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How to Handle Failure and Mistakes – A Realistic Approach

This Article is an excerpt from my book The Art of Change

I think I’m the best person who can teach you about failure. And, yeah, I’m very humble about it!

As a self-development blogger, I should be positive and spread positive thoughts and so on. I shouldn’t have written this post in the first place.

And, of course, I shouldn’t have told you that I’m the best person to teach you about failure.

After all, why would you want the person who tells you about self-development to grab your hand and talk to you about a negative thing such as failure?

This might affect my credibility. In the end, you want to hear about success and how to get there.

We all want happiness, a smooth life, confidence, and strength. We don’t want pain, hurt, and darkness. And self-development bloggers/gurus are supposed to tell you how to get more of the firsts and less, and preferably none, of the seconds, right?

But you know what? I’m sick of this!

I’m a reader before being a writer and a blogger. And I’m really sick of hearing nonsense advice that’s either too soft or too extreme.

I’m sick of the ideal image that some self-development gurus are trying to promote (disciplined, motivated, and optimistic). And I’m also sick of the submissive and “accepting” image other gurus are trying to promote as well (you know, kind of “you’re perfect just the way you are!”).

And while intellectually this seems very logical, that we need something in the middle, still that’s not what we really do.

It’s very clear in our attitude and behavior when we fail and when we make mistakes.

In other words, the way we deal with failure tells a lot about our mentality, which is affected to some extent by the notions of different self-development schools.

Anyway, I don’t intend to make this post into a rant about the way self-development works.

I just want to share my thoughts about how messed up the way we deal with failure, and generally negative things, is. Feel free to agree or disagree.

Defining Failure

First things first, let’s start by defining what, exactly, we mean by failure.

Simply, failure means not getting your expectations/needs/wants met.

To your brain it means that you’re not where you need to be, you’re heading in the wrong direction or you’re at the wrong destination.

And when that happens, when your brain notices that you’re not heading right, it sends you negative and painful emotions.

So, when we’re talking about failure, we’re not just talking about the actual outcome and results. We’re also talking about an emotional experience. A painful emotional experience.

Dealing with failure means handling all those negative and painful emotions. Depression, frustration, lack of motivation, fear of getting rejected again, feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem, to name but a few.

And this is where the real problem is.

We don’t really understand those painful and negative emotions, we don’t handle them correctly, which leads to more negative emotions and failures.

So, simply, we try to deal with failure as a situation and an event instead of dealing with the emotions that rise with it. Think about this and let it sink. A perspective changer!

To solve this problem, we need to examine 3 things:

  • The way we handle the negative and painful emotions.
  • The ways we use to deal with failure and how ineffective they are.
  • The way we think life should be (sunshine and rainbows)!

After analyzing these 3 points, we can come up with a new strategy/mentality to handle failure much more effectively. To not allow it to destroy us and to rise from the ashes every time we’re burnt.

How Do We Handle Negative and Painful Emotions

Negative emotions are signals. They’re the messages that your brain sends you to notify you about something really important.

Just like the pain you feel when you touch something hot, negative emotions are felt to tell you that what you’re doing is not good for you. It’s not painful physically, it’s painful psychologically.

With the physical pain, an action is required for this pain to go away. You simply need to take your hand away for the pain to stop (of course, you immediately do that because it’s a survival mechanism).

With the psychological pain, it’s also the same. An action is required for the pain (the negative emotion) to go away.

However, you have the choice to take that action or not. It’s not a survival mechanism and you need to be proactive and take that action by yourself.

The problem is that people fail to: 1) Understand the purpose of those negative and bad emotions (they don’t realize that they’re messages and calls-to-action). 2) Take the necessary action that will make the emotion go away.

Instead, most people deal with their negative emotions as they’re dealing with an enemy!

Most of us try to numb them using all possible methods.

Trying to forget about them hoping that they’ll wake up tomorrow without them.

