Redefining failure

“I’m willing to be brave in my beautiful mistakes”

-Pink, Crystal Ball

When I set up Compass Rose I had one idea in mind - I just want to be able to find and reach those people who are truly in need of help and support and tell them that that “hey, you’re amazing, you’re not alone and you’re going to be okay”, and to help them get the support they need to be able to do that. Now admittedly as far as mission statements go that’s wonderfully short and simple, but also quite broad and nonspecific in how to go about that. This is deliberately so for one reason - I don’t know how I’m going to do that yet.

Those people reading this who know me well will know I’m a serial planner. I love to plan things, to know the ins and outs of how things work and to formulate a road map for how I’m going to achieve a certain goal. To openly admit that while I have a road map for Compass Rose, it’s a little incomplete right now, is a big thing and I feel suitably anxious admitting it here. I have various ideas and avenues that I’m going to be exploring; some ideas will work, some won’t, and hopefully through this process of trial and error I can start to fill in the blanks on the map and keep moving forward towards that goal. I mention this because the way in which I’m going to get from here to the end goal is going to involve one thing above all else - I’m going to fail. A lot.

I hate failure. I don’t think I’m alone in that either. When we fail it can call into question our self belief, our confidence, even how we view our own self worth. There can be feelings of shame tied into failure. We can feel like we’re a disappointment to others, that we’ve somehow let others down by not living up to a standard that has been set us (either real or perceived). And more often than not, it can makes us think twice before we try to attempt something again. We’ve probably all heard that when we’ve been thrown off the horse we need to get back in the saddle, but when we’re still nursing the bruises that can be really hard to do.

Time and again I hear the same phrase being used by people - “I should”. I should be over this by now, I should feel different, I should be coping. Often this is because we actually feel the opposite to how we believe we should be, and that often adds to the distress we already feel. I should be a certain way, but I’m not, I’m a failure because there is something wrong with me. Sometimes we’ve made choices that we regret, addiction is a common example of this. Again this can lead to feelings of failure, because we made choices that in hindsight we would rather not have made.

As children when we’re learning to walk we fall over time and again. When we’re learning to ride a bike we often fall off. As children we fail all the time, but we accept this as part of growing, part of gaining experience and developing the skills we need. As adults we rarely afford ourselves the same leniency. We live in a society that places such value on success that when we fail we take it as a sign of inadequacy, and we allow that to define us.

When society extends that definition of success to mental health - where suffering from depression, anxiety, or having an addiction is so often seen as failure, we leave ourselves open to not just feeling like our actions are mistakes, but that we as people are fundamentally failures.

I believe the greatest issue we face with the mental health epidemic we face today is the feelings of failure and shame that we allow to be associated with mental health. They prevent people from seeking help, talking about their issues and prevent people from truly understanding what someone is going through. Mental health is not something someone should be made to feel a failure for, you should not be made to feel shame for the way you feel or what you’re experiencing. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case.

There are many ways in which counselling helps people, but I think one of the things I’ve experienced as being the most healing is that when a client comes to see me they experience the effect of not being judged. That just because they’re suffering from an issue like anxiety for example does not make them a failure, or less of a person, it just means that right now they’re going through a really difficult time and they’re navigating it in the best way they know how. That someone can say to me “I haven’t been able to leave the house for three days” and potentially feel a failure for that, and the response they get from me is “How brave you’ve been to come out today and see me”. When we extend compassion to ourselves we can start to quieten the voice that says we’re failures. And while we can be very good at extending compassion to others we can find that harder to extend that to ourselves. Our role as therapists is to mirror that compassion to our clients, in the belief that they will begin to extend that to themselves.

And when we do make real and genuine mistakes (which we all do) it can be very easy to use that as a stick to beat ourselves with. We allow the guilt of that to sit with us and punish ourselves with it. Someone once told me that guilt serves only one purpose, to help us learn a lesson. Once we’ve learned that lesson it no longer has any purpose. Holding onto guilt is like holding onto a tissue after you’ve blown your nose - it’s not going to help you further and feels pretty yucky to keep hold of.

Making mistakes means one thing - you’re trying. You haven’t given up and you’re still trying to make the best of what you have and the circumstances you’re in. Every mistake, every failure helps you to learn, to grow and to move forward. Some mistakes will feel painful, but we have to be brave enough to make those mistakes, and compassionate enough to ourselves to accept them as the important building blocks they are and not allow them to define us in a negative way.

Failure is a common part of life, but if you're suffering from anxiety, depression or any other mental health condition, please know that this doesn't make you a failure. It does not define you and it doesn't devalue you. And neither do your mistakes.

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