Failure: It's Not A Forehead Tattoo

A large part of my clinical training took place in a live-in rehab facility – a part of the mental health system where ‘success rates’ are spoken about regularly. 

Of course, to have a success rate you must also have a ‘failure rate’ – the dark side of the coin. And while we didn’t discuss failure particularly openly in our bright open office, the fear of it pervaded the corridors just outside. Invisible, but as heavy as the greasy air on deep-fried schnitzel night.

Many of my rehab clients were deeply concerned with the prospect of failure, sometimes to the point of seriously compromising their recovery. One particular thing I observed over and over again stayed with me – not only because I witnessed it happen so many times, but because of the disturbing mix of horror and recognition it brought up for me as I slowly came to recognise similar patterns in my own thinking.

I saw many driven, smart, and incredibly focused people engage in what looked like deliberate self-sabotage at around the halfway point in their treatment. Careless rule breaks, half-hearted contributions in groups, deadlines missed with a shrug. In my initial newness and inexperience, I was utterly bewildered and shocked every time. “Why are you giving up?” I would ask. “I know you’ve stopped trying, because I’ve seen what you can do when you want to. Why are you setting yourself up to fail?”

One day, I got an answer – and then I finally started to understand. 

“Because what if I really can’t do it?
What if I’m just going to be like this forever and ever no matter now hard I try?”

When the outcome really, really matters, putting in less than what you’re capable of can sometimes feel like the safer option. If you put in 75%, and fall short – well, you can always imagine that had you done the full hundy, you would have succeeded.

But to give it everything you’ve got, and still fall short? Well, we imagine that says something about ourselves. Something we lack, or something we are.

Perhaps something unbearable. 

I completely understood this young woman’s desperation not to be a failure

That said, in those words I think there’s a clue about how to untangle this particular fear. The words we use are important, and – I believe – reflect important clues back at us about how we see the world. Similarly, changing the words we use can be an important first step in changing our perspective.

Once we examine the idea of ‘being a failure’ in the cold light of day, separated from the ugly, blaring anxiety attached to it, the whole concept starts to dissolve. Here’s a low-stakes example: I intended to have this post written before Christmas, and I know as I write these words I’m a week late. I have failed horribly at meeting my deadline. That’s an indisputable fact (we can argue about how sensible it is to set a deadline for Christmas Eve another time). But am I a failure

If I attached a huge amount of importance to this deadline, I might be inclined to think so. If missing it meant I didn’t get a book deal, or an award, or something similarly high-stakes, the temptation to label myself a ‘failure’ would creep up. 

But to look at the bigger picture for a moment, I ‘succeeded’ in doing a whole lot of other things before Christmas. Interestingly, we never seem to label ourselves ‘successes’ when we manage to reach our goals – even the big ones like getting a promotion or running a marathon. Sure, we’re happy and proud for a while, but it’s always a temporary state. Soon, we’re looking toward the next ‘success’, forgetting all about how much it meant to us at the time. 

Even if you’re monumentally depressed, your day may well be full of tiny little successes that become hard to see in the fog of your mood. Showering, eating, leaving your bedroom, calling a friend – all successes. Big ones, actually, in that headspace. 

More importantly, even if you fail at those things today, there’s always tomorrow. 

It’s strange how in our minds failure seems to transcend physics. It exists now, today, forever – the size of a continent, as permanent and visible as a tattoo across your forehead.

Our brains, particularly if they’re at a low ebb, like to obsess over failure. We’re wired to both problem-solve and be concerned about how we appear in the eyes of others, after all – a double evolutionary whammy that makes failure stick in our brains. 

So if, in despair and disappointment, you find yourself reaching for the ‘failure’ label, try changing the words you put on it just a bit.

I am a failure.
I failed at this particular attempt at doing something. 

Leah Royden