Not grasping the fact that those negative emotions are signs and guides. They’re telling them that they need to take a necessary action that will put them on the right track.

Usually, negative emotions come from problems. We have problems sucking the joy out of our lives.

Our smart brains try to motivate us to work on a solution using emotions, but we respond by ignoring them and even numbing them.

And, in reality, this stems from one major root reason: our inability, and unwillingness, to accept the fact that pain is part of life, and also consistently trying to feel good without actually doing anything to deserve good feelings (instant gratification and delayed gratification).

Those negative emotions scare us. Pain scares us. So, we run away from them using different escapement methods.

However, eventually, we reach the same destination: more negative emotions, bigger problems, dissatisfaction, and a low quality of life. All coming from the fact that we can’t stand pain and discomfort.

This is How Life Works

I bet you already know that life isn’t perfect.

And I bet you already know that life can get pretty nasty and painful sometimes. That it won’t always go the way you want it to go.

Those are known facts.

However, there are facts that we don’t really acknowledge. There are things about life that we don’t like to admit, or we weren’t raised to admit, because they’re painful, just as life itself sometimes.

The fact that you’re going to screw up.

The fact that you suck sometimes.

The fact that you’ll make mistakes and fall hard on your face.

Simply, the fact that you and I are not perfect, and we don’t live in a perfect world. And as a result, we’ll fail sometimes, we’ll act stupid, we’ll feel pain, we’ll taste the bitter taste.

And mistakes! We humans aren’t meant to live without making mistakes.

Mistakes aren’t beautiful. But they’re, just like pain and discomfort, a necessary part of the process of our development and growth. And that’s a fact that we must accept about life.

Not to give up and surrender because of our mistakes but to realize that mistakes, and failure, are going to happen but they’re not going to stop us from being who we want to be.

In brief, mistakes, failures, painful situations, adversities, negative emotions are inevitable. And it’s OK. They play an important role as well. Discomfort, as nasty as it sounds, is a necessary part of the self-development and the success journey.

Furthermore, trying to avoid mistakes, pain, and discomfort, and trying to always be comfortable and happy, is not only chasing an illusion, but also it’s painfully unrealistic and it will lead to even more discomfort, pain, and disappointment.

The Ineffective Ways We Use to Deal With Failure

We’re all different. But when it comes to dealing with failure, there are 2 famous methods that most of us use.

And usually, those 2 methods are nothing but an application to 2 extreme notions people have about failure and success.

That is, we have an ineffective mentality and it’s translated into an ineffective strategy that we use over and over again to screw up ourselves.

Those ineffective strategies lead to more disappointment, depression and, needless to say, failure.

As you read them, you might tell yourself that you don’t use them to handle your own failures, mistakes, and disappointments. However, you might still need to honestly look at how failure affects you and how you bounce back from it as that tells more about what method you really use.

Actions speak louder than words.

Here are the methods:

  • Beating One’s Self Up:

I’ve been here for most of my life.

It’s when you punish yourself when you fail or when you make a mistake.

And, on the surface, it sounds really good (and smart) because you’ll be able to “teach yourself a lesson” to never do that again.

But actually, that’s far from being true.

Beating yourself up will just make things worse. You know the people who play the victim’s role? Well, they’re on the end of the spectrum and the people who beat themselves up are on the other side of the same spectrum!

One thing that’s fundamentally wrong about beating one’s self up is that it deludes you to think that there’s something wrong with you.

How is that?

Guilt and shame. When you sit there beating yourself up and telling yourself: why I always fail to keep up my promises? I’ll never be something else. I’m such a wimp, how could I ever do that??

That process, in and of itself, will lead you to feel guilty. And it won’t stop there, guilt will, eventually, turn into shame. Shame will screw up your self-esteem.

You know, feelings that you’re inadequate, that you’re the only person on earth who has this flaw/made this mistake/failed this way. Forgetting the fact that we all have our own imperfections, wounds, and ugly sides.

Of course beating one’s self up is a result of extreme self-development schools that promote the image of the super man/woman who never gets defeated.

