Everyone experiences setbacks, but that doesn’t make them easy to take. Falling short of your goals – at work and in life – can send confidence and motivation into freefall, despite the gurus’ popular advice to ‘risk failure’ and ‘fail fast.’ So, how can we deal with failure in the moment, as well as learn from it effectively? Dr Sheri Jacobson, Clinical Director at Harley Therapy, reveals nine ways you can bounce back...
1. Use Fail-Safe Vocabulary Failure is a damning word that’s often used when less critical alternatives – think ‘setback’ or ‘mistake’ – would be better suited. If you’re constantly telling yourself you’ve failed, suggests Dr. Jacobson, that only serves to dent your confidence further and put you in the wrong mindset to react positively to the situation.
‘Experiment with trying to catch how many times you say the word “failure”,’ she says. ‘What does it feel like to repeat a sentence you use “failure” in with something like “learning curve”? So instead of, “I totally failed at that presentation,” try, “I had such a learning curve with that presentation.” How different does it feel?’
If we remember that failure is really learning, then failure is actually propelling us forwards
2. Learn From Your Mistakes In his bestselling book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed writes: ‘At the level of the brain, the individual, the organisation and the system, failure is a means… of learning, progressing and becoming more creative.’ Similar quotes on the importance of failure for future success are not hard to find – it’s an essential aspect of personal development.
‘If we remember that failure is really learning,’ says Dr. Jacobson, ‘then any failure is actually propelling us forward. Never failing means we are essentially not living and not growing.’
3. Remind Yourself There Is More To Life If your setback happened at work, it might seem impossible to escape the consequences or think of anything else. In these situations, immersing yourself in an activity unrelated to the setback in question – sport, socialising, reading – can provide a valuable distraction.
‘It’s a good idea to get yourself out of situations that can lead to you ruminating about what has happened,’ says Dr. Jacobson. ‘Surround yourself instead with people and experiences that remind you that you’re a person with a life outside of any setback. Be around friends who were not involved, take that weekend trip away, or go to a social event where you’ll be around people who don’t know anything about it.’
4. Focus On Feel-Good Factors When things don’t go according to plan, it’s natural to feel disheartened, but rather than wallowing in your disappointment, try making an effort to do things that make you happy. Dr Jacobson describes this as ‘filling your tank’ by sticking to healthy, happy habits such as ‘getting out in nature or a day of sport’. The emphasis here is on health, as ‘alcohol or other substances might give you a temporary high, but the crash is rarely worth it if you’re already feeling not yourself.’
5. Account For Your Achievements Everyone suffers setbacks; everyone is also capable of great things. Chances are, the cause of your disappointment is a minor blip on the otherwise positive actions you take on a daily basis – and by acknowledging the good that you do, you can put your ‘failure’ into perspective.
‘Focus on what you are good at and what is working,’ says Dr. Jacobson. ‘It can help to keep a book next to your bed and each night record three things you accomplished that day, no matter how small, as well as at least five things you are grateful for. When the next setback happens, sit down and go through the pages. Seeing how much you actually achieve and remembering all your small wins can mean that any setback feels less important.’
6. Share Your Skills ‘A fast-track to feeling confident is to help others with your skills,’ suggests Dr Jacobson. By taking the time to share your knowledge, you can remind yourself of the positive impact you’re capable of. ‘This can be volunteering, mentoring, or even just giving someone a hand with a project. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own little worlds we entirely forget how far we've come and how much we have to offer.’ And helping others not only reinforces confidence in our own ability; it has also been proven to elevate mood by the release of feelgood chemicals in our brains.
7. Think Of The Bigger Picture Your setback may seem like the most important thing in the world, but it pays to take a step back and consider how it will be remembered – if at all. Even if your perceived failure has very real implications, ultimately the world will keep turning and life goes on. ‘When we feel stuck in a sense of having “failed”, perspective is key,’ says Dr Jacobson.
‘It can be helpful to take a moment to try out other perspectives around the situation. What would your 80-year-old self say about it, with their much bigger picture? And what about your 10-year-old self who never even thought you'd leave home? What would someone like the Dalai Lama have to say about this situation you find so horribly important?’
Think of what you’d say to a best friend in a similar situation – give yourself the same advice
8. Cut Yourself Some Slack If a friend or loved one felt they had let themselves down, what would you say to console them? Their ‘failure’, in your eyes, would likely be far less serious than they see it – and you should bear that in mind when considering your own disappointment. ‘Self-compassion has been shown to raise self-esteem,’ says Dr Jacobson.
‘Aggressive inner pep talks, on the other hand, will probably backfire. Think of what you’d say to a best friend in a similar situation. Would you tell them to get over it and try to bully them into being tough and moving on, or would you tell them to cut themselves some slack, and to trust they will get back to it when ready? What would you then advise they do to feel back on track and get inspired? Give yourself the same advice.’
9. Use Your Support Network ‘What we are dancing around here is probably the key ingredient for less future setbacks: support,’ says Dr Jacobson. ‘Having mentors and teams we trust, and knowing how to delegate what we aren't great at, is one of the secret skills of successful leaders. Trying to do everything ourselves or micromanaging means we are more likely to mess things up. And don't overlook mental health support. Sometimes just having someone there to run things by, such as a coach or counsellor, can help us from repeating the same negative patterns again and again.’ A problem shared is a problem halved.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Dr. Sheri Jacobson’s talk on wellbeing and how you can improve your self-belief:
For psychotherapy and counselling services in London, visit Harley Therapy
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.