Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. But don’t let setbacks shake your self-belief; learn from them and you’ll pave the way to bigger and better things. Here’s how…
From kicking off your new year resolutions and starting that gym regimen (and really doing it this time, not like last year) to vowing to go after that promotion and get to bed an hour earlier every night, no one sets out to fail at reaching their goals. According to Sue Cowan-Jenssen, a registered psychotherapist who has specialist training in trauma, not achieving self-imposed goals might make you feel less competent, attractive or intelligent – and, not surprisingly, this could affect your self-belief and confidence. However, facing up to past defeat could be the key to future success.
“We have an idea drummed into us from an early age that we should feel ashamed of things we haven’t succeeded in, but the truth is, we’re all going to fail at something,” says Sue. “Without failure, we can’t fully understand what it is we need to succeed. So ultimately, it’s not failure that matters, but what you can learn [from it], and how you respond to it.”
In fact, examining how you responded to failure in the past, can be the key to success in the future. But rather than asking yourself, “Why me?”, which might not lead you to meaningful answers, ask: “What can I do to deal with this and move on?”
When you next find yourself being hampered by thoughts of past slip-ups, try to view them as an opportunity to move onto greater things. Because sometimes it only takes the tiniest change in mindset to reap the most rewarding results. Here’s how…
1. Stop the blame game
“Many of us have a fantasy notion of control of situations when in reality, we often have very little. In some situations, we have none at all,” says Sue. “In the face of vulnerability, self-compassion can go out of the window and self-blame comes rushing in. We tend to think that if something goes right, we’re good, and if it doesn’t, we’re bad, but this is simply allowing failure to trick your brain into believing things that aren’t true.”
Gain some perspective by examining what meaning you’re giving to your failure – ask yourself is it really as bad at it seems? “And don’t blend yourself with your failures, says Sue. “Okay, so your new work project didn’t do well, but you are not a job, you are you. Remembering this will help prevent setbacks shaking your sense of self.”
2. Embrace the good
Things are rarely black and white – renovating your home yourself when you work long hours was always going to be tricky, and a niggling knee injury was never going to make that big cycling challenge easy. “Don’t assume that if something isn’t 100% successful, it’s a total failure,” says Sue. No doubt, you’ll have learned valuable lessons and there will have been smaller victories along the way – whether that’s discovering new skills or making new cycling friends to train with.
Ultimately, these are successes you can build on, so try reframing the way you look at these so-called failures. “Also remind yourself you had the guts to try something – you made a goal that you didn’t have to, you took a risk that you didn’t need to, and you’re now braver, stronger and more informed for it,” says Sue.
3. Don’t fear the unknown
According to Sue, “When we fail at something, we often see it as bad news, when our motto should be, ‘Good news, bad news… who knows?’
“Life is uncertain. Your career goals might have gone awry, but something with a better work/life balance might be around the corner. A lifelong friendship could have fizzled out but someone more suited to your life now could come along. You never know.” If this resonates with you, try recalling past failures that have led to better outcomes – doing so could help you keep a positive mindset.
4. Check the facts
A previous failure could distort your perception of a new goal and make you think it’s less attainable when this might not be the case, says Sue. Past failures could also distort your perception of your abilities to the point where you feel less up to a task. Again, this is a perception, not reality. In other words, says Sue, don’t let skewed thoughts stand in the way of success further down the line. “Thinking about what you need to succeed and talking over your approach with someone can help,” says Sue.
5. Aim for bite-sized wins
Did you really fail your new year resolution or did it fail you? “One of the reasons many of us struggle with [achieving] our goals is because we aim too high,” says Sue. “Setting goals that are easy to succeed at from day one and then scaling up to more difficult resolutions as time goes on can help. Change is often most likely to happen when we make achievable goals which we increase over time.”
The reason this approach is so effective? “The more you start to accumulate success, the more you start to see yourself differently, which will spur you onto bigger things,” says Sue. So break any target down into mini goals, to keep yourself motivated.
Our Performance Champions share their experience of turning failures to success…
Lizzie Simmonds – “We all have ownership of how we want to interpret events “
After finishing fourth in a final at the London 2012 Olympics, the former European champion struggled with the concept of failure.
“When I qualified for the 200m backstroke final at the London 2012 Olympics, I wasn’t ranked or expected to bring home a medal. Yet when I touched the wall at the end of the race and saw that I’d finished fourth, I didn’t think, “Oh, that’s great.” Instead, I just felt that I’d let myself down.
That combination of disappointment and shame meant it took a couple of years for me to come to terms with the result. I eventually realised that it was me who was choosing to see the result in a negative light; it was me choosing to see it as failure when absolutely no one else was.
It ended up being one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life – that we all have choices in the world and that we all have ownership of how we interpret events. We can squirm, sulk and make excuses for ourselves when we fail, or we can choose to take positives from it.
Adopting this mindset gives you a huge amount of power. You can’t control everything in your life, but you can control your reactions. Failure often comes as a result of pushing yourself so take away the fear, worry and anxiety of failure and embrace the achievement of challenging yourself to the limit.“
Emma Wiggs MBE – “Don’t let your job define you“
The reigning Paralympic champion, world record holder and six-time world champion was used to unbroken success, but a training accident caused her to question her identity.
“I was in the middle of my best-ever year, unbeaten and holding the world record, when I had an accident in the gym, dislocating a bone and rupturing ligaments in my wrist. I was just 10 days away from competing in the 2018 Paracanoe World Championships and, for the first time in my life, I needed help getting in and out of my chair [at 18, Emma contracted a virus, which led to permanent impairment of her lower limbs] because I had just one fully working limb.
It was then I realised that sport had become my identity, my job. If you become defined by your job, it can be so dangerous. That’s because when you encounter failure in your work or your job, then your whole identity is under threat.
I had lots of setbacks in my recovery and it was taking too long. But then I went about reframing it – it wasn’t ‘failure’ if I was doing everything that I could to change it. Once I accepted that, I realised I should also be happy with that.
My experience taught me to embrace my vulnerabilities – if you’re having a bad day today, think about what you can do tomorrow. After my setback, I then went on to win Gold and Silver at the 2019 Paracanoe World Championships.”
Alex Gregory MBE – “Step back to give yourself a different perspective”
The two-time Olympic champion in the men’s four was once was on the verge of giving up the sport altogether…
“I fell into rowing by chance, but became good at it. However, I had all sort of problems – what I called significant ‘disasters’ – that occurred every year for eight years.
I capsized during a selection race for the Junior World Championships. The following year, when I did get selected, I blacked out in the final. Then, ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, I suffered a stress fracture and blamed myself when my team didn’t qualify, convinced that I wasn’t tough enough and that I didn’t belong.
It felt time to give up. But Jürgen Gröbler, the Head Coach of the GB Rowing Team, believed in me and, despite not qualifying in my event, selected me as a reserve. It was when sitting on the sidelines in Beijing, that I realised what it was all about.
We are all under pressure, whether it’s in relation to family or work, and that can get too much. By taking yourself out of a pressure situation – a five-minute walk away from your desk or going camping for the weekend – you gain a completely different perspective. For me, I realised that I did belong, and four years later was stood with my teammates on the podium at the 2012 London Olympics, receiving a gold medal.”
Words: Nicola Down