We all make mistakes. Yet, we fear failure and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Most of us understand intellectually that failure is a part of life, that it’s unavoidable, and even that it helps us grow. But emotionally it’s hard to accept, making it one of life’s greatest challenges.
However, there is great power in responding to setbacks with resilience. Instead of glossing over your disappointment, here’s how to reframe how you think about failure so you can move forward feeling ready for whatever life throws your way.
1. Question Your Definition of Success
The way we think and talk about success as children can create false limits on what we actually achieve. “Many of us are told that life is a straight shot from elementary to high school to college to landing a job. Then, there’s then a culture shock when we inevitably do miss out on opportunities,” says Liz Higgins, a therapist who specializes in life transitions.
The truth is that success is not about what your parents want for you, how much money you have in the bank, or how you compare to your neighbors. It’s your vision, defined on your own terms.
Here’s how: Be your own advocate.
The first step is to ask yourself some tough questions. What is it that you truly want? What would you do if you had no limits? Make a list of anything and everything that excites and motivates you.
Use the insights gleaned from your answers to these questions to establish boundaries for yourself. Spend more time on the activities that support your dreams, needs, and values—and don’t be afraid to say, “No, but thanks for thinking of me,” to opportunities that don’t align with your definition of success.
2. Silence Your Inner Cynic
For many people, a professional setback undermines their sense of self. When you’re not thriving at work, where you spend so much of your time and energy, it’s easy to get caught up in cynicism or self-doubt. “People want to feel they’re contributing with a sense of purpose, which is why failure can feel so defeating,” Higgins says. But success is about potential, and it requires a willingness to step outside your comfort zone and make mistakes.
Here’s how: Live and learn.
Failure is like the flu: It’s miserable, but it strikes everybody eventually…and it doesn’t last forever. You can choose to focus on the negative, or you can take what you learned and do better next time. The key is to find the silver linings so you can focus on moving forward. For example, if you were passed over for a promotion at work, instead of thinking, “I need to get a new job right away,” or “I need to redeem myself,” reflect on what you gained: How did the experience of trying and falling short make you stronger?
3. Remember: Progress > Perfection
We tend to keep our failures a secret, fearing that they will cost us love or acceptance. “Often, people become defensive and pragmatic and they don’t experience what truly happened,” says Higgins, “because they’re wounded and eager to recover.” However, your weaknesses and strengths are two sides of the same coin—they create the whole picture of who you are.
Here’s how: Check your self-talk.
You have the power to define not only your successes but your failures—rather than letting them define you. Higgins calls this process differentiation. “This is the ability to hold on to yourself in the face of external challenges or intense emotional situations,” she explains. “It’s about saying: ‘I am confident, even when I fail. I know what I believe and stand for, and I’m trying to build that part of myself.’”
Kickstart this process by using self-talk that praises progress over perfection, such as, “I deserve my own respect for trying my best,” or “I’m not a lost cause. I just need practice.” This takes shame and guilt out of the equation so you can focus on what’s ahead, rather than what’s in your rearview mirror.
The bottom line? We’re all doing the best we can in the circumstances we face. Failing from time to time make you human, so be kind to yourself and learn what you can from each experience—then let it go.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist and well-being expert. For over 15 years, she has been helping consumers live healthier, more fulfilling lives, writing for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Time, and Women’s Health. Kara has also collaborated on several books on women’s health and resilience. Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin