Failure is, in Fact, an Option

I love seeing my former students on social media. Kids from whom I might never have heard again are a regular feature in my daily scroll on Facebook and Instagram- weddings, babies, careers, I am thrilled to see their trials and travails.

I have a former student, though, who posts a lot of motivational pep-speak. You know what I’m talking about. It’s all the trite catchphrases that we’ve all seen on posters with mountains. I know I heard all of them many, many times in my doomed stint as an Amway salesperson back in the ’80s:

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”

“Nobody ever wrote down a plan to be broke, fat, lazy, or stupid. Those things are what happen when you don’t have a plan.”

“Failure is not an option.”

Ouch. That’s the one I really just cannot bear, for it is without grace. Seth Godin gets it. If we can’t fail, we fear to try. We quit before we ever even start.

No, I prefer the tune from the TV series for toddlers, Little Baby Bums (don’t ask me to explain the title, I can’t. It’s British. My one-year-old granddaughter adores it. It’s where most of my life philosophy lessons are found these days).

 

We try. We try our best when we know there’s a risk of failure, but we’re safe to flounder. I have ever been a perfectionist, so hard on myself. When failure happened to me, I punished myself. Sometimes physically, in the form of withholding food or cutting myself. More often, emotionally: isolation, castigation, criticism. It’s been difficult to learn how to grant myself grace.

I manage and execute and event for my job. It’s just two days, but over 40,000 people attend; I plan all year. When I took the job, I inherited a chaotic, sloppy mess with little credibility; in five years, I have held myself to exacting standards, taking an occasion suffering from mismanagement and on the brink of failure to one with credibility and popularity in the educational community. I have worked really, really hard, and I am proud of it.

This year, though, was more of a struggle than it has been in a long time. My boss held a figurative ax over the event and my job, I found myself trying to work for three separate employers while taking care of my infant granddaughter. I had less support staff than I have ever had. I was living in a state of stress and anxiety that I had not experienced in ten years; and that time I was admitted to a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. I faced a choice between my mental and physical health and a perfect event. And so… I gave myself permission to ease up. A couple of details were missed.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was the year that the criticism had to come. I’m still stinging from it, to be honest. This is when the mantra “Failure is not an option” is, to be blunt, a load of BS. The criticism may very well have been valid, though it can be tough to take when the critic is not privy to all the elements of the situation. Author and researcher Dr. Brene’ Brown describes living with a strong back, but soft front. It’s how we can live with strength in pliancy. My back was not quite strong enough to execute a perfect event this year. My front has to be soft enough to hear the criticism without taking it to heart.

Brene

When we can’t fail, we can’t try new things. That’s the bane of innovation. But just as important, if we fail but can’t get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep going, we live in pain. We become depressed. Ill. Anxious. Resilience is not born out of dwelling on our failures. Nor is it found in sitting in stasis. No, resilience is created when we have the courage to try coupled with the grace of self-forgiveness, no matter the critics who will inevitably come forth.

Failure must, in fact, be an option.

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Hold the Mayo: A Reflection on Triggers

Years ago, I found myself in a crumpled heap on the floor in the hallway of my house, weeping as though all the wretchedness of the world lay at my feet in the form of a puddle of white latex paint. I scrubbed frantically and ineffectually as the paint soaked into the beige carpet, the nylon fibers greedily absorbing the goo. My kids waited nearby, helpless to console me, anxious to leave for school yet unable to coax me to my feet. Eventually, I gave up and left the ruined paint-soaked towel in a pink floral heap, taking my kids and myself to school; knowing that by the time I got home the paint would be a hardened shell about which I could do nothing. For years, I lived with that white paint stain on the floor in our hallway; our finances didn’t allow for replacing the carpet and it became mostly invisible. But never totally out of my mind.

