By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 84 and this week I’m talking about failure. In this episode I’ll cover what failure is (and what it isn’t), why a healthy attitude towards failure matters for your mental health, and how to manage failure. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 22 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about five ways to stop overthinking.
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 20 June, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 84, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week is all about failure. As I said at the end of last week’s episode, a few years back when I was coming out of the really-bad part of my depression and anxiety I felt like I had failed, because I wasn’t where I thought I was supposed to be in life. But all of that stuff is highly subjective, and now I see that so-called ‘failure’ is just one step on the path towards a truly successful life, one that is focused on purpose and meaning above all things. So that’s going to be the focus of this week’s episode.
Before I begin, this week on Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m talking about five ways to stop overthinking — I’ve discussed that topic in a video before (and covered it in Episode 4 of the podcast as well) however this video is very specifically focused on things to do if you’re right in the middle of overthinking and are struggling to make it stop. Watch it now on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for that and all past episodes of the show. And if you like what you see, subscribe to the channel and turn on notifications to be alerted when I post new videos every Wednesday.
And if you’d like an extra dose of better mental health each week, sign up for my free newsletter at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe (which is a short dose of stuff I’ve found inspiring, interesting or just plain entertaining throughout the course of the week). You’ll also find the link for that, and for the YouTube show, in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about failure…
In 2015 I self-published a book that failed, at least on paper. It was about dealing with depression, which was a bit rich because I obviously didn’t realise just how much depression was still affecting me at the time (and it would still do so for another couple of years at that point), and I was a second-year psychology student at the time, but I felt really compelled to write this thing and get it out into the world.
I’m still proud of what I wrote and the effort it took to turn the initial idea into a reality, and it was a really helpful experience because I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) in the future (which is handy, because — surprise! — I’m writing another book at the moment which I plan to have out hopefully later this year), but the point here is that it was hardly a bestseller; I sold a grand total of 165 copies and nearly every single one of those took a massive amount of effort (so picture me carting around a big box of books to go and do talks for 15-20 people at a time at several libraries in small towns around my region, and hopefully you get what I mean about it being hard work).
Now even though that endeavour could be described by some as a failure in conventional terms, since it technically didn’t sell all that well, the reality is that it still made a positive impact. For months and months afterwards I had readers getting in touch with me to tell me how much the book had helped them, and at my live talks I had multiple people coming up to me after each session to tell me about their challenges and how what I had talked about had helped them to look at things in a new way.
And that’s the thing about so-called ‘failure’ — it’s a very subjective notion and we tend to rate things as pass or fail based on sets of numbers that, quite frankly, have just been plucked out of the air. Let me say this very loudly and very clearly: you are not the things that have gone ‘wrong’ in your life. You are the lessons you have learned along the way. Mistakes and failures are part of how we grow as human beings, and we need to stop putting so much pressure on one another and on ourselves to be perfect all the time, because perfect just does not exist.
Just like how I said back in Episode 74 that we need to redefine how we view and measure success, we also need to really reconsider how we view and measure failure… otherwise we can end up being far too hard on ourselves and that can lead us to miss all of the wonderful things that failing can actually teach us — which is what I’ll be exploring today. First, let’s talk through some definitions…
What is failure?
And if you look up the word ‘failure’ in the Oxford Dictionary, you get the bluntest definition ever: ‘lack of success’ (bearing in mind that ‘success’ is defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose).
In general, feelings of failure are associated with feeling as though we should be doing more or be ‘further ahead’ in life, or feeling like we’re not capable in specific areas or skills. Often, it’s not just about how we view ourselves but it’s also about how we view others or how they view us, based on individual bias and our world-view.
You know, I’ve used some random examples in my time on this podcast and this one might be extra-random, but hear me out: it’s like Elektra Shock on the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, who was just eliminated last week. She copped a lot of flack from other contestants for having so-called ‘basic’ costumes and some very thirsty wigs, and was dismissed as being a credible threat, but she made it all the way to the Top 5 and has become something of a fan favourite as well in spite of all of those challenges. Why? Because people connected with the person, not the frizzy wig (and let’s be honest here, there were some other personalities in that season who were hard to warm to). Why am I talking about this? Who knows. But there is actually a point… failure is so incredibly subjective and it’s all relative to each individual and their perspective on life.
For example, here in Australia our average home ownership rate is about 66% (source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-17/home-ownership-falling-while-more-people-are-renting-abs-study/11318070?nw=0) — although it’s been falling for some time, but that’s another story — and so there is a bit of an attitude of many Australians looking down on renters as failing in life. My response to that (having been a renter myself until just a couple of years ago) is that is such a narrow-minded perspective; what about people in Switzerland, where the 2019 home ownership rate was 41.6% (source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/246355/home-ownership-rate-in-europe/). So, are the Swiss failing? Or do they just have different ways of looking at the world?
