So you didn’t stick to that New Year’s resolution, you didn’t pass the test, you didn’t get the job, or you took a risk and it didn’t work out.
Whatever it is that isn’t going your way, you might be feeling like you failed. But failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Seriously. You can change how you respond to failure and turn it into something valuable — and maybe even something worth celebrating.
Is it failure … or just a mistake?
Failure is generally a bigger deal than making a mistake — it’s more final and often has more consequences. That said, your definition of failure may differ from someone else’s.
The most important thing to remember about failure (and mistakes) is that it isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. You may fail at something, but you aren’t a failure as a person.
“The thoughts or feelings you have are real in that you feel them, but they aren’t necessarily true,” says Koriann Cox, a licensed clinical psychologist at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt and UW Medical Center – Northwest.
How anxiety and depression make failure worse
If you experience a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, your brain might be extra intent on holding onto the idea that you’re a failure.
The stories you tell yourself about yourself and your life shape how you feel and what you do. Anxiety tells a story about all the things that could go wrong in the future, whereas depression tells a story about all the things that went wrong in the past, Cox says.
“With failure, if you’re prone to anxiety or depression, it means you can get stuck in one of those stories,” she explains.
Notice if your brain is working in absolutes — if everyone else except you is successful, if you always mess up, if you could never do this or if you’re the worst, says Douglas Lane, a licensed clinical psychologist at VA Puget Sound Healthcare System and a clinical professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“These are red flags that suggest self-defeating behavior. Push back against it a little bit: What does the evidence say?” he suggests. Is it actually true that everyone else succeeds all the time and only you fail?
How to celebrate (or at least accept) failure
Cox and Lane both practice acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, with patients. This therapy helps people learn to accept the reality of their situation (which is different than approving of it), reconnect with their values, and be less critical of themselves while making meaningful changes in life regardless of what difficulties they face.
Here are some ACT-inspired ways to change your relationship with failure.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel
If you ignore or try to immediately push past what you’re feeling, it will probably come back to haunt you later — and it might be even worse. Whether you feel disappointment, grief, frustration, sadness or something else entirely, allow yourself to fully experience it. No feeling is wrong.
Reconnect with your values
“In the US, we define ourselves and our identities and worth through achievement, whether it’s financial, academic, rank in the organization or athletic achievement. As a result, we sometimes rise or fall based on those things,” says Lane.
That usually isn’t a good thing — you’re so much more than your job or how much money you make.
Rather than judging failure or success off of material or external things, think about what you truly value about your life and yourself. Are you proud of being a kind person? A good parent? A caring friend? Dig deep and figure out what matters most to you, and then reanalyze the situation. Say you tried a big new project at work and you didn’t succeed. Instead of seeing it as a failure, maybe you see it as in line with your value of taking risks and being open to trying new things.
“Respond to the failure by recentering your goals,” Lane says. “What are you really trying to achieve? Is there another way to try to achieve that or do the thing you want to do? Why were you doing that thing in the first place? You might realize you didn’t even want something for the right reasons, or your values have changed since.”
Don’t give up
When you don’t succeed at something, the failure may be all you can think about at first.
“Loss or failure is a disempowering experience because you exerted agency to try to achieve something, and it still didn’t work,” says Lane.
But there are opportunities waiting beyond the failure, even if you can’t see them yet. And you still have agency.
“Focus on choice. Maybe you made a choice that wasn’t consistent with your values, but that’s OK: life is a series of choices. You get to choose what to do next,” Cox says. “If you see a mistake as a failure and give up, you’re not giving yourself the chance to succeed.”
Reflect on what you learned
You can learn a lot from failure — maybe even more than you can learn from success.
Lane sees this with two very different patient populations he regularly works with: athletes and elders, especially older adults who are recovering after a life-altering health problem like a stroke.
“I’ve noticed in working with athletes how good they are, when they lose a match, at analyzing what could have been done differently,” he says. “And then a gate falls, and there is no more backward focus, they purely look ahead and focus on the next challenge to come.”
Older people regularly tell him that they see failure as an opportunity for wisdom — a rabbi he once worked with reframed it as “the gift of failure.”
Failure also gives you a chance to overcome difficulties, which can build your confidence and coping skills, Cox says. Ultimately, failure is a normal part of life. The more you learn to accept or even celebrate it, the more you’re setting yourself up for future success.
“Failure doesn’t mean you’re broken or that nothing will ever be good again. It might mean things are just different,” Cox says. “You get to discover who you are and what you want to do. It’s hopeful.”