We’ve all had moments where we feel that we let ourselves — and others — down. We forgot to send that important email, we made a social faux pas, we mishandled a difficult situation. You drown your sorrows and have well-meaning friends or colleagues tell you, “It’s not bad. Everyone makes mistakes.” Or, worse, “Well, now you know, and you learned from the situation.”
Sure, you did. You learned that failure is uncomfortable and life-ruining. Yes, everyone makes mistakes, but if you feel like a failure, you probably failed. Everyday mistakes and failure on the large scale are very different. And it’s crucial to understand the difference. Or you’ll continue to feel like a failure.
I’ve failed a lot in life. And I used to chalk it up to simple mistakes. I missed a deadline. I forgot to CC someone on an email. I didn’t fill out a form correctly. And so I failed and got dismissed from the program/let go from a job/turned down for a raise. Sound silly? It is.
If you literally had a major opportunity pass you by because you made a small mistake, there was something wrong that you could not have addressed. I used to think I was fired from the dance troupe I managed because I was careless in my words when addressing a delinquent dancer. Upon revisiting this months later, my mind was clearer and I realized that I’d been fired because the dancers enjoyed being able to show up when they wanted and I challenged that. However, I still mark that as a failure on my part. Why?
Because I knew they were like that. I’d seen childish, unprofessional behavior for months and had let it slide in the interest of seeming supportive and compassionate. This tactic does not work. You must be assertive and confident. If you are not, you’ll be walked all over, and that gives you a feeling of failure.
And if you deny your own experience to make others happy, you are responsible for your failure, plain and simple. Trust me, you’ll learn much more from acknowledging this failure than claiming to “learn from your mistakes.”
When I was a teenager, I was accepted to a residential dual-enrollment program that would give me an associate’s degree by the time I graduated high school. I was thrilled and threw everything I had into it. Halfway through my first semester (two months), they dismissed me from the program due to lack of academic progress, saying that if I didn’t improve, I’d ruin my entire career. This was, of course, bullshit. But I bought it hook, line, and sinker, and rather than fight for a second chance, I left and felt shame and failure for years.
In truth, I did fail. I failed to listen to my heart and mind. I failed to acknowledge what I wanted in life. I did not fail in the program; I made a few mistakes.
So if you feel like a failure, ask yourself why. Is it because you’re in an impossible situation? Is it because you’re unhappy and you should have left months ago? Is it because you’re not being true to yourself? If so, yes, you failed. And acknowledging your failure to respect yourself is what will help you, not “learning from your mistakes.”