I bring all of this seemingly-random-stuff up because it’s part of defining what failure is and what it isn’t, and let’s discuss that ‘what it isn’t’ bit for a moment. Failure is not absolute, meaning that it’s not black or white, and that’s because the idea of failure is, like I said, totally subjective. We beat ourselves up over not achieving this or not having the same things as other people, but it’s irrelevant because we’re all on our own unique path in life and so we cannot ever truly compare ourselves to other people… which leads to the next part of this episode…
Why does having a healthy attitude to failure matter for your mental health?
And it matters because it’s about how you view yourself and your place in the world. If you see one or many parts of your life as failing, or your view mistakes as being failures, you’re making it that much harder for yourself to focus on being the best version of yourself possible. So-called ‘failures’ are not the end of the road; they are setbacks and challenges, and all setbacks and challenges are are merely obstacles to be overcome. It’s the mindset piece which is so critical when you think about failure because it’s that self-fulfilling prophecy thing I talk about a lot; what you look for is what you get, so if you view setbacks or difficulties as failures then that is what you will get… whereas if you choose to reframe them as opportunities, that is what you will get. Considering how complicated life can be, it’s surprisingly straightforward in that respect: what you see is what you get.
The other thing we need to talk about here in terms of why your attitude towards failure matters is that setbacks are inevitable. You cannot avoid them, no matter how hard you may try, and they are part of how we learn (something I discussed all the way back in Episode 2 of the podcast). If you can choose to greet failure with kindness and an open mind, you begin to see things differently and even the difficult times become pathways to something better — I think I’ve mentioned several times on this show in the past that I now look back on my breakdown in 2011 and all the mental health issues that followed for the next few years as being one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it forced me to change everything about my life whether I wanted to or not (and I was so set in my ways that I doubt I ever would have changed voluntarily). So even out of what looks like complete and utter ruin, like when I emerged from my depression and began to ask myself “well that’s all a mess, so now what?”, out of that type of mess can come so many different possibilities (and I’m a big fan of opening yourself up to all the possibilities that life has to offer, along with making your own possibilities).
But in spite of all my sunny optimism here, let’s not lose sight of the fact that failure (or perceived failure) can sting and, at worst, it can be terrifying, because it triggers our insecurities and fears, which is why it needs to be managed carefully and thoughtfully. How do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to manage failure
So I’m going to primarily focus on you and your own life, in terms of how to manage failure, however before I go into that there is one thing that needs to be said about your interactions with other people. I talk in almost every episode about the foundation of good mental health as being to do no harm, be kind and give more than you take, and I talk about that in terms of how you treat yourself as well as how you treat others, because the way you interact with and treat other people creates the world around you. So I’m going to try to say this piece as nicely as I possibly can but it will be fairly blunt (surprise, surprise): don’t judge other people for failing, because your idea of failure is subjective and it doesn’t take into account who they are and what their life journey is. I genuinely think the only true failures in life are the people who go the complete opposite way and who choose to do harm to as many people as possible, because that’s just a shitty way to live, so anything else is just none of my business. Do what you want and if it doesn’t harm me, we’re good. Let people forge their own path and do their own thing, and reserve your judgement for calling out injustice and discrimination in the world. I will be talking about judgement in its own episode in a few months, and I’ll try not to be too preachy when I do, but as you can probably tell I feel pretty passionately about the whole ‘stop judging others!’ thing, so there you go.
Alright, so with that rant over, let’s now move on to managing failure for yourself. The first point is…
Feel what you need to feel without dwelling — feelings are totally valid and if you feel like crap about a failure then feel what you need to feel. However, don’t wallow. There was a great story I read ages ago, no idea where, of a football coach who allowed his team 24 hours to celebrate a win or feel the sting of a defeat, and then it was time for them to refocus their energy on the next steps for moving forward. I think that’s a pretty good rule for life and it’s one I have made a strong effort to implement myself, so I encourage you to consider it because it does help to give you that balance between feeling what you need to and not being sucked into the shitty feelings that can come if you stay in that state of mind for too long. Speaking of, my next point is…
Face it rather than avoiding it — avoidance causes far more issues than it resolves, and so if you’re experiencing a bit of failure then it’s best to face it rather than trying to pretend that everything is unicorns and rainbows. I’m all for being optimistic and focusing on the positive, but it needs to be balanced with reality… and if you’ve had a setback, the reality is that it needs to be confronted and dealt with. Which leads to my next point…
Look at it objectively — so, is it the end of the world? No? Good. Things are rarely as bad as they seem and our minds can be a bit overly dramatic sometimes (which I talked about last week in Episode 83 about being present, which in fact is another great tool for helping you to deal with challenges so check that out). Instead of giving into the drama and turning your mind into a Real Housewives reunion, look at the bigger picture and consider if the failure will really matter in five years’ time, because 99% of what we think is the end of the world is just a tiny blip on the radar that will be forgotten in the mists of time. Which leads to my next point…
Be constructive — there’s no point in being anything other than constructive, practical and positive. Will, I don’t know, flinging yourself onto the fainting couch and wailing into a pillow in imitation of a 19th century heroine in a gothic novel… will that serve any purpose other than drawing strange looks from people (especially if you do it in a furniture store)? No. I mean, feel what you have to feel like I said before but focus on now and the way forward, rather than what has happened (since it is what it is and it cannot be changed, no matter how much wailing you do about that dreadful Mr Darcy). Speaking of…
Look for the opportunity — just like I will take any opportunity to insert a Spice Girls reference into my podcast, you too can Spice Up Your Life by choosing to look for the opportunities that failure might present to you. Back in the first two episodes of this show I talked about the journey that led me to starting this podcast, which was all tied in to what could be perceived as failure, and if it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t be self-employed today and doing work that I actually love for the very first time in my life. Behind every cloud is a unicorn riding a rainbow, or whatever the saying is, so choose to look on the bright side rather than going over and over whatever has or hasn’t happened the way you wanted it to, because you never know where this will lead you (with the right attitude).
