“If you shut the door to all errors truth will be shut out.” R. Tagore
If I close my eyes I can feel the sting of tears held back after a classmate made a hurtful remark towards me when I was in elementary school. I also remember failing a term paper in high school, not being invited to join a membership club I yearned to be part of at college and the failing to get a scholarship I wanted for grad school. Plainly said, failure.
Those things happened; they were real. They etched into my life an emotional relationship with the assessment of failure that is part of me to this day. This cultural and personal assessment of failure has a profound impact on me. It’s caused me to respond in the moment as unworthy, flawed and “less than.” I guess I’m not alone in those beliefs.
I’m older now; wiser and more experienced. Even so, just last month I had a call from a client following up on an email that started by saying “it’s always hard to give less than positive feedback.” I knew what was coming and connected once again with the embodiment of what it has meant to me to fail. My reaction came from a deep unsettling attack on who I am. That sense of identity so profound and private of competence and completeness is taking a public “shellacking” and my body doesn’t like it.
In that moment I listened to my breathing. It was shallow and short. I noticed my thoughts speed up and I began to sift through them at lightning speed – going through the logic, testing them out, discarding some, mulling over others. I began tossing them around like a bunch of loose papers. I ran through some trial decisions – call back immediately, defend myself, find out what happened, deny the whole thing – even take a nap! I couldn’t decide but I couldn’t shake it off either.
This recent experience of failure hit with a power that shook me into the realization of what it means to take a stand for something. The sensation was so gripping and intense that I knew I needed to face it. It became clear to me that there was something beyond survival that I truly cared about. As I sat with the knowledge that I am a person who deeply values the freedom and the capacity I have as a human being to choose my response to any circumstance, my mood turned from chaos and confusion to acceptance and hope.
When I put myself in my client’s position, and I imagined the impact of being heard and considered – a hope arose in me that from this failure I could take a stand for what I care about. I wasn’t a victim and this moment was less about my worth and more about my commitment. I needed to act on my commitment to being the me who takes responsibility for all of me. My thoughts turned to inviting a dialogue, being present to my client and listening with my whole self to what it’s like to work with me. I’d be curious and tentative and open to what I might do to move forward and what to do differently the next time. I’d look straight at that other person and take a stand for the human experience of failure.
As I went through this process – which took the better part of a week – I was able to I have the conversation with my client in a way that we both benefited. I’ve felt a sense of integrity, wholeness and levity since then. I’ve also realized that this is very different from my relationship with success. Don’t get me wrong – I’d rather succeed than fail. The truth is that life gifts us both success and failure. But by standing up for failure, I’m no longer in the shadow, but have peeked out from behind the curtain and been rewarded with the light.