No one likes to make mistakes. Failures disappoint the most optimistic of us. But some people can let the disappointment turn into shame. As psychologist, author, and Wharton professor Adam Grant has said, we often let “This is awful” turn into “I’m awful.”
If this sounds familiar, you may be wondering what it is that shifts the focus from outcome to self. You may want to know what turns the primary emotion of sadness into the secondary emotion of shame. What if I told you that you needn’t worry about all the factors, and would be much wiser to focus simply on the voice in your head?
This voice exists for all of us. For some, it sticks to the facts when things go wrong, takes into account what went well, and gets to the important business of what needs to be done next. But for many of us, it pounces on us the minute we fail to live up to its standards, and gets particularly nasty just when we need a kind and accepting presence to turn to.
The origins of the voice go back to our early experiences, some so deeply embedded within us that we’ve forgotten all about them. But they live on through the way we relate to ourselves in certain situations. We shake our heads and cross-question ourselves like an attorney. We attack ourselves with “shoulds” or shower ourselves with unsolicited advice. We scare ourselves with (often imaginary) impending rejection and turn to self-destructive behaviors to numb the pain.
Here’s the thing—no amount of logical or well-meaning advice will make you feel better when your emotional world is in turmoil. What you need is a loving voice that kneels down to the little you that’s hurting, and gives it the love it likely didn’t get when it faltered or failed.
Only then can you see yourself and the world in its full perspective—the good, the bad, and everything in between—and grow through the failure rather than hide away because of it.
Step 1: Talk Emotion to Emotion
So how do we talk to the little child inside of us who’s feeling unworthy of love? Professor Paul Gilbert at The Compassionate Mind Foundation has a beautiful exercise called the “Compassionate Image,” where you build an image in your mind of someone who is free of judgment and full of love. It could be someone you know, a person you’ve read about, or an imaginary character. Some people even envision their pet or a spiritual presence. Then practice talking to yourself in the voice of this image, especially when you’re suffering.
Step 2: Talk Reason to Emotion
When you relate to yourself with kindness and non-judgment, your emotional pathways calm down and you open the doors of reason. However, you may still need some help in seeing the situation in its full perspective. The “3 Ps” exercise of optimism, created by professor Martin Seligman, is an excellent way of doing so. The first P, of “Personal,” lets you see that you’re not the only one responsible for the outcome, and that other (perhaps uncontrollable) factors may have been at play too. The second P, of “Permanent,” can motivate you to work toward a better outcome because it reminds you that mistakes are always reparable. And the last P, of “Pervasive,” can ground you in the comforting fact that many areas of your life will stay unaffected.
Step 3: Talk Reason to Reason
Now that your thinking pathways are fully on board, you can take the final step of planning the action you need to take. Think about what went well—because it’s highly unlikely that nothing did. How will you do more of that? What didn’t go as well? What will you do differently next time? This puts you in what Carol Dweck at Stanford University calls a “Growth Mindset” and helps you learn from mistakes, build your resilience, and grow into a better version of yourself every single time.
Remember that you have many voices inside of you. The inner critic may help in certain situations, like when you just can’t get off Instagram and get down to important work. But for the most part, relating to yourself with kindness, understanding, and respect is the way to recognize your brilliance and let it shine.
And when you fail—because you will at some point in life’s journey—this process helps you turn the disappointment into an upward spiral of growth, rather than a downward spiral of shame.