The following post is an excerpt from my new book, Get the Hell Past It: How to Recover from Failure with Grace, Dignity and Possibly Some Cash. If you enjoy this section, I strongly recommend you pick up the book and learn to face feeling creative failure like a boss!
If you live in the same dreamland as I, your fantasies are filled with the ability to face adversity with a gentle and sanguine Acceptance of What Is. No matter what happens – failure, rejection, fear, pain, DMV lines – you simply smile and shrug, waiting for the inevitable to wrap you in its not-so-sweet embrace and carry you off to wherever the hell it has in mind for you.
While you, meantime, fold your hands into prayer position and bow your head with a soft smile.
Namaste, Good Friend Adversity, you will say. We are all one in the great wheel of suckery we call life, and I love you as my sister.
Doesn’t that sound nice? Wouldn’t that be a cozy, Mother Teresa-ish way to live?
Yet you are NOT Mother Effing Teresa. You are you (I’m guessing), and “you” is a lot less serene than the Saint of Calcutta (I’m also guessing). Therefore, your responses to slights and miscarriages of justice and missed marks and last places is a bit less subtle.
Or at least, mine is. “Screw you and the horse you rode in on, Universe!” is one of my milder responses. I’ll spare you the ruder vitriol. Point being, we have a very hard time with Acceptance of What Is, especially when it comes to feeling creative failure.
The problem with failing to accept your failure is that it doubles or triples the negativity of the situation. How many times has this happened to you:
You fail at something. You dwell on feeling creative failure. You feel sad, angry and despondent. Then, like a magical cocktail of compounded feelings from hell, you start feeling sad, angry and despondent about the fact that you feel sad, angry and despondent.
If I were a mature, successful adult, you tell yourself critically, I wouldn’t feel this way. I would pick up gamely and move on! What’s wrong with me??
There’s certainly something wrong with society, though. In our self-helpful, positivity-obsessed, participation-trophy-giving society, we’ve been programmed to believe that when we feel bad, we’re doing something wrong. Not only have you failed, but you’ve failed to feel good about how great and lucky you are to have failed.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some hidden gems of feeling creative failure. They’re there.
We have expressions such as “hidden gem” and “silver lining” for a reason. Inherent in those pretty-sounding phrases is the fact that there’s a much, much bigger pile of crap lurking just beyond them.
Well, newsflash: You don’t have to love that pile of crap.
It does not feel good to say goodbye to your entrepreneurial dreams and take a 9-to-5 instead. It’s not fun to set aside a fun new solo venture because it’s not making money. It is extremely, super-duper lame to spend hours and days and weeks and months on a novel manuscript or new blog, only to watch it sizzle and steam like the world’s most silver-lining-less pile of dog poo.
Super. Duper. Lame.
So what’s a hopeful lord or lady to do?
Well, my fair friend, much of coping with feeling creative failure comes down to your ability to accept that it simply is. It’s there, and when it happens, the feelings aren’t going anywhere for a while. Your choice is to fight the feelings and feel even worse, or to learn to accept.
Let’s agree the latter sounds a bit better. Here’s how to get started.
Unless you’ve been living in Hobbiton your whole life, you’ve heard this concept. Most people even know that the five stages include:
Note that acceptance comes at the end of all those other crummy steps. (Incidentally, the first four steps don’t have to happen in order. We often ping-pong back and forth between them until we finally settle into acceptance, and even that may not become permanent right away.)
Don’t be misled: Feeling creative failure is absolutely a cause of grief. Almost anything to which you attached your hopes for months or years (or sometimes even weeks) won’t go away easily. Is it as bad as losing a parent, a significant other, a child, a close friend, a wage-earning job on which you depended? Absolutely not, and anyone who tells you otherwise either has not experienced a great loss or is insane. Or both.
Nevertheless, what you feel when you fail – other than the embarrassment, shame and what’s-the-point-ness that we’ve already discussed – is grief. Like any other type of grief, you’ll have to work to feel those feelings while you work your way through it to get to acceptance.
The trouble is, too often we get stuck in our heads. We cannot see the failure for the trees. (Is that metaphor working? I can’t tell.) The feelings become all-encompassing, and our ability to move on hits the skids.
No no no no no.
Instead, you need to do the hard thing and look that failure right in the face. Often, if you ask yourself, “What is the worst thing about this?” you will realize that the “worst thing” is not really that bad. Yes, it sucks to tell people you didn’t accomplish something, but how bad does it suck really? Are you clothed? Are you fed? Are you healthy? Are your loved ones well, or relatively well? In this moment, are your needs met? Mmmkay. You’ll be fine.
I remember my midwives telling me this when I was pregnant with my first child. They had me hold a piece of ice in my hand (which is shockingly uncomfortable after about 30 seconds) and focus on the pain. Instead of trying to escape, they wanted me to really, really focus on the thing that sucked. Weirdly, when I did, the pain lessened. It’s like my body was able to stop screaming for a second and say to itself, “Huh. That’s just ice. I don’t like it, but my hand seems fine. I seem fine.”
It helped a lot, and this same trick applies to your mental state following fails, both epic and minor. Focusing on those nasty feelings will open your eyes to how minor they may actually be.
So that’s one tool: just asking yourself how much this really matters, and answering honestly.
But that’s far from your only recourse.
Now, these depend on you. Perhaps you love running, cooking or visiting your parents. Maybe you love romance novels, Netflix reruns or the Great Courses.
Personally, I love podcasts about the Dark Ages and space, making gluten-free muffins and listening to Christmas music. Yes, all year round. Not all the time, you understand, but pretty much every time I’m low, I’ll throw on Ol’ Bing and I’m not ashamed of it.
Truth is, I’m not a psychologist. (If I were a psychologist, I could charge a lot more for this advice, amiright??) At the end of the day, I can’t do anything to help you find acceptance that you can’t do on your own.
But I can point you in the right direction, which, to recap, is to:
Stop denying what happened and feel those feelings. Think, journal, talk with someone else; whatever you do, recognize them and give them some space out in the world.
Ask yourself what the worst thing about this situation really is, and marvel at how not-really-that-bad it is.
Use your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual tools to deal with the feelings until they resolve.
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