We all fail, but are we failures?

Illustrations by zanda

Personally, I’ve been terrified of failure all my life. Afraid of showing my weaknesses in front of others and being judged. This fear of failure has stopped me from pursuing some of my dreams.

For instance, I wanted to be in the dance squad of my school, but I told everyone that was “not my thing” so I didn’t practice or put my name on the audition list. At the last minute, I decided to give it a shot. I was doing pretty good until…. I decided to do a silly dance and completely sabotaged myself. I simply couldn’t bear the idea that I would give it my all and still could be rejected. Somehow I found comfort (in a very twisted way) knowing that I could have gotten the part if I would have taken the audition seriously. Move forward to a couple of years ago when I finally decided, “That’s enough! I am going to take risks, I am going to see what I am made of.” Since then, I’ve done things that are scary: sharing vulnerable posts on social media, freelancing and not talking a full-time job, moving to a new city, launching Dinner Confidential and much more. This new desire to embrace risks has opened up so many possibilities into my life… but I wonder if sometimes I still play it safe.

Sharing our journey with “failure” is a very vulnerable thing. This month we hosted Dinner Confidential in New York, Miami, Toronto and Tokyo and of all our dinners so far, the topic of failure seems to be one of the most polarizing. The idea of what “failure” means varies so deeply from woman to woman and culture to culture.

There are three key ways in which women view failure:

  1. Failure is a real, all-consuming feeling. Some women experience a sense of “continuous failure”, which feels paralyzing — they view their life as a failure because they haven’t been able to achieve the vision they had for themselves.
    They push the feeling down, but tend to be trapped in a mental “loop” — I’m not not good enough etc.
  2. Failure is an illusion, it doesn’t exist. Some women don’t even believe in the idea of failure, they view every experience as a learning opportunity. Some of those women were encouraged by their parents from an early age to take risks, to step up and pursue their big dreams.
    → While not meeting their expectations can be really painful, they tend to face failure head-on (instead not pushing it down)
    → For them, failure = growth.
  3. Failure is a distant, yet scary concept. These are women who simply avoid failure at ALL all costs. They pass opportunities and challenges for fear of not winning, for fear of disappointing themselves and others.
    → They tend to choose safety over risk-taking, often pursuing goals they know they would be good at.

Key Takeaways

I fail vs I am a failure
Some women view failure as a moment in time, an experience that didn’t go according to plan. They understand that failure is a “rite of passage” — a growing pain they need to go through in order to develop and succeed, so ultimately they are grateful for it. And for many, this is what they are told by parents and culture, and WANT to believe.

→ In the “I Fail” perspective, women can identify the problem and do something to repair it. Overcoming and learning from failure is one of the most empowering sensations

→ This is often considered a “healthy” relationship with failure and an aspirational goal for many women

Other women view failure as a feeling or a state of being, a sense of “constantly” letting themselves or others down (whether in reality or not). For example, receiving constructive feedback, etc. can create a crippling “mental loop” i.e.: others are better than me, etc. that stops us in our tracks from moving forward. The most palpable failure comes in the form of failing in our societally-constructed fundamental roles as women…not able to create a new life, sustain a life of happiness for our children or be a sexual being designed to give and feel pleasure with our partners.

→ In the “I AM a failure” perspective, women experience a debilitating disempowering emotion, which is harder to overcome

→ This is an “unhealthy” relationship with failure, it can generate “victimhood” behavior

Interpersonal Failure
In society, our story around mental health is that if you are “not coping,” you are failing. Even when we feel like others have failed us (parents, partners, friends, etc), we still feel we have failed ourselves by not being able to deal with how they have failed us — or for not having anticipated the fall. For instance, an unexpected breakup or being laid off, leaves many of us wondering: am I really that bad / unlovable / unwanted?

Equally, not being able to be our full selves for fear of letting others down (i.e.: studying medicine to make dad proud, or saying “yes” to something we really don’t want to do to please a partner) means letting go of our “moral compass” and failing our true selves.

Failing is easy, recognizing or reframing is hard
We all make mistakes: we choose the wrong partner, we accept the wrong job etc. Realizing that we made the wrong decision can be painful, but easy to view. However, acknowledging our error with our families and communities can be devastating and for some women, paralyzing. Perhaps it all comes down to reframing the experience and rearranging what we value, moving emotional states like Self Love and Courage to the top and pushing down the desire for Acceptance, Recognition, and Respect.

The more money we get, the higher the pressure to perform
Many women tend to undervalue their worth (there are plenty of stats showcasing how women negotiate less/get paid less than men/illustrate the wage gap). So, when a woman is getting paid a lot of money (in other words, she is getting paid what is right) there’s an extra pressure to over deliver, to prove others she is “worth it” — failing in high paid jobs can be very stressful. Some women charge less, self-sabotage or do not throw their hat in the ring for tasks/promotions to feel less pressure. So, how would we approach work if we believed in our own worth from the start?

Some cultural nuances to consider….

In Japan, Failure is not an option
The Japanese culture is highly patriarchal, and women are expected to follow societal rules and portray a “perfect” life (this is fueled by media, culture and family dynamics). So these women feel a strong pressure to constantly deliver their best at home and at work. The idea of being vulnerable is still a scary concept in this culture.

Postscript

At the end of the night one woman came to me and said: it feels so good to share these stories with other women. I tend to “judge” women by their looks, sometimes thinking they are my competition or viewing them as “better than me.” But when we are able to see each others’ wounds we can come together as a community. We can love and support one another. We are no longer competition, we are allies.

Experiment:

  • The next time you experience something you view as a failure, ask yourself, what’s the big picture? If “failure” is just one point, how does the full picture look like from the distance?
  • Reflect on your relationship with failure so far. CHOOSE how you want that relationship to be moving forward. What perspective can help you lead the life you want?

Written by Veronica Marquez in collaboration with Sybil Ottenstein in NYC, Dee de Lara in Toronto and Naoko Okada in Tokyo.

Illustrations by zanda

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