A couple of weeks ago, I got an email that shot me straight in the heart. Like an arrow, the words I read pierced me to my very core. I wanted to share my story with you—and talk about how I handle failure—because you might have had similar experiences.
The email I got was from a client who was frustrated by the work that I was doing. In truth, some of the points he raised were accurate.
Others, though, were rooted in an emotional reaction related to life events that had nothing to do with me or my work.
The issues at hand could totally be resolved—nothing terrible had been done, and nothing was broken.
But on that day, in that moment, every word on that page screamed to me, “your work is terrible and you are a failure.”
It was a flashback to high school, where the perfectionist me read the same thing in every B I received on a test—anything less than perfection in any one situation somehow equals total failure.
The Power of Our Reactions
In my despair, I paused and really sat with the feeling of failure.
For me, failure feels weighty in the body. It feels like a stone that’s hung from my throat. It’s paralyzing.
It also brings up questions like, why continue to work if it’s just going to lead to more examples of failure, and to more of this awful feeling?
Somehow, in that moment, it didn’t matter that earlier that same day, two other clients sent me long notes expressing how happy they were with my work. Or that earlier that week, a client from several years prior had reached out to say that her career was skyrocketing lately.
The one negative comment about my work carried the most weight for me.
How to Handle Failure
When this happens for me, I have learned that fighting the feeling is not the answer.
So I was kind to myself and allowed myself to process the feelings of being “not enough” and a “failure” in this one situation.
I also stopped myself from reacting and replying. I know myself well enough to recognize that when I’m in this state, nothing I say will be helpful because I’ll be replying to alleviate my feelings rather than replying to properly handle the situation.
So here’s a quick cheat sheet of the steps I take to overcome negative feedback and moments of perceived dramatic personal failure:
#1 Let the emotion have its course and don’t fight it.
Take a break from what you’re doing, take a walk around the block, drink some water, stretch. Focus on your physical state of being and make any adjustments necessary to take the best care of yourself.
#2 Keep positive feedback handy.
Keep a catalogue of positive notes and store them away. It’s helpful to be reminded that even if you’ve truly “failed,” it does not define you, and it doesn’t even define your work.
#3 Consider what might have caused this issue in the first place.
Only do this after you’re feeling more emotionally healthy. In my case, I realized that the client’s expectations weren’t in line with the work that I do, and even though I thought we were clear in our contract, it wasn’t clear enough to the client.
That’s something that I need to take responsibility for. So Jennifer and I made some changes to the terms that we outline at the outset, to make them ultra-clear.
Turns out, I had set myself up for this failure by not being clear enough.
Sometimes, though, once you’re totally over the initial knee-jerk reaction, you realize that it wasn’t a failure at all. Sometimes, others process their own emotions by lashing out at you. It’s important to recognize the difference.
#4 If you DID play a role in the failure, own it.
Step up, admit your role in the issue, and commit to making changes in the future, as well as to resolving the consequences in the short term.
#5 Recognize the value that the failure brought to you.
Did you learn something? Will you change how you do certain things? Will you no longer do certain things? Will you pivot and try something different?
All of those things are huge gifts that often only failures can provide. Crazy idea, right? That a failure can serve as a powerful and helpful course corrector. But it’s true.
What Has Failure Taught You?
How do you handle failure? Have you been able to transform failure into something positive? Leave a comment below.