Seeing Failure as an Opportunity

January is the month of goals. New Year, New You! Screw that.

There’s so much pressure to make big, sweeping changes. No wonder most resolutions only last 2 weeks. While not as sexy, what is more effective would be to start embracing failure.


It’s something most of us fear, dread, and are taught to avoid at all costs. We also mistakenly equate failing something with being a failure. The fear of it drives so much of our behavior (conscious or not) and, yet to grow, we have to be willing to risk it.

This is something my clients and I spend a lot of time discussing —wanting to recover AND the fear of making a mistake, not meeting their goal, having a setback, thinking they will disappoint me, disappointing themselves, etc.

This notion of failing hangs heavily over them.

The word is just so heavy. I can’t stand it, but the synonyms are just as catastrophic: fiasco, defeat, misfiring, foundering, dereliction. There’s such an intensity and gravitas to all of them. No wonder we fear the big, bad failure!

We don’t have to, though.

The Fear of Failure

The fear of failure comes from looking at it as a black-and-white situation. You’ve either won or lost, made it or not. Not only does this attitude negate the gray, but it also focuses exclusively on the outcome. The process gets lost.

The fact is life is rarely black and white, and when we try to control the outcome, it usually backfires.

Let’s step back for a second.

When you view a setback as a “failure,” you tend to focus on what went wrong and all the mistakes you may have made. I hear this all the time when a client reports they “failed ERP” because they “got so anxious and [fill in a ritual].” For them, failure can be defined by the recurrence of intense anxiety, the resumption of rituals, and/or getting stuck in thoughts.

By defining failure this way, however, they’ve overlooked all their wins.

They completely dismiss that they held off compulsions for a while, that they stopped the rituals sooner and that they were able to put uncertainty back into the situation. These are all signs of progress to be celebrated.

It’s too easy to get stuck in the loop of negative thinking and rumination that comes along with experiencing a setback or feeling like you’re not good enough when you don’t reach your goals.

Looking at Failure as Growth Opportunities

Instead of viewing failures as permanent roadblocks or character flaws, imagine looking at them as opportunities to get stronger. By changing your perspective on missteps and setbacks, you actually learn from those experiences while also staying true to who you are, no matter what life throws at you.

View them as just part of the growth process.

It gets easier with practice.

The 4-Step Process

Even the most challenging failures can offer valuable lessons about ourselves and our capabilities. We use these experiences to recognize what went wrong and then make adjustments. This takes practice. Being open to reframing failures as opportunities is the foundation of building the resilience that comes from a growth mindset.

Practice this 4-step process for reframing the notion of failure:

  1. Be gentle with yourself.
  2. Find the lesson.
  3. Tweak your process (if there’s something you can adjust).
  4. Stay consistent — there will be other chances to practice and succeed.

See the Opportunity in Failure

Sometimes it helps to practice this outside of the therapy room too. Physical fitness isn’t very different from mental fitness. Whenever we’re learning something new, going after something or out of our comfort zone, chances are we’re going to make mistakes, need to tweak what we’re doing, and try and try again.

I power lift, and I had a big goal that took me 19 months to reach. For months MONTHS! I couldn’t finish rep sets. The weight was just out of my reach.

My trainer told me this would happen; however, I didn’t really get it until I was in the thick of it.

I learned that having off days (and I had A LOT) did not mean I was off-track, failing, or never going to reach my goals. I also learned to trust the process — no matter how long it took — and to redefine what success looked like.

It’s the same for mental fitness training.

Turning Failure into Success

Failure is inevitable, we all experience it. Some are easier to move through than others. Sometimes it takes a lot of shifting, compassion, and practice to move from a win/loss mindset to an opportunity one. This is especially if the distress or discomfort is high, but it can be done.

It needs to be done if we’re to really succeed at meeting our goals.

I’m an Ohio-based, licensed therapist and anxiety specialist who helps people through similar challenges. Please reach out if you need someone to talk to. You can contact me here for more information about my services or schedule an appointment.