What happens after you fail?
What do you do?
Setting out to achieve a goal requires the mobilization of a lot of energy from an organism. A coyote will only chase a rabbit so far before giving up their chase. At a certain point, the chase requires more effort than there are calories in the rabbit. The coyote, has come up short.
With humans, our brains require an enormous volume of calories to keep going. Between planning a project and obsessing over what it could look like, we spend a lot of energy working towards a goal. Once we take our thoughts and put them into action, that energy increases exponentially.
It’s no wonder then that when we fail we have big feelings. Our nervous system has been primed. There’s been a lot of physical energy running through us in our attempts to reach our goals. When the energy doesn’t land, when it doesn’t have the desired result of helping us move forward, the disappointment can feel like a gut punch. What once was fuel either disappears and we get depressed or we have so much physical energy with no where to go, our anxiety overload kicks in. We can become enraged, fearful or simply just shut down.
In all of these cases we experience physical symptoms. Our nervous system needs soothing. Our first adaptation is to attempt to put the energy somewhere with a story. The story goes a bit like this: “If _______, then I’m ______. That’s pretty much it. The rest is a dogpile of shit, shame and self hatred. Nothing like having an itty bitty shitty committee ready to unleash its wrath. That way, we can have a degree of control and fuel our energetic release.
When we’ve failed, we lose certainty, we lose control. By telling stories about what the failure means and what that makes us, we can have a degree of certainty and control. Even though someone who has failed is certain they are shitty, they’re at least certain about that.
One conclusion that people regularly jump to when they have failed is: Never again. Some, based on the fact that they are overwhelmed by their feelings, take control over things. They sooth their terrible feelings by creating rules for themselves so they don’t have to put themselves at risk of feeling like that any more.
When we fail, we do what ever we can to sooth ourselves. Some drink, others shop. Some people self sooth with food. There are even people who sooth themselves by blaming the failure on others. Unfortunately, the great majority of people I know sooth their distress at failure believing they are justified in this behaviour, while at the same time being mostly unaware that what they’re doing is soothing behaviour.
So, what to do when you’ve failed?
Notice all of the energy in your body. Lots there eh? Next, give yourself permission to sooth yourself. Do this soothing aware of how you’re soothing yourself. If you don’t know how you sooth yourself, start by getting curious about your agitation. Next, ask this question: “What do I want right now?” In that question, consider what would feel better than they way you’re feeling. How can you get that sensation? Is it a healthy choice?
Once you’re finished soothing yourself, look at where things went wrong. Was it a matter of planning? Did you screw up in the execution? What resources - time, money, knowledge etc - did you need more of?
Finally, make a plan to go back to that task. Know where the last set of pitfalls were. Have a plan for that. Know that you’ll likely be agitated and perhaps fearful due to past failure. Have a plan to keep soothing yourself along the way.
Then remember - you were terrible at walking when you were 4 months old.
And at 9 months?
You failed to shit in a toilet and made really stinky gross messes that people put up with, dealt with for you and love you anyway. You’ve failed before. You’ll do it again.