Turning Failure into Success

Everyone fails sometime. How to turn your failures into successes.

Posted May 21, 2010

The top of my head was on the mat and my hips were over my shoulders. I figured that was probably good enough, since I was still worried about what would happen if I actually did manage to get my feet in the air. Suddenly there was a loud thud on my left. The yoga teacher calmly asked if my neighbor, now lying flat on his back, was okay. He answered that only his pride was hurt, and when we had all stopped chuckling, she said, "Falling out of a headstand is not a cause for shame. There are no failures in yoga. Everything is a learning experience. At least you tried. And you learned something. You may not know yet what, but eventually you will see what it was."

Like so many comments made by yoga teachers, these seemed to be perfectly in tune with the process of psychotherapy. Over the next days, as I listened to clients struggling with feelings of shame, humiliation, depression, and inadequacy, I found myself thinking not only about their suffering, but also about what they might be learning. I don't mean this in a sickly sweet or obtusely optimistic way, but simply that there is a reality to the idea that we learn not only from our mistakes, but also from our failures.

Let me give you a painful example from my own experience. Many years ago I worked with Lara*, a young athlete struggling with an eating disorder. Lara's symptoms were serious, and I was impressed with the efforts she made to face and overcome them. Yet each time I made a supportive comment, she responded by withdrawing. I asked her if she could explain what bothered her about what I was saying.
"I feel like you're putting me down," she said. I tried to explain that actually it was the reverse, that I was trying to let her know how much I admired what she was doing. "You're doing it again," she said. Somehow I didn't get it. Instead of recognizing that Lara needed me to cease and desist, whether or not she was misreading my intentions, I kept trying to explain myself to her. In retrospect, I understand that we were in what is technically called a "therapeutic impasse," in which therapist and client are stuck in a painful set of interactions that may reflect unrecognized dynamics in both of their personalities. Lara gave me several chances, but eventually she left me a message saying that she could not keep working with me and that she had found another therapist.

I felt terrible in many different ways. First, I had failed Lara. I had become a therapist to help other people, and here I was not only not helping, but actually causing more pain. I was relieved to know that she had found another therapist, although ashamed and distressed that I had fallen so far short of being the therapist I wanted to be. I worried that I was really not cut out to do this work. How could anyone who was committed to making people feel better have been so thick?

In a wonderful article in Wired Magazine Jonah Lehrer describes how our brains are programmed to screw up! Citing numerous examples, Lehrer reminds us that scientific progress is frequently the result of failed experiments. (for some other examples, see also io9.com) We learn from failures, he says, quoting Bob Dylan's famous line "there's no success like failure." I wish I had known this in the days after Lara left therapy.

Fortunately I had an excellent supervisor who said something very similar to what my yoga teacher told my class about headstands. "Use this as a learning experience," this older clinician said to me. "Try to understand what might have been going on for Lara and see if you can explain to yourself why she did not want your admiration."

Kevin Dunbar, the researcher Lehrer describes in Wired, studies how scientists fail and succeed. He found that "It's not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake."As I spoke my thoughts out loud to my supervisor, who asked many difficult questions, I started to see one of the hidden problems in my relationship with Lara was that I was only a little older than she was. By all rights, we should have been peers. Since she felt that she was supposed to know everything already, my encouragement must have seemed false - more like I was showing off or lording it over her than genuinely admiring. Further, as my supervisor and I discussed these ideas, I realized that there were links between what happened with us and things Lara had described in her social and personal life. How I wished she had stayed in therapy with me to examine these connections.

Yet although these insights could not help Lara, I believe that they made me a better, more empathic therapist, which I think has helped other clients. I had found out that it was not necessary for me to have all the answers, but I did need to listen to and accept what clients said that they need. I also learned humility. I was, I had discovered, just learning. I am still learning today.

In the end, I was able to use my insight to at least undo a little of the pain my blunder might have caused Lara. I left a message asking her to call me back, if she would not mind. It took awhile, but eventually she did, and I said that I wanted to ask her two things, but that I would like to ask both questions before she answered. In fact, I told her, it might even be a good idea for her to take some time to think about her answers, and either call me or send me a note (this was long before email existed) when she felt comfortable doing so. First, I said, I would like to know how she was doing, if she felt comfortable telling me. And second, I asked, would she accept my apology for not having listened to what she had been trying to tell me about what she needed?

There was a long silence, and then Lara said she would think about my questions and let me know. About a month later I received a note from her thanking me for my call. "I don't know if you understand what you did," she wrote, "but your willingness to think about it and to call me and apologize. Well, it means a great deal to me. And yes, I certainly accept your apology." She added that she was doing well and thought her new therapist was getting to the heart of some important things with her.

Like scientists and yogis, we all can learn from our failures. The trick is to allow ourselves to make mistakes without feeling humiliated or defensive. Perhaps part of that comes from being able to separate failing at something from being a failure. Part of it comes from recognizing that all of life is a learning process. And part of it comes from talking things over with other people who can ask us questions that get us thinking from other perspectives. Shifting the prism. That's what happened in almost all of the situations where scientists turned failures into successes. It's what happens in therapy. And it can happen in your life as well.

*Not her real name. All identifying information has been changed to protect clients' privacy.