Thoughts on Failure

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A few days ago I was interviewed for a book which honestly makes me feel pretty incredible. It won’t be out for a long while but I still felt incredibly honoured. One of the questions they asked me… well two of the questions were; how do I view greatness and how to I view failure.

I had the same answer for both questions – it is what you make it. That can be pretty clear for greatness because you define success in your own way but we tend to view failure as a black and white concept, you either succeed (whatever that looks like for you) and if you don’t make that goal you have failed.

I argue that not only is failure completely subjective but it is also not a bad thing. It is not a demonstration of your personal ineptitude or lack of effort. Maybe if we stopped taking “failure” so personally we might be able to start seeing what we think as failure instead as an opportunity for learning.

One of my favourite quotes is ” The master has failed more times than the novice has tried”. “Failure” is a necessary part of achieving competence and confidence in anything. I see it ALL the time in my yoga practice. People wishing they could do a handstand and feeling shocked or dismayed at how many times they fall while learning. When learning how to do a handstand or any type of inversion, falling is not only inevitable but necessary. You need to find your tipping point; the point of balance over your head, hands or forearms; in order learn how to stay there. learning where to balance your weight is impossible if you don’t experience both sides of center which of course leads to falling… a lot of falling. Heck I fell in class just last week! I was embarrassed for a moment but then realized that in falling I learned something new about how my body reacts in a headstand when I shift my hands, it throws off my balance and I fall. I am working on moving my legs further apart while in a headstand because that throws my balance off a little bit too. Yes there is the risk of falling but there is also the certainty that with each attempt I will get stronger and with each fall I will learn something new.

In terms of recovery, I “failed” a multitude of times. In my treatment program and with my therapist I was asked to fill out a worksheet each time I had a symptom, whether it was purging or restricting, called a behavioural analysis chain. I only had to do one in treatment but I did so many while in my last relapse that I honestly lost count. But each time I failed I learned something. At first I saw the return of symptoms and bigger relapses as a clear sign that I was meant to suffer forever and that recovery was never possible for me. But eventually I started seeing my setbacks as little pockets of information worth dissecting. Each pocket held a little treasure, a hint at what went wrong and a glimmer of hope that I could recognize my vulnerability factors and know when an urge would strike. At first that didn’t help much, but with time (and LOTS of “failures”) I was able to learn what strategies didn’t work to interrupt my symptoms and eventually, which ones did.

If you could just wake up one day and be recovered, there would be no more illness. If you could wake up and have a mind free of preoccupations with body shape, body size, food, weight, and exercise then there would be no one suffering from eating disorders. Instead it takes a crazy amount of incredibly hard work, a whole lot of “failures” or setbacks, and yes even some small successes that eventually get bigger and closer together.

If I stopped trying to get into a headstand every time I fell, I would never have achieved one of the proudest poses in my practice. Recovery is fraught with “failure”, giving up on recovery because of a symptom returning or a relapse occurs robs you of a chance to see what happens when the novice fails enough times to become the master. You rob yourself of the chance to see the beauty on the other side of the eating disorder.

So, what do you think ?