Earlier this year, I experienced many small setbacks that felt like very significant failures. After a few of these in a short span of time, I began to brace myself for my own disappointment.
I internalized what was happening to me and believed it to be a consequence of who I was.
I began to feel like a failure.
So often, we blame ourselves for our supposed failures without thinking about where we get our ideas about success and failure.
In this article, we will discuss steps to understanding our own ideas of success and failure, as well as steps to better align those ideas with our own values and beliefs. But, before we explore our own relationship with failure, it is important to explore the relationship between culture and failure.
The concept of failure insinuates that there is a right and wrong way to exist. We feel failure when we do not live up to expectations of what “should” be.
Since these expectations are rooted in our social values, they often reflect the dominant culture. Our standards for success are ingrained in our culture and often reflect white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied ways of living.
The middle class American dream is paved with cultural expectations: Graduate high school. Go to college. Get a job. Buy a car. Get married. Buy a house. Have children. Retire. This trajectory is not only difficult for some, but seemingly impossible.
For those who don’t fall into line with the status quo, success can seem distant and elusive. The path to success seems almost set up for hardships.
For women, the standards for success are reflective of male-normative behaviors. In the United States, feminine traits and work have historically been undervalued. When women try to adopt masculine traits to be more in line with our cultural beliefs about success, they are confronted with negative stereotypes. Therefore, women in male-dominated fields face a catch-22.
We not only feel “success” and “failure” in our professional lives, but also in our romantic lives. We have cultural norms rooted in heteronormativity, beliefs about monogamy, and gender assumptions. For individuals who do not identify as heterosexual and/or with the gender binary, it can be confusing to navigate the roles of a romantic relationship. We may feel a sense of failure when our romantic lives do not mirror the stereotypical progression of romance.
The social, political, and economic barriers that prevent individuals from meeting society’s standards of success can feel debilitating.
The desire to achieve success when it so clearly does not reflect the diversity of our identities sets us up for failure. We become torn as we realize that the success we desire may neither be designed for us, nor what we actually want.
So how do we navigate society’s messages about success and failure while trying to live authentically and with meaning? How do we begin to develop our own understanding of success and failure?
Here are five steps to help you craft your own relationship with success and failure.
1. Develop an awareness regarding what makes you feel successful and what gives you a sense of failure.
In spaces where you may be facing a formal evaluation, this awareness may come naturally. Oftentimes in school or work, you receive feedback that you may interpret as positive or negative.
But what about other domains? When do you feel a sense of accomplishment in your personal life? in your hobbies? your non-work related activities? On the other side of this, where do you feel unsatisfactory? What is happening within those spaces that contribute to those feelings?
The key to this first step is not to judge these feelings, but rather to understand yourself better.
In the shuffle of everyday existence, it can be difficult to take the space to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. Developing a greater sense of awareness can help give you clarity into where you are currently at in your relationship with failure.
2. Identify if there are similarities in the spaces where you feel a sense of failure.
Again, the goal is not to decide if these experiences are “right” or “wrong,” but rather to simply understand them.
Since our identities and experiences are diverse, so are our ideas surrounding success and failure. Where are the spaces where you feel most vulnerable to failure?
For example, I feel most vulnerable to failure when I think that I’m not doing something as well as most other people. I have felt this in work, school, and in my personal life. This idea, that I should be able to do everything in the same way as those around me, trickles into different parts of my life and causes equal problems in all of these realms.
Identify the common themes around failure that you see in your life.
3. Think about the underlying beliefs/values that influence your sense of failure.
Once you understand your ideas about failure, try to identify where those ideas are rooted. Often, these thoughts are linked to something that is valuable or important to you; otherwise, they would not be so pervasive and impactful.
Consider the example above: “I should be able to do everything in the same way as those around me.” I may have other thoughts that are similar to or stem from that thought. What is at the core of these ideas?
For me, I think it relates to my sense of purpose and worthiness. Somewhere along the line, I developed the belief that if I do not do things as well as people, there is something wrong with me.
These thoughts and beliefs are just that: thoughts and beliefs. They do not reflect any truth other than the weight I have given them.
Awareness around these thoughts can help us understand some of our feelings around failure, but we should be hesitant to accept these thoughts as “the truth.”
4. Identify where you get your ideas regarding failure.
Our thoughts are not reflective of a definitive truth because they are a reflection of the various experiences we have had.
They represent messages we have received from our cultures, societies, families, friends, peers, coworkers, and other environmental factors. They are derived from material we have read, watched, and heard. They come from our own experiences and the experiences we have witnessed.
Just like the spaces from which they are derived, our thoughts are complex and subjective.
This is not meant to invalidate our thoughts and beliefs, but to accept them as only part of the story. As discussed earlier, our understanding of failure is heavily influenced by our cultural and social structures.
Back to my example of wanting to be able to do everything in the same way as those around me and the belief that if I don’t do things as well as other people, there is something wrong with me:
There are many factors that might influence my ability to do something as well as other people. My personal attributes (what I’m good at and interested in doing), my environment (the people, places, and institutions in which I am situated), and my identities (my culture, values, and beliefs) all influence how I interpret my successes and failures.
5. Develop alternate ways of thinking about failure to better reflect your life and experiences.
If our concept of failure is affected by our attributes, environment, and identities, there are ways to shift our thinking to more holistically capture our experiences.
The US cultural values of productivity and self-sufficiency influence my understanding of failure. But what if, instead, I valued collaboration and growth?
Reaching out to others to share our knowledge and learn from each other towards a common goal could then be considered a great success. Instead of feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself for not knowing how to do something on my own, I could shift my thinking to see it as an act that aligns with my own personal values.
When we take risks, we run the chance of failing, of not doing as well as we hoped, or not meeting standards imposed on us. But when we take risks, we are also opening ourselves up to new experiences, opportunities for growth, and a chance to learn something new about ourselves.
The act of failure, then, is an act of liberation.
It allows us the freedom and space to experience ourselves in a new way. As we do this, we also allow others to take these risks, to question the role of the dominant culture in defining their successes and failures, and to expand their own self-awareness.
Our personal values and goals don’t always match those in the dominant culture. So while we receive critical messages from others, it’s important to put them in perspective with our own values and goals.
When faced with a situation in which you are feeling a sense of failure, ask yourself:
- In what ways did I take a chance or a risk?
- What did I learn about myself? How can that be helpful in my life?
- What did I learn about others? How can that be helpful in my life?
- How is the environment and culture that I am in affecting my perspective on this?
- What do I value and how can I see this experience aligning with my values?
These are not easy questions to ask. When there are so many voices around us telling us how we should feel and experience situations, it can be hard to tap into that space inside of ourselves.
Anne Sweeney said, “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.”
The barriers that influence our lives are real, but we have agency in how we internalize those experiences. Your failures do not define you, but rather, how you relate to and understand them does.
Aliya Khan is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and identifies as a feminist, activist, and life-long learner. She provided crisis support to survivors of abuse at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and is currently living, studying, and writing in the Pacific Northwest.
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