There’s a phrase my therapist often tells me more times than I would like to admit: “Raven, be kind to yourself; there are no ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts’ in life.’” This is something I have trouble understanding, like a foreign language I can’t seem to grasp. What do you mean I need to be “kind to myself?” Shouldn’t I expect my external world to match my idealized trajectory? Damnit, there I go using “shoulds” again—my therapist is going to kill me.
See the thing is, while I am never afraid to try new things, I’m scared of failing. For me, there is no gray area to succeeding; you either do it or you don’t. And if something doesn’t go the way I imagine, I automatically question my self-worth, my intelligence, and my ability to try again.
As a perfectionist, I get high off the idea of doing something right on the first try. I imagine things going as smoothly as a freshly made soft serve ice cream cone that’s been covered in rainbow sprinkles. But to fortify this unrealistic ideal, I put an inhumane amount of pressure on myself to make my ideas become a reality and if they don’t come true, I spiral. The value I place on failing then trumps my peace of mind and my freedom. I believe if I fail once, I’m surely going to fail again, so why would I want to put myself through another round of pain and suffering?
When we fail, some of us choose to hold ourselves back in future scenarios because putting ourselves out there becomes a vulnerable act. We’re afraid of what others might think or feel; we’re afraid that if we don’t get it right the first time, then we shouldn’t try at all. And that can be terrifying.
However, putting this impractical amount of pressure on ourselves is dangerous. Not only are we preventing ourselves from growing and learning, but we’re shaming ourselves from doing the one thing that makes us human—and that’s making mistakes. We’re supposed to trip and fall multiple times before we get it right. We do it as babies when we’re learning to walk, so why should we stop when we’ve learned to stand on our two feet?
As a society, we tend to view failure as a fatal defeat. Once it occurs, it’s over. Then we choose to grieve hastily and automatically jump into the next thing that’ll make us forget the wound that’s still bleeding. What if instead of placing value on success and the lack of it, we reframe our thinking to view failure as a practice? If we consider failure as an act of practice, then we may be able to build a better relationship with it in the long run.
What if instead of placing value on success and the lack of it, we reframe our thinking to view failure as a practice? If we consider failure as an act of practice, then we may be able to build a better relationship with it in the long run.
This idea was brought to my attention while I was listening to a podcast on which writer Ashley C. Ford was a guest. During her conversation, she said, “It occurred to me one day that the thing I was scared of, which is trying and failing, is literally just called practice. That’s what practice is. But when someone would say ‘trying’ and ‘failing,’ it’s that ‘F’ word that’s like, ‘Ugh, no, I can’t do that part.’ But if somebody would have said, ‘Hey, we’re going to practice this,’ I would’ve been like, ‘Oh, great. This is just practice.’”
The way we decide to shape and position our world permits us to give merit to some words over others. When we choose to view failure as an act of practice, we alleviate the pressure and become kinder to ourselves. In the end, failing can then mean that you’re trying and doing your best. What a concept.
I’ll be honest, I wish I’d have known this a long time ago. For years, I considered failing as an inability to control my outcomes, when in fact, it’s the most vulnerable and admirable thing I, or any human for that matter, can do. Not only are we putting ourselves out there without knowing how things will play out, but we’re betting that our failures will eventually turn into successes when we persevere with enough grit and compassion.
It’s important to keep in mind that our past “failures” should not define us. They occurred to bring awareness or clarity or to help shift our lives in a better direction. When I think back, I can retrospectively see how my “failures” brought to light what I truly value in life, and for that, I am forever grateful.
For instance, when I tried to juggle multiple low-paying jobs at once, I burnt out. By the end of the year, I was let go from one position, my self-worth was diminished, and I felt like it was my fault that I couldn’t keep things together. Or when I thought I had failed at being a good friend because the other person ended our friendship without an explanation. I was crushed, and it affected my willingness to build new relationships because I was afraid of “failing” again.
When my self-worth was affected and I stopped trying, I felt restricted and bedridden. I was afraid for someone to tell me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough to do my job. I was afraid to get close to another friend because I didn’t want them to vanish or think I wasn’t worthy of their friendship. I was creating scenarios in my head of what I thought my future was going to look like and to prevent feeling hurt or disappointing others, I caged myself from new life experiences because the life I thought I should’ve lived didn’t come to fruition. So I decided to create a new one where I felt safe, where I didn’t have to feel discomfort and pain, but this also meant I wasn’t allowing myself to feel true happiness either.
Even though I’m still learning and growing from these painful experiences, I now realize that these “failures” weren’t failures at all. They occurred to shine a light on what wasn’t working, what I needed to fix, and what I actually wanted from my life.
But the truth is, everything that goes wrong shouldn’t be considered a failure. These moments shouldn’t prevent you from trying again, looking like a fool, or stopping you from creating a life you know you’re supposed to live. Just because one thing (or a few things) didn’t go the way you had hoped doesn’t mean that your life is meaningless and you should play dead.
While so much of life is terrifying because we don’t know what the future holds, we have to learn to trust the journey, to trust ourselves that everything is going to turn out fine, no matter how much discomfort we may feel during the process.
Even though I’m still learning and growing from these painful experiences, I now realize that these “failures” weren’t failures at all. They occurred to shine a light on what wasn’t working, what I needed to fix, and what I actually wanted from my life. All of these things give me the freedom to choose how I want to perceive my world and help me determine what success looks like to me. And once I’m able to wholeheartedly trust myself, I’m able to understand that trying and failing is just part of the process. Because when we try and try again, we’re flexing our right to be free and to choose how we want our lives to look by not letting it be dictated by other’s demands or actions. So if failing is the kindest thing I can do for myself, then I’ll make sure to fail some more.
Raven Ishak is a writer by day and Netflix binge-watcher by night. She loves a tasty matcha, isn’t afraid to befriend a puppy at a party, and will ask you where you got that dress with pockets.