When we fail to live up to these ridiculously high standards, we’ll beat ourselves up and feel guilty and ashamed.

As you can see, being too harsh on yourself won’t really help although it looks like it will.

I’ve been using this method for so long time (and I think I still use it sometimes). However, it’s one of the worst methods you can use to handle the dark and ugly aspects of yourself.

Let’s explore the other unhealthy method that most people use. After that, we’ll talk about a more healthy and realistic method that we can use instead of these insanely harmful ones.

  • Deluding One’s Self:

Yep, I’ve also been here. I told you, I’m the best person who can teach you about failure 🙂

While beating yourself up isn’t good, also deluding yourself is just as harmful.

Beating yourself up is like assuming everything is under your control. Deluding yourself is assuming nothing is under your control. Two extreme approaches and two ends of a spectrum.

Deluding yourself includes many behaviors and mentalities such as the victim’s mentality.

Here the person claims that he’s the victim and his failures and mistakes are because someone else, or something, out there is preventing him from succeeding.

For instance, people who blame their parents for their own emotional problems. And while their parents might be responsible to some extent, it doesn’t really help. Because the second you start playing the victim’s role, you become just that: a victim. And a victim is powerless and can’t change anything.

(Note: the same situation dealt with using the beating-yourself-up-method would look like this: person feels guilty and ashamed of himself as a result of having emotional problems, beats himself up because he’s not like other people. And that is more destructive than the emotional problems that we all have, in a way or another).

(Another Note: both of these methods will make you lose the power that you need to have in order to take action and move on).

Now, let’s explore a better method that we can use to handle not only failure and mistakes, but also the painful, the ugly, and the dark aspects of our lives and personalities.

The Power of Taking Action

Here’s how I’ve been dealing with my own failure and mistakes recently. And it’s working pretty fine.

First I’ll show you the method and then explain to you why and how it works.

But let me warn you, it’s not a fancy method, most of the time it’s not so pretty, and it’s nothing new or revolutionary. It’s simple, hard sometimes, and it’s more realistic, practical, and applicable than the methods discussed above.

It saves your self-esteem, helps you bounce back from failure more efficiently.

Let’s go.

  • Avoid the 2 methods discussed above: don’t fall a prey to those extreme methods. They will only hold you back and ensure you never actually do anything about your situation.
  • Make sure you have no wings and that you can’t fly! I mean: acknowledge the fact that you’re only a human being. You sometimes become weak and make stupid decisions. We’re not meant to live without making mistakes, we’re meant to learn and grow from our success and, most importantly, from our failures too.
  • Make a reality check: life can get pretty messy. Painful it can get. Hard it can be. Unfair sometimes it is. But it’s life. You can’t always be happy, you can’t always avoid pain and discomfort, they’re part of the game. This is probably the most important step here.
  • Time to fight back! I’ve learned that the best way to deal with failure is by taking action. Don’t expect that you’ll feel OK just by doing the previous steps alone (will explain why right now). This is what’s very realistic, and difficult, about this approach.

Why this method works?

As we’ve said before, failure is an emotional experience. It makes us feel lots of negative emotions (again, sometimes it’s OK to feel them as long as you’re fighting and growing).

Those negative, and painful, emotions are nothing but your brain telling you that it doesn’t like what’s going on, and it demands you to do something about that, period!

We need to respond to these emotions in order for them to go away. Negative emotions are usually calls-for-action.

Now, what’s the correct way to respond? You take action. You do something that convinces your mind that things will be OK.

If I were to say how to really handle failure, then I would tell you to take action and change things. That’s it.

For instance, getting rejected and working on developing your skills so you can get a better job. You’ll be feeling bad until you take the action and prove to your mind that you’ll get a job.

However, it’s easier said than done.

Those negative emotions don’t really make the process of taking action a smooth one. It’s really difficult to move forward while feeling depressed and devastated. It’s hard to pick yourself up and get back fighting again.