The paint stain reminded me of a greasy mayonnaise stain in front of the refrigerator in my childhood home. Our kitchen was floored in hideous 1970s nylon kitchen carpet, a design trend that I find inexplicable. Who in their right mind conceived that raising a family would be better with carpet in the kitchen? At the tender age of nine, I dropped a full jar of mayonnaise while preparing a sandwich. It fell in slow motion to the floor, glass shattering into millions of shards while globs of the eggy, greasy condiment seeped into the gold and brown synthetic loops, the pungent smell filling the air in the tiny kitchen.

Photo-of-Printed-Kitchen-Carpet

My father was not happy with me, this day became one of the rare ones when his temper found a ready target in me. Of course, I know now that there was much, much more going on in his world than a food stain. And he knew it was an honest accident. But he was, nonetheless, angry. That stain never did go away. Even when we had the house listed for sale, prospective buyers noted the giant dark circle standing sentinel before the refrigerator. The stain reminded me of my own careless klutziness, it reminded me of disappointing my dad, and it reminded me that our family was too poor to have the stain cleaned or the carpet replaced.

On the day the white paint ruined my hall carpet, I was that little girl again.

My trauma had once again chased me into adulthood, sniffing and snapping at my heels like a rabid dog who just refused to let go. My childhood trauma did that a lot (so did my husband’s), and it had made my marriage an uphill climb. In a period of particular strife and struggle in our relationship, my husband and I each attended, separately, retreats with counselors whose mission it was to find sources of dysfunction and shine light on them, enabling their clients to return to their homes equipped with a clearer understanding of their own trauma and the tools with which embark on the perilous journey to wellness.

The foundational exercise that was the crux of the weekend, the one that every bit of healing was meant to be drawn from, was the creation of a “trauma egg,” a visual metaphor for the birth of our brokenness. The preparation for the work began the night before when we were required to enter into silence. We awakened in rooms devoid of the usual chatter heard in a house full of women, our breakfast was eaten in a hush as we began to turn inward.

Trauma-Egg-Dahlen-et-al-2008

And then backward. In the hours-long exercise, the staff coaxed memories and snippets of conversations long forgotten as we sketched our lives in Crayola markers, discovering the seeds, roots, and nuclei of all the hurt we carried with us. Dust motes floated in the autumn sunshine that spilled through the windows, glowing like fairy dust settling on the trembling shoulders of the women who cried in turns. Sniffles, gasps, sobs, and sighs filled my ears as the souls around me bared their anguish in shared privacy. Our therapists’ philosophy was that by acknowledging all of the pains of the past, by drawing them forth out of shadow and into light, our understanding of ourselves would increase and our forgiveness for our own shortcomings would be enabled. This work is where resilience begins.

The mayonnaise incident belonged in that egg. It was the real source of my heartbreak when a can of paint ruined the carpet in the house I had tried so hard to make beautiful for my family after the ratty, dirty, poverty of my own childhood. The filth and chaos of my childhood home are why my spirit now requires order and cleanliness. My family, who loves me, now understands that and they try to honor my need.

There are those who like to berate people for being “triggered,” who deride when someone responds to a current situation with all the hurt of a past one. What I know is that we must acknowledge those old hurts. I don’t mean we clutch them tightly and wear them on our sleeves, touching them like tender bruises over and over, inflicting our own pain and setting traps for others to hurt us, whether intentionally or not. But those hurts are part of who we are. All of us have them. Some of us have hurts where the trauma is genuinely significant.

For us to be truly resilient, we must bring those wounds out of the shadows, expose them to the light of truth, and cleanse them with love from our own selves and from those we trust to love us. Just as importantly, we must honor those wounds in others. Compassion for ourselves can only flourish in soil that is abundant with compassion for the hurts of others, even if they are wounds we don’t understand. I believe that healing is not a me-first-then-you proposition; it is a simultaneous process where my love and grace for others only serves to increase my love and grace for myself. Blessings upon us all.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the trauma egg and its role in healing from trauma, here’s an organization that does this work. If you’re suffering from childhood trauma, I urge you to reach out. You don’t have to walk alone.

The Murray Method, Trauma Eggs, and The 30 Task Model

 

 

 

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