Yep, I said this word out loud in my class the other day. The group of humans standing in front of me appeared a bit confused. Some even uncomfortable. For a moment it felt like the room got really small and quiet. My body stiffened, breath quickened and heart started to race. Within a millisecond my mind had labelled this class as a failure (even before it began) and my body responded like it was under threat.
And rightly so. I mean who wants to think or talk about failure (especially so early on a Sunday morning)? The word is often attached to something negative. Lack of success. Lack of accomplishment. Lack of goal attainment.
I failed as a teacher.
I failed to lose weight.
I failed to get an A.
I failed to get up and go to the gym this morning.
I failed to be a good friend, partner, mom, [INSERT THAT FAILURE HERE].
And that ‘I failed’ statement often takes on a more overarching theme for how we might view ourselves as a whole. There have been points in my life where I, Jenn, felt like a great big failure. Was I though? Well, that’s something I continue to unpack with my therapist :).
Most of us have a felt sense for what failure means in our body, and speaking from my own body, it ain’t a pretty sensation. Initially, it feels really hard to keep my breathing calm. My shoulders and neck get super tense and I clench my jaw. I also notice that my gaze gets really focused yet my attention starts to broaden. To give you the graphic representation, it feels like I want to gag (kinda like I’m preparing to cough up my diaphragm like a hairball), get the hell out of my burning skin and run for the hills.
Seriously though, I’ve failed A LOT, more times than I’d like to admit. And I’m not talking about small failures either. I’m talking about the kind of failures that have destabilized me. Shook me to the core and completely altered the landscape of my relationships, finances, mental and physical wellbeing.
And, if you’re anything like me (human), then you’ve also most likely failed, a lot too. I can’t say that I particularly love failing, but I’ve learned through its life-altering lessons that it’s made me into a better person (and continues to) even four decades in :).
Failure is life’s great teacher, and maybe offers more than the successful outcome. Think of all the value in learning and information gained from those experiences. Failure, as much as it hurts, is an important part of life. In fact, I kinda think failure is necessary. Without failure, we’d be less capable of compassion, empathy, kindness, and great achievement; we would be less likely to dream big and reach for the stars. And how about the joy that comes from accomplishment, overcoming the odds, succeeding?
So why don’t we all want to jump up and voluntarily fail at something? Social pressures for one. I think many of us can relate to hearing “I told you so,” and, “you should have listened to me.” when failure is on the table. (I say f-uck these people.) We excessively punish those who fail.
How about growing up? Were you ever taught to fail? Did you have parents that shielded you from experiencing failure? Did you feel like you could share failures with others? Maybe you relate to the shame that often comes with failure. Who wants to share that? Side thought here: I happen to believe that sharing failures with others can make us stronger and more resilient. Definitely not weaker.
On a neurological level, our nervous system has evolved to keep us safe. This is what really fascinates me as for how it interplays when I teach and shows up with students. Failing isn’t safe. Our ancestors knew this very well as failure to avoid the lion in the bush may have meant death. If not a harmful outcome, a shit tonne of anxiety and hypervigilance was experienced to remain successful at staying alive. Fast forward to the modern day. When we exercise, our body throws up lots of stress signals (whether we hear them or not) when we go into positions or ranges, or pick up more weight, that might cause injury to the tissues. Our inner critic might talk us out of doing something if even just the slightest whiff of failure is in the air. Our autonomic response might be to avoid, run away or give up when faced with failure. Some of us might get frustrated, overwhelmed and even numb out when we get too close to it. How ever we may confront failure its likely not from a connected, balanced and regulated state. So what to do about this? I think that like everything that we practice we can become more self-aware and comfortable with the task. Failure is no different.
So back to the F-bomb. I think we need to practice failing more. Bringing in as much curiousity, compassion and enthusiasm that we can muster - for ourselves and each other. I like to share the idea of playing in the failure sandbox at the start of a class. This helps to disarm some of the attitudes folks might have about failing. I’ve seen this shift first hand with my students and its remarkable.
We’ll begin with a fairly simple task like bouncing a tennis ball on the floor between hands. Once everyone looks to have the hang of it I ask them to lift their gaze to the horizon and even close their eyes. As it is our tendency to avoid failure the sounds of the bouncing balls becomes less at this point as folks begin to work out their strategies at not failing in their head. You can feel the tension increase in the room as the wheels spin. I see some folks closing just one eye. Others keeping the smallest slit between the lids so they can still see what’s happening. While others lifting their chins just enough, gazing intensely down their cheeks, to maintain a site line with the ball. Some will stop bouncing the ball altogether looking around the room a bit flustered, maybe confused. (Sometimes glaring at me with that WTF stare.)
No matter how they engage with the task, inevitably at some point, a ball goes flying across the room. And then another...and another. As you might imagine the situation turns into a bit of a hot mess with tennis balls flying in all directions. It is at this point that I remind everyone that we’re all in the failure sandbox together. And the shift begins. Students start to test their edges. Close their eyes a little tighter (both of them!) or lift their gaze for a little longer. They lose their ball and return to the task quickly and excitedly. That frown muscle softens. Giggles and laughter are more present. Frustration and judgement morph into empathy and curiousity. This short warm-up becomes the foundation for the rest of the class allowing us to explore bigger failures in our body like coordination, balance, getting up and off the ground, strength, mobility, etc. etc. etc.
I’m not suggesting that all people will respond to this type of training in the same way this group does. But it is a good way to prime them (and you too!) for the experience of pushing their own boundaries in the face of failure.
And here’s the bonus. Get a bunch of us humans in that sandbox together and now we’re connecting to the social functioning of our nervous system. I think this co-regulation with others allows us to engage with the experience of failure in a different way. We’re more receptive to it, inspired by it and can even laugh at it. I wonder if failing together in the pack just makes it all the more fun?
When I step into my own sandbox and open to vulnerability this has helped me connect with other humans in a deeper and more meaningful way. I’m better able to embrace life lessons I wouldn’t have learned previously. I even feel some joy in what typically might have sucked hard and felt painful emotionally. It still surprises me (and deeply warms my heart) to observe this with my students. The more we practice at failing in movement the more enthusiastic we get and a deeper connection to our own resilience is achieved. It’s no longer just about a moment of shame or embarrassment or frustration.
Looking at this through a wider lens I think that failing in our movement practice helps to build resilience in many other aspects of life. The more we fail, the more resilient we become, and the more we can let go of that shame and embarrassment. And maybe, just maybe, connect to a little bit of joy too. Win-win.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
- Winston Churchill
Looking forward to embracing my next failure with enthusiasm Winston.