And that’s the point. Experiencing this pain and pushing through it is the answer.

Simply, there are 2 types of negative emotions: 1) Emotions that will destroy us (such as guilt and helplessness). 2) Emotions that will give us pain but will help us grow (fear, discomfort …etc).

We want to make sure we eliminate the emotions that cripple us and push through the rest.

In brief, you first make sure that no emotion is actually stopping you from getting up on your feet. Particularly, emotions such as guilt, shame, and helplessness.

Then you understand that failure is just a painful emotional experience. A series of negative emotions. And negative emotions can only be dealt with by taking action. So, you have to clench your teeth, clench your fist and go fight to make things happen.

I can sum up by saying that the best way to deal with failure, mistakes or even setbacks is by taking action regardless of how you feel. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t wait for something magical to happen as those 2 options will take away your power to do anything.

Go out there and do something that will make the situation better, that’s how you stop the negative emotions (failure is all about emotions).

Oh, One More Thing!

The message I’m trying to convey through this article should not be understood as: go and make mistakes and then justify them.

No, mistakes are bad especially when they have adverse effects on us and on the people around us.

The real message is that you shouldn’t allow these mistakes and failures to destroy you. You must rise above. You must rise from the ashes.

Whenever you feel weak and make stupid decisions, don’t let that destroy you and get back on the track again.

Mostly, that’s the message I’m trying to communicate.

And, as I’ve said in the beginning, feel free to agree or disagree. I really want to hear more opinions about this as I’ve written this post because of some recent experiences I’ve been through and also because many emotions I’ve been feeling intensely recently. I might’ve gone wrong somewhere.

So, feel free to honestly tell me what you think.

Also Read:

10 Killer Tips For a Killer Self-confidence (Beautifully Illustrated)
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  1. Great article again Mosab! Truly felt they were hard learned lessons!

    Accepting your reality as it is, not avoiding your situation, responsibilities, but also your potential. It’s so important if you want to grow. But so hard to always stay vigilant of. Sometimes you let your ‘action mindset’ slip and fall back. What’s your advice on keeping vigilant and in the constructive mindset?

    • I’m happy you enjoyed it, Tim 🙂

      I think you can’t always be “in the action mindset”, slips and fallback are almost unavoidable. The trick is to learn how to handle these slips correctly, use them as tools to get back stronger, and use them as lessons. It’s not our success only that builds us up, also our failures can build us up if we use them correctly.

      That said, you should also set minimum standards for yourself that you’ll stick to no matter what; those are things that you’ll always do (or don’t do) no matter what happens around you. For instance, I’ll always wake up at 6 a.m to do X, or I’ll never eat sugar. And you stick to that even if you don’t feel like it. You might fail sometimes, but just pick yourself up again. After a while, this will become a second nature and you’ll make yourself more vigilant and stay more “in the action mindset”. (also, it’s about creating a balance between handling failures and setting this minimum baseline).

      Again, sure you might slip every now and then in keeping this minimum effort, but soon it’ll become your norm and standard. I think that should keep you more focused, persistent and vigilant.

      Please feel free to share your thoughts, Timon.

      • Yeah, I agree, you got to catch yourself slipping. Learn why you fell back, and realign yourself. I usually look at my goals in the morning, this helps to remind me to get back up on the track if fall off.

        I agree with the minimal standards, I have implemented a few habits, and lost a few bad ones. First, it took a lot of will and motivation, but now they are easily achievable “minimal” checkpoints for the day.

        Hard thing is, often you see the effect of these incremental changes only in the long run. I guess that why it is sometimes hard to implement. Only when you look back a few years do you realize how much progress you have made. For me quitting smoking has been a big action step. But one I constantly have to take, I have to refuse myself cigarettes on a daily basis. But it gets much easier over time. And the reward of having quit is small after one day, but huge after a year! Not to mention a lifetime!

        So yeah :), consistently taking action to form good baseline habits,… totally worth it!

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