Monday, November 4, 2013

Wrestling with Feelings of Failure

Image used with permission per CC license Attr.No. Deriv. Copyright by Moyan Brenn

      In a corner of my home sits several boxes filled with bags of patterns and materials. Tucked neatly inside is a list of projects I have dreamt up. Inspiration and aspiration of creativity are not in short supply as they have easily accumulated uninhibited.  

     This is not the only area of my life that awaits accomplishment. As a child, I took gymnastics classes and piano lessons. For reasons I can’t quite recall I did not continue those activities. I played tennis for quite a while, and then stopped that as well. As an ambitious young adult, I enrolled in college with quite the lofty notion of my future. Eventually, that came to an end. The list could continue, but I struggle to admit even those few items as guilt and notions of failure choke my words.

     A few weeks ago an opportunity that I had expected to continue a few more months suddenly came to a close. I found myself as a mess of tears and confusion as I contemplated the abrupt and piercing nature of its closure. Thoughts of failure began to circulate once more. It’s an easy course to travel because it has been well traveled in the past.

      With each door that closes, there is a moment in which I remain in that place – that pit. “You’ve done it again- failed.” It is a well in-grained method of response. In all those moments of battling feelings of failure and its associated guilt I have learned a few lessons. The primary one is that feelings of failure will get me nowhere in life. I can either defeat it, or permit it to defeat me. The choice is entirely mine.

     Choosing to proceed despite missteps is the decision to fight against defeat. It’s the decision to not allow those ugly self-defeating thoughts to penetrate the heart. Habits are hard to break, and replacing words of failure with affirmation are no exception. Practice makes progress. Truthfully, it does not help keep me out of that pit, but it does keep me from falling in as often.

      It is valuable to note that failure is present only as long as I permit it to be. I do not have to carry the label of “failure” each day of my life. I don’t have to be further down the road in life, and still viewing myself or my life through that lens. What a miserable life that would be. No, thank you! Ideally, it would be possible to eliminate it entirely but I have yet to reach that place. I can, instead, choose to permit failure to be only a temporary place. It can be that place I return to in reflection and in seeking wisdom, but never remain. I must choose to move forward.

      Before I move forward though, I must accept responsibility for it. Feelings of failure will never lessen as long as I cast blame on something, or worse, someone else. It’s an easy route to take, but a highly unproductive one. In fact, it’s rather damaging. I have done it, but I don’t think the destructiveness ever really occurred to me until it was done to me. “You make me feel like a failure!” The words pierced through me. The good, the thing I’m trying so hard to accentuate in life, had been vilified. I had been incorrectly made responsible for another’s feelings of success or failure in life. It was not my place; only hers. Though that moment remains tremendously disheartening, it does serve a valuable purpose in reminding me that only I am responsible for my sense of failure or success in life. Another person’s success does not make me a failure. A condition- my friends and family, my home, my occupation, my role with regard to others, my activities- etc does not define success or failure. I must take personal responsibility of attributing “failure” to myself or my life. I made myself feel that way, and only I can take steps to reverse it.  

    To surrender to failure is to allow fear and guilt to inhibit productivity. How could I possibly ever succeed if I become too afraid to try? Telling myself that I should not try because I’ll just “mess up” again won’t get me anywhere. This is not living wisely; this is living in defeat. Perseverance in trying again and again is means of fighting onward. Or, when need be I can switch gears to do something I am good at, and doing so will reaffirm that I can succeed.
     Success is not necessarily a linear process. Moreover, all pathways or goals are not the product of only two options: success or failure. Not reaching a goal does not immediately mean failure. It means that the pathway may need to be modified. Sometimes the goal itself requires modification. There is wisdom in being able to examine missteps, make adjustments, and continue on towards a goal. Anyone who has ever greatly succeeded has rarely traveled a path that is straight up towards the goal.
     It sounds cliché, but it’s true that God has a purpose for everything including those missteps or “failures.” Those moments can teach us lessons serve greater purposes, if we so choose to listen and respond. In her book, What Women Fear, Angie Smith writes:
     What I saw as a character flaw, God saw as potential.
    What I perceived as weakness was going to be my glory-gift.
    What I was sure was failure was actually the heart of my success. (p. 71)
My desires for successes or failures in my life become so trivial in comparison to His will. He can redirect my pathway or my aim entirely. It’s the difference of being me-focused or God-focused. The only real way I can truly fail is to know Him and yet respond disobediently. Ultimately, it’s all about Him. 

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