Make your peace with it — which is a really nice way of saying let it go. Learn what you need to learn, make the changes that you need to make, then release those negative feelings into the wind and get on with your life. Your eyes face forward for a reason, people. And if you find the idea of making peace with it to be daunting, then never forget that John and Yoko implored every single one of us to give peace a chance.
Separate your identity from the so-called failure — I am not my failures; I am a product of what I have chosen to do with them. I have taken every single ball-drop and shit-storm and turned it into a positive, even if it’s taken me a massive amount of time and effort to get there. You are not defined by what you haven’t done; you are defined by who you are and how you choose to persevere, so don’t let failure have any say in your identity because you are so much more than that. And if those thoughts do creep in, just do what the Spice Girls said and stop right now, thank you very much…
Remind yourself the only approval you truly need is from yourself — which is precisely why I like to cram in Spice Girls and Eurovision references and make bad jokes as much as I can, because that’s who I am in all aspects of my life and I’d rather be completely authentic than try to be something I’m not. It takes time to get to a place where you’re comfortable enough with who you are that the opinions of others really don’t matter, and I’m certainly not perfect at it but I’m much better than I was when I was younger. You only need your own approval, so instead of worrying about what others think focus on being someone who you approve of — someone who does no harm, is kind, and who gives more than they take. And to hell with everyone else! Obviously by that I mean to hell with the haters, not the nice people…!
Reframe failure as stepping stones towards success — let’s be clear that overnight success or sudden success is so rare that you have a greater likelihood of being eaten by a shark falling from the sky while holding a winning lottery ticket. For 99.9% of us, anything of great value takes hard work, time and an absolute bucketload of perseverance. So bearing that in mind, if you choose to remind yourself that failures are steps on the path to opportunities (which they are) then it can help you to get your head around it in a more positive way. I’m sure we’ve all seen the quotes by Michael Jordan bouncing around the internet about how many times he failed in his career, so I’m not going to repeat it here, but the thing to remember is that virtually every single successful person who you see has failed many, many times to get to that point. Success is a lot more about how you choose to view failure than it is actually succeeding; if you let it defeat you then you’re done, but if you choose to pull yourself back up, dust yourself off and keep going, then that is where true success is to be found. Which leads me to my next point…
Learn and grow — which is pretty much the foundation of every point that I’ve just been making; if you don’t learn then you stagnate, and you’ll be likely to just keep on repeating the same mistakes over and over again until you do eventually learn from them. Being the best version of yourself possible is about growing a little each day, and growth is challenging and uncomfortable (which I talked about back in Episode 37)… but just because it’s tough that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth every single moment. Part of that might involve creating a plan for next time, so that you’re able to approach similar situations in a way that incorporates what you have learned from this one. Speaking of things to learn and apply, my next point is…
Practice self-compassion — I don’t really know how else to say this other than stop being mean to yourself and start being kind instead. If you want to feel better then you need to treat yourself better, and nobody can change how you treat yourself but you. Which leads me to my final point…
Get support — you never have to go through challenges and difficulties alone, nor should you. Seek support from friends and family, and consider working with a professional (what type depends on your situation — you might find an experienced coach helpful, or it may be more appropriate to work with a counsellor or therapist… as I’ve said before, I offer both coaching and counselling services, and if you’re interested you can check out the ‘Coaching’ page on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au). Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help because you will find it much easier to work through your challenges if you have someone to help you.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to failure and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: The idea of failure is so subjective, because it often goes hand-in-hand with ideas of success that are material or judgemental in nature. I think the only true failure in life is refusing to grow, because without growth we become bitter and self-absorbed… and those are traits that do not align with the ethos of doing no harm, being kind and giving more than you take. Choose to see failure as an opportunity to learn and to grow, and by remaining realistically optimistic you will find yourself discovering new possibilities that you hadn’t even considered before.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the 19th century Scottish writer Samuel Smiles, and it is:
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than success. We often discover what we WILL do, by finding out what we will NOT do.”Samuel Smiles
Next week I’ll be talking about maturity. I think I’ve said once or twice before that age is not an indicator of maturity, and it’s not uncommon to see some people well into their older years who act as though they are still in diapers. So how does maturity develop and what the hell does it have to do with mental health? Well, next week I’ll be answering those questions and many others! I’ll be talking about what maturity is and what it isn’t, why maturity matters for your mental health, and how to be more mature (while still having fun).
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 27th of June. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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