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"Who wouldn't be afraid if their intrinsic worth was posited as conditional?"

Jennifer Li
Mar 24, 2021 @ 1:10 pm
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how to celebrate career failures
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Failure has taken many different forms in my life: a knot in my throat as I looked over a bad grade, a mounting panic attack as I repeated a mistake, a tauntingly unbothered "closed" deadline that flashed before my eyes before I completed an assignment for work. But failure has also been an endlessly patient and forgiving teacher ready to reteach whatever lesson I needed to learn.

It's taken me years, but I've come to understand that failure is utterly inevitable. And I think I'm lucky to have come to this realization as an adult, as so many young adults now are being told what to do for their careers to be considered "successful." Young adults are being told to put in over forty hours of work per week to get anywhere in their careers by older professionals and their parents are saying they should get promoted to higher-paying, powerful positions. When young adults aren't making the money, recognition, and other material goods that come with success, we're not working "hard enough." And when we start to lose sight of what we want as adults and pin our worth to the idea of "success," we also set up an unhealthy all-or-nothing binary relationship with "failure."

"Given our goal-oriented society, we often feel substantial internal and external pressure to reach certain career and financial milestones," clinical psychologist and author Dr. Carla Manly tells HelloGiggles. "Many people are raised in environments where external success and achievements are prized far more than inner well-being and joy. As a result, when we feel as if we are underachieving, anxiety, fear, and depression can easily set in." In other words, lots of us have internalized the message that "you are worthy if you achieve enough," which, ultimately, gives rise to a deep, persistent fear of failure. Who wouldn't be afraid if their intrinsic worth was posited as conditional? Dr. Manly also points out that a profound fear of being unworthy can trigger a self-defeating cycle of striving yet never feeling successful enough, as well as anxiety and depression—especially when we're pressured by family (or society in general).

I've spent a lot of my life pinning my worth on grades and how much money I should be making, which led to a nearly crippling fear of failure up until my early twenties. And by quantifying my self-worth, my mental fortitude toward failure was very fragile—any failure, no matter how insignificant, would send me into a major depressive crisis.

The mere prospect of failure would paralyze me.

For instance, I verged on a full-blown panic attack for nearly three weeks straight while applying to college when I was 18-years-old because I was so convinced I would not be able to get into a good school, despite having a perfectly respectable SAT score, strong recommendations, and good grades. My parents raised me with the belief that mistakes were inexcusable, and that I should aggressively berate myself if I ever made any mistake in any capacity, because I was told that people who make mistakes are lazy, negligent, unintelligent, and worthless. This led to me internalizing a hypercritical internal monologue, whether it be in the way I studied, or in the way I imagined how my future would look. 

To overcome hypercritical internal monologues and a paralyzing fear of failure, Dr. Manly says that we must learn to embrace compassionate self-awareness. "When we strive to meet the expectations of others without regard for the self, an unhealthy relationship with success and failure is formed," she says. "When an individual slows down to discover and embrace personal priorities and goals—without regard for the pressures of others or society—inner balance and realistic motivation are generated."

how to celebrate career failures
Credit: Getty Images

When taking constructive steps to start addressing failure in a healthier way, Rutgers University-New Brunswick program director at Career Exploration and Success (and my personal career fairy godmother) Barbara Zito encourages measured self-reflection. "While you shouldn't dwell on your mistakes or failures during your career, it is important for you to learn from them," she says. "How can you avoid making the same errors in the future? How can you better set yourself up for success next time? It's not about beating yourself up, it's about improving yourself as a professional."

Learning to do this was very difficult for me, because I had spent so many years attacking myself for every little infraction. My tactic when self-reflecting is to try to stay as objective as possible and to remember that I'm simply taking categorical stock of the situation, and I am not looking for reasons to berate myself. If I'm being especially hard on myself, I'll cut that thought off immediately, before imagining myself folding it up into a paper boat and letting it drift away out of sight. If I'm feeling particularly negative, I'll let myself stew a bit before I try to remember that failure is simply a by-product of choosing to act outside my comfort zone.

Pouncil says that it's integral to "understand that failure is part of the learning process" when forming a healthier relationship with failure.

Sure, things won't always work out, but it takes a lot of bravery to even attempt something. By stepping outside of your comfort zone, even if you fail at whatever the original goal was, you've made progress and positioned yourself with the opportunity to grow. "When you fail at something, reframe your mindset and remember that an outcome doesn't dictate your value," Pouncil says.

For instance, asking for more money from your employer is always nerve-racking, but not as much when you do it for the first time. When I negotiated a freelance rate with an editor, I felt nearly sick and wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. I was so immensely grateful for the work, I loved writing for them, yet I was terrified of offending the publication and alienating potential editors. At the same time, I wanted to be paid what I thought I was worth. While I didn't get what I had initially asked for, the editor was willing to meet me halfway, and they paid me more than initially proposed. I was pretty happy, even though I had technically failed to get exactly what I requested. But I had successfully negotiated more money and signaled to the editor what I'm worth in the future. Sometimes, successes might look like failures on the surface. So when your failure still has a positive outcome, celebrate that! Even the smallest wins are wins! 

But what should you do when your failure doesn't lead to a positive outcome? When you fail, Pouncil suggests trying to reflect on the situation in more constructive terms. "A simple practice I use with my clients is to write down one lesson you've learned from your failure and three reasons you're grateful for that lesson," she says. This helps reframe your thinking from focusing on the failure to focusing on what you can take from it. She suggests thinking about failure as an invitation to try something new and to build on your previous lessons, which will eventually bring you closer to the outcome you want. "When used intentionally, failure is a tool to help you achieve your goals, because progress equals success and failure is a form of progress," Pouncil explains.

Even now, after experiencing plenty of failures, I still don't like to fail. Who doesn't like getting what they want, especially when they've worked hard for it? At the same time, I don't want whatever failure I've experienced to be meaningless. So, I allow myself to sulk for a bit—my boyfriend steps in when I go over a whole day—before I force myself to think about the all factors that have led to the failure. Ultimately, learning to embrace and celebrate your failures is to learn how to embrace and celebrate yourself. 

All of us are just trying to do what we can—sometimes, we can put in 90%. Sometimes, we can only manage 30%. When the world tells us that we need to be at 110% every day, it's no wonder why so many of us feel kicked down and defeated. But when we're feeling kicked down and defeated is the time we need love and encouragement the most. You had a hard time, and things didn't turn out the way you wanted to. That's okay. There's no limit to how many times you can try again.