A New Response to Failure

Jun 18, 2024 | Confidence

The failure feeling

We’ve all faced failure at some point. The question is, how do we respond?

When we’re trying something new or taking risks, failure is a distinct possibility.

And failure means we’re on the edge of learning and growth. But that’s not usually the first thought we have.

Instead, we typically go to thoughts and feelings that might be described as shame spiral, which often leads to one of two responses.

But there’s a third – arguably better – way to respond to failure.

Two natural responses to failure

Most of us spend a lot of energy trying to avoid failure.

Once we’ve experienced failure, our brain knows what it feels like – awful – and it will try to avoid it from happening again.

Because the #1 job of the brain is to move us toward safety and pleasure, and away from threat and pain.

So when the worst happens – failure – we typically have two natural responses.

One, we quickly try to remedy the situation. We try to fix it with another solution. This way, even if it’s not the wisest action, we feel better because we’re at least trying to fix it. (The brain wants us to act when we’re feeling discomfort.)

Two, we sort of pretend it didn’t happen – distract ourselves with something else, or even deny it. In this way, the brain tries to compartmentalize the discomfort, shame or whatever hard emotions we have about it.

Downsides to the quick fix or denial

Both of these natural responses are the brain’s job of getting us out of discomfort quickly.

But they both have downsides.

First, when we jump to a quick fix or solution, the brain is using what it already knows to problem-solve. So we’re likely repeating patterns or just trying someone else’s solution, assuming they have a better answer.

In this way, we miss the opportunity to find an entirely different solution, because we’re already in problem-solving and linear thinking. With a quick fix, we don’t allow the brain to fully process the failure, see the situation differently and access new insight.

Second, when we distract ourselves from the failure, two things happen: (1) we miss the opportunity to learn from it; and (2) the feelings of discomfort and shame, which are energy in the body, get stuck and will come up again to keep us from taking risks in the future.

A new response to failure

A different and perhaps more difficult response to failure is to slow down… and pause.

Do nothing (for awhile). Give space for the situation, the discomfort to subside, and the learning to arise.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to pause and allow yourself to feel the experience of a setback or failure, that’s exactly what research says can help.

One study showed that when faced with losing motivation toward a goal, people who practiced a mindfulness exercise – in this case, paying attention to what they were feeling in the body – performed “significantly better” in dealing with an imagined roadblock than people who distracted themselves (by reading a magazine).

If we actually bring mindful attention to our experience of failing, we’re more likely to stay motivated in the face of a setback or failure.

The study also noted the importance of noticing our cognitive and emotional states (both forms of mindfulness) when we’re pursuing a goal, and treating ourselves with compassion when things don’t turn out as we’d hoped.

Pause before action

So the next time things don’t go as planned, or you take a risk and fail, see if you can pause a little longer before acting.

Pause to pay attention to your experience, to allow the discomfort. Pause to get curious. Pause to see what new possibilities or creative solutions might arise when you don’t jump to fix or distract yourself right away.

Your brain will thank you for the space and opportunity to explore new insights – and you might be pleasantly surprised at what comes from it!


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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