sesame str

Image by cambiodefractal via Flickr

It hit me all at once just as I was about to leave my office and head to yoga class. I heard a coach say on a group call that the best thing she did to cure the part of her who was depression-prone, and perfectionist was to keep surviving failures. She realized that the only way to heal the part of herself that was so fearful of failure was to actually “fail” and survive it. Over and over again.

What I heard in these words was a whole new way to look at the word “failure”. I’ve always had a hard time answering the question, “What is your biggest failure?” As I look back at my life, I’ve been awash in so many brightly lit success stories – the kinds that bring attention from other people’s parents, and disdain from the other kids in school whose parents wished they could be “just like me”. It was enough bright light and attention to overshadow any of the areas in which I might have been failing, and it took up enough of my time that I never had a chance to try the things I might have actually failed at.

In short, my life was set up so that I had no option to fail.

I stayed very busy and worked very hard on a few things that my parents had decided were the most important for me. And I followed the rules. I did my work. I did not fail.

This might sound like every ambitious parent’s dream for their child. But from the perspective of an adult who developed from this kind of environment and “succeeded” at fulfilling that dream, I’m seeing that there is a lot more to life beyond “living the dream”, especially when it’s not your own.

What I never learned was to trust myself to survive failure.

What I developed was an overly inflated fear of what failure MEANS. As I dug through a list of fears that had been holding me back during the past several years, I realized it included things like, “If I’m not married by a certain age…” “If I don’t have kids by a certain age…” “If I don’t own a home by a certain age…” “If I don’t have a job title that makes sense and matches neatly with the education and experience I’ve accumulated…” “If I change my mind about a decision…” “If I disappoint other people by my choices…”

ALL of these things equated in my mind with being a failure. A noun. An identity. A Failure, with a capital F. And F’s were not an option in my world. So I avoided them with all the skills developed in a lifetime of pointing myself squarely in the direction OPPOSITE any and all chance of failure.

The result? Perhaps to the outside observer an impressive list of “accomplishments”. But on the inside? The part of the self that FEELS the sense of accomplishment, and GROWS in trust every time that feeling arrives, was withering, getting weaker, smaller, and feeling more insignificant with each year of disuse. It was like an atrophied muscle. Ignored in favor of the more socially acceptable muscle that seeks and gloms onto approval like a strung-out junkie to their next hit.

It struck me that in my first business, I had managed to build a stream of income, a following, a set of systems, a community, and a brand all from a core mindset driven by avoidance of failure. I imitated, I leveraged, I did everything that I knew would impress, but I stopped short of being totally authentic to my vision.

And the irony? Other people LOVED what I was doing, even though that sickening feeling of dying inside (that withering part of myself that needed to feel a sense of accomplishment in order to grow and thrive) plagued me. I couldn’t explain this internal feeling to anyone, because the part of me that would have had to speak those words was exactly that part of me that was dying. It was too weak. It found a small voice in my journal pages, or in private conversations with family or friends, but soon they got tired of hearing the same old story.

Why can’t you just be HAPPY with what you have?” they would say to me, as if it were just that simple. I felt bad about feeling bad, so I put on a happy face. Got busier. Did more.

Maybe they were right, I thought at the time. Everyone in my life seemed to be saying the same thing. How could they be wrong if the message was so consistent?

I didn’t know then that my failure avoidance had ATTRACTED all of those relationships into my life and created a field of energy around me that was consistent with a failure avoidance mentality. I so wanted to be an entrepreneur – one who took risks and created things from ideas and made visions into reality. However I was behaving as if I were a corporate employee trying not to lose my job, fearfully clinging to each new milestone I achieved, afraid to let go.

I didn’t want to be on the ladder that I was climbing. I dreamed of following my real dream, creating something that I could not fully describe at the time. So I ended up with something defined by other people, and it was just easier to say what elicited nods of recognition and approval from other people.

I got tired, and I didn’t know why at the time.

Now I know it’s because I didn’t have the conditioning of the right muscles. I did not have the kind of practice I needed to take the actions I needed to take. Luckily, I knew how to practice. I knew the principles and power of doing something daily, consistently, no matter how small, over a period of time.

The problem was, my goals were always determined by the underlying mindset of avoiding failure. I was pointed in a direction of lowest risk. My goals were ones that appeared to outside observers to be excellent and compelling. However,they were not the ones that meant anything to me personally. They were cheap imitations of other people’s dreams.

I realized that my brain literally had no pathway to orient me toward the kinds of visions that would lead to the success I desired. I had to unwind and untangle a lot of circuitry along the way, identifying all the layers of fears that held me in a pattern of stagnation and inactivity (all while running a six-figure business on my own). I had to let go of more than I ever dreamed I would have let go of. Ideas, beliefs, values, a wardrobe, too many shoes, relationships, and lots of stuff.

Only when I really started letting go of LOTS of stuff did I start to experience glimpses of the kinds of vision and clarity and energy that started to bring me some unexplainable, “spontaneous” results. I believe it’s because I got to the point where I was peaceful and joyful enough to let go. I was playing music, getting recognized, meeting new people. My energy was flowing from that place that needs to feel its own sense of accomplishment in order to grow. None of what I was doing would be considered “impressive” by any of the voices in my head that were programmed in childhood. But I had already been down the path of being impressive, achieving what other people considered success, and just ended up tired.

Until now.

I have something that is my own, my own adventure into the unknown, my own conquering of my own particular fears of my own particular definition of failure. I no longer wear high-heeled shoes. I show up to concerts and play onstage wearing JEANS. Most of the time I play simply long tones, nothing fast or “impressive” technically on my violin. But I feel whole, and peaceful, and increasingly unattached to what anyone else might say about me.

And guess what? A whole new group of people are there to be impressed with me. The old dragons of failure avoidance come back, but this time I’m a little stronger, from all my practice of taking risks and surviving my failures. I’m a little more aware, from all my practice of defining what I’m making it mean to “fail”.

Now I equate failure with freedom. I equate each move toward possible failure as a step in the direction of conquering my fear, and getting stronger with the muscles I want to build. I’m a little bolder. I’m a little more joyful without needing a reason to be joyful, and a little more trusting of myself each day.

So why must you celebrate your failures? You might be the only one who does, and it might be your only path to a life you’ll be happy to call your very own.

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