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Reframing Failure: Success is a Continuum, Not a Dichotomy

The more things you try in life, the more you must learn about dealing with failure. If you never fail, it probably means that you’re not trying anything difficult.

When you don’t accomplish everything you’d like, positive thinking can be difficult. Recovering from failure may sometimes feel like walking through quicksand.

It’s easy to beat yourself up for not meeting your initial goals, or for not achieving your desired outcome 100%. You may get into a “shame spiral” where you engage in self-loathing. You may replay messages in your head such as:

“I failed again.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“I’m such a screw up.”

That usually just decreases motivation and momentum, which doesn’t help you.

This negative looping is an all-too-human thing. I’ve seen my life coaching clients do it, and I’m certainly not immune. It’s especially prevalent among those of us who have a history of overachieving, who tend to have big visions and goals for what we wish to accomplish, and who are exceptionally hard on ourselves.

For example, one of my books recently got two negative reviews on a popular book site, after I had put significant effort into setting up and promoting a book giveaway there. I had even created signed notes for each of the three winners. The notes included the following line: “As I believe strongly in the book’s ability to change lives, I’ve enclosed an extra copy for you to share with a friend or loved one.”

I became frustrated upon reading that one of the ratings (two stars out of five) was mainly due to the winner’s not having read the book’s description before entering the contest. At least she was honest about it. Another contest winner left a one-star rating with no comments or explanation at all. When I skimmed the titles in her list of other reviewed books, I realized that this may have been another mismatch.

I bashed myself for not considering that some of the site’s users may take a shotgun approach to winning books, entering as many contests as they can. I was disappointed that I had been generous by including an extra copy for each winner, only to get feedback that reflected little effort on their end. I went into a brief spiral about the unfairness of the universe, with me being a helpless victim in the very center of the vortex.

You can often prevent or halt our downward spirals by viewing success as a continuum rather than an all-or-nothing thing. Rather than viewing progress as “I did it” or “I didn’t do it,” try to think in terms of a percentage or proportion. Focus on what you did accomplish:

“Well, I didn’t run 10 miles this week, but I did about 50% of that.”
“I didn’t do my morning meditation all 7 days, but I did do it 5 out of the 7.”

Or in my case, “Although I did get two negative ratings, more than a dozen people, including several respected experts on related topics, have said really awesome and insightful things about my book.” Not only that, but many of their reviews clearly took some time, care, and effort to write. More than twelve out of fourteen on the positive side feels great!

If I wanted to take it a step further, I might even turn the “negative” into a positive by noting that I learned something valuable from the poor ratings. I had learned not to rely upon book giveaways from this particular site for meaningful feedback. Or perhaps I needed to take a closer look at how my book was categorized on the site. Or maybe this was good mental preparation for more negative reactions, given that the book addresses some topics that are sensitive and uncomfortable for many people.

Take a few moments to let your success (including any learning) soak in. Celebrate it. Recognize that it took effort, and give yourself credit for that.

Ahhh. Breathe.

Didn’t it feel great to get out of that spiral?

Then, focus upon how that success improved other areas of your life. This can deepen the sense of accomplishment, and can help to provide motivation for future improvement:

“My daily exercise gave me more energy to focus on my work, and I felt less stressed when I had some challenging situations to deal with. I also had more energy to go out dancing with friends on Friday night.”

You might also ask what you did differently on the days you were successful. This may give you insight as to how to make it happen again in the future:

“I noticed that on the days where I did my full morning exercise routine, I turned off the ringer on my cell phone so I wouldn’t be distracted, and I chose not to check my email before I started yoga. I also got to bed by 10 pm the night before.”

Best wishes on your future successes!

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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