the cool grandma who made them think, I’ve started asking Sam, my 2-year old grandson, what he’s learned about life in the time we’ve been apart. I especially like this question because of the reaction it elicits from my daughter and her husband.
Usually Sam simply grabs his super cool, pedal-free Strider Bike and shows me how fast he can go while I applaud his derring-do. But sometimes Sam lays on me some deep philosophy about the pain of owies and the mystical power of band-aids.
When these magical moments happen, I listen intently to my little grandson-warrior’s dramatic tales of life v. death, and we commiserate together over the common human experience of falling, crashing, crying, and getting back up again.
After I kiss my little hero’s wounds, won so valiantly from battles fought with two of mankind’s greatest archenemies: Gravity and Reality, he runs off and grabs his super cool, pedal-free Strider Bike. Because when you’re two years old you don’t get bogged down in yesterday’s owie; you get back on that bike, and you ride again.
Like I said: Deep Philosophy.
Recovering From Failure
Two years ago, immediately following my humiliating failure as a professional blogger-slash-community-builder-slash-entrepreneur, I returned to full-time, that is, paying work as a traveling labor and delivery RN. The last two years have been busy and fruitful. I thought I’d take a little time out to share what I’ve learned so far about failure, shame, humiliation, and the power of getting back up again.
Lesson #1: Make Friends with Loneliness
“Everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone.”
If you want to recover from having your ass handed to you on a platter or, as Brené Brown calls it in her new book, Rising Strong, lying face down in the arena, you’re first going to have to cuddle up to your new best–and possibly only–friends: Shame and Humiliation. Because when you fail, pretty much everybody else who can get away from you, will.
In the face of your failure, other humans will instinctively avert their eyes. And the ones who don’t look away are either reveling in your defeat or demanding that you get over it as quickly as possible. Nobody has time for your suffering.
The loneliness that rides into your life on the back of failure is crushing. This is where you’re going to find out the ugly truth about the people you thought you could count on. And this is where you’re going to sit by yourself licking your wounds alone.
(Right here, looking at the Carquinez Bridge, is where I sat:)
Well, you feel alone but, like I said, you aren’t alone. Shame and humiliation are sitting right next to you telling you what a loser you are, how it’s no wonder everyone has abandoned you, and that everything is your own damned fault because you are stupid and worthless and why did you try anyway?
This is the dark place. This is face down in the arena. The crowds have left for the victory parade, and you are not invited.
Loneliness is always the first stop on the bus ride to Failure Town.
At least you and I can take some small comfort in the knowledge that loneliness is not some strange phenomenon unique to us when we fall flat on our ass. None other than the great biblical King David wrote extensively in the book of Psalms about his shame and humiliation after being dethroned by the evil conniver, Absalom, and the loneliness he experienced after all of his so-called friends and his once-cheering fans abandoned him.
PRO TIP: Try taking your eyes off of your self-pity–just for a moment–and pay attention to the people who haven’t abandoned you. These are the people who will show up for your victory lap later. Don’t alienate them by being too much of a self-absorbed asshat while you’re lying there feeling sorry for yourself.
Lesson #2: Take Full Responsibility
They say everything happens for a reason.
Let’s just say for a minute that your failure might be your own damned fault. Maybe you were stupid and made a bad decision. That’s okay. Because…
Making a mistake is not a sin, and failure is not a crime. You aren’t necessarily a bad person because you made unwise choices. (Caveat: If you are reading this from prison where you are serving a life sentence for cold-blooded murder, this does not apply to you.)
Maybe failure is all you have left after you’ve been sent home when Going Big didn’t work out the way they told you it would, but at least it’s yours.
Yeah, I get it. They done us wrong. It sucks and they suck, but that’s not going to help us now. The sooner we can get to the most honest narrative that doesn’t portray us as the victim in the story we tell ourselves, the sooner we can take back our lives and move forward.
Unfortunately, while loneliness is painful, taking personal responsibility is often very hard to swallow. It requires a great deal of courage to face your failures and accept your part in them. You’re going to need a powerful tool to help you quiet down your shame and humiliation while you wash down the bitter pill of personal responsibility.
Lesson #3: Cultivate Curiosity
Cultivating curiosity allows you the freedom to set aside your emotional drama, step away from your victim story, and look objectively at what happened and why.
WARNING: You might have to try more than one counselor.
The first counselor I saw after losing my company gave me this sage advice, “Have you just tried being yourself?”
What the fuck sort of advice was that? Of course I’d tried being myself. That was the fucking problem, lady!
Turns out this lady didn’t know what a blog is. She wasn’t even on Facebook! She might be a perfectly great counselor for other people, but she didn’t have enough knowledge about how social media works–or what online bullying is like–to help me.
But I didn’t give up. I kept searching for a counselor until I found one who specializes in creativity. She’s been a godsend, and she’s the one who helped me cultivate some much-needed curiosity.
Cultivating curiosity made me able to take responsibility for my part in the mess I’d made.
At the very beginning, when the community of Generation Fabulous began turning into a business, I wisely sought out business advice from a successful woman I respect very, very much. This woman told me straight up that the people I was bringing into my project were not suited to the task and, if I didn’t change my course immediately, my business would most certainly fail.
I knew she was right, but I told her that I couldn’t see a way out that wouldn’t cost me a friendship that meant a great deal to me. Then she told me something I wasn’t ready to hear: “Your friendship is already over”.
I hung up the phone after talking to this consultant, and then knowingly walked down a doomed path.
It took me months to admit to myself a truth I’d known from the beginning: The minute my friend said she wouldn’t be my friend anymore if I didn’t make her a partner in my business was the moment our friendship ended.
PRO TIP: Dig deeper. Your first take on the situation probably isn’t all that’s there.
So the deeper question is, “Why did this relationship mean so much to me that I was willing to work against my own best interests to keep it?”
In 2007, the year I became friends with this person, my world was falling apart. My 16-year old son was rebelling; my 18-year old daughter was getting married younger than I wished; and my mother had landed on my doorstep with Stage IV colorectal cancer, no health insurance, and owing $100,000 in back taxes to the IRS. On top of that, in March of 2007, I’d left my church after a serious theological disagreement with the pastors, thus eliminating one of my primary support systems.
By the end of 2007, when this person, and a few others, came into my life, I was in a particularly vulnerable position. When these women picked me as a friend, I grabbed onto them like a drowning woman latches onto a life raft.
In 2013, when this proverbial life raft turned into my personal version of Pi’s life boat, I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I couldn’t let go or it would hurt really bad.
Because of my unwillingness to face the truth about my relationships, my inability to confront my fear of rejection, and my shame over not really knowing anything about how to run a business, I’d set up a situation where failure was all but guaranteed.
I can play victim tapes in my head all day long about how I’ve been wronged, but I knew from the beginning I was making a terrible mistake. And I made it anyway.
Lesson #4: Face Your Fears. Face Yourself.
A few months ago, Julie Stoian of Fabulous Blogging asked the following question in her blogger Facebook Group:
What is Your Greatest Obstacle in Writing?
What followed was a bunch of comments about lack of time, lack of ideas, lack of commitment, blah, blah, blah.
I call bullshit.
The greatest obstacle to any creative endeavor is fear, pure and simple. It could be fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgment, or maybe even fear of success–it doesn’t matter–at the end of the day, it’s fear that keeps us from expressing our creativity.
None of us want to fail, much less fail in front of everyone. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It’s shaming. And shame feels awful.
Ironically, shame can be found in success, too.
When Generation Fabulous was at its height of success, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was talking to big corporations, like Pfizer and AARP, and trying to fake it until I made it like the speakers tell you at Blogher, but all I felt like was a frightened fraud.
At blogging conferences–where I maybe should have felt like a success–I was overwhelmed by all the people who came up to me expecting me to know their names, remember everything they’d ever written or said, plus help them achieve a blogging stardom I didn’t even believe existed anymore. Worse, I was scared shitless someone would figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. And the more successful I got, the more horrible I felt.
Then: Panic Attacks.
I’m an introvert at heart, not the extrovert I sometimes play on the Internet. I tried to compensate for my inadequacies with perfectionism. But perfectionism carries its own suitcase of shame since–deep inside–perfectionists know it’s all a lie.
More shame followed when it all fell apart. And I didn’t know what to do about that either, so I ran away.
I felt ashamed that people had rejected me. It was humiliating that people were talking about me behind my back. And the shame and humliation isn’t entirely gone. Whenever I see someone who has unfriended me on Facebook, or just plain ignores me now altogether, that same old shame revisits me. And suddenly, there I am again, sitting alone with my shame and humiliation, having those same old conversations in my head, right back to Lessons #1 and #2 where I’m recreating another useless victim narrative.
PRO TIP: Recovering from failure isn’t a straight line. You can’t rush it or bullshit your way through with false bravado or by listening to Idina Menzel sing Let it Go a hundred billion times–Trust me. I tried. Recovering from failure means slogging your way through painful feelings of shame and worthlessness, it means facing your worst self, and it means struggling to find a better self you can believe in again. It also means learning to trust yourself and others all over again.
Standing back up after life has kicked the shit out of you is hard, hard work, and anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Lesson #5: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Something Else
The last two years have been some of the most productive of my entire life and none of it would have happened if I hadn’t dared greatly and failed spectacularly. I see now that I have spent far too much of my life avoiding failure when failure was the next indicated step. I’m now left wondering how many times I’ve cheated myself out of life’s most glorious lessons and greatest opportunities that can only be had through defeat.
The failure of my business ended toxic relationships that could have ended better if only I’d been courageous enough to end them myself. It’s a shame that I couldn’t do that more gracefully, but I don’t need to stay ashamed. The hard truth is that some relationships have expiration dates, and those relationships had surpassed their’s.
Instead of shame, I can rejoice that the end of those relationships opened me up to new relationships with stronger women, like Jessica Gottlieb and Audrey Van Petegem, who don’t need me to feel lesser about myself so they can feel better about themselves.
I’ve also learned from this experience that I no longer need to approach my relationships with women like a seven-year-old standing on the playground just hoping I don’t get picked last for kickball.
If I hadn’t started a business, I’d have never been brave enough to quit my dead-end job on the mountain and try travel nursing. If I hadn’t risked becoming a traveling labor and delivery nurse (now that’s some scary shit!), I might never have learned what a good nurse I am, or how brave I am, or what it feels like to make–me, myself, and I–a six-figure income. (It feels fantastic, by the way!)
I rarely (or never) quote the poet Britney Spears, but since we just bought our tickets to Paris so we can go party in France next year this song feels especially right.
You want to know how to recover from failure? You better work, b*tch.