Learning from Failure:
The Importance of Wallowing

learning from failure

It’s trendy these days to talk about the value of failure. We all want to fall on our faces, pick ourselves back up again, learn a lesson or two, and start climbing the mountain towards success even stronger than before. “Failure,” we say, “come at me. I’ll blend you to a pulp like my non-GMO, organic, ethically harvested, kissed by angels, artisanal almond butter.”

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While I’m a big supporter of the idea that failure plays an integral role in our abilities to rise above adversity and develop the grit and determination to be successful, I believe we’re often too quick to pick ourselves back up and get back in the game. Instead of coming at failure with the force of a Roman God, we really should be saying, “failure, you’ve hurt me. In time, I’ll overcome you and dominate my goals, but, please give me a few days to wallow and throw a temper tantrum first.”

No matter how strongly we rebound after a failure, the immediate aftermath can be devastating. Depending on the magnitude of the failure, we may need to come to terms with a new life path, a change in circumstances, a reset of our mindsets, or an acceptance of defeat. It’s like the compass of our lives has been thrown in a tornado and we need a few moments to let the needle settle down and find North.

As a fan of Gilmore Girls, there’s an episode I return to often. Having just suffered a breakup, Rory is determined to continue on with her life as normal. Not wasting even a day to mourn the loss of her relationship, Rory turns her ambition on overdrive and attempts to tackle her to-do list as she believes a strong, overachiever such as herself should. Soon though, Rory hits an emotional wall and is forced to take Lorelai’s advice to find time to wallow in the sadness she’s been ignoring. In the wake of the failure of her relationship, ice cream and bad movies soon prove more restorative than checklists and productivity.

Like Rory, I’m not good at wallowing. Facing a failure, I’ve been known to take quick, brash action towards my next goal. What usually results is a series of decisions based on impulsivity, bitterness, and pride. Instead of being driven by an intrinsic sense of purpose and intuition, I find myself reacting to my circumstances in a way that only values the potential quick-fix success of my next move. While I may try to label this behavior as gritty and determined, it’s really just foolhardiness and a desperate attempt to save my ego.

But, what does this have to do with wallowing? Won’t wallowing just add sadness and apathy to this already unpleasant mix of emotions? Yes, it will. Wallowing immerses you in the despair of your failure like a puppy leaping into a lake to fetch his favorite tennis ball on a warm summer day. It’s just as encompassing, but also just as rejuvenating.

When you let yourself wallow and fully feel the emotions of your failure, you also give yourself time to process them and come to a sensible understanding of them. Giving yourself time to process does a great deal to deflate the sadness, rage, despair, embarrassment, or other extreme emotions you feel directly after a failure. Once you’ve eliminated the acute emotionality from your failure, you have a better chance of moving on in a rational and logical fashion.

I don’t care why you’re wallowing; maybe you lost the promotion at work, had a relationship come to an end, or burned Thanksgiving dinner. You have your own experiences, your own standards, and your own definitions of failure. We’ve somehow come to the idea that emotions come with a rule book. We rationalize our way out of hurt, sadness, or anger by telling ourselves that it’s no big deal; that no one else would care nearly as much; that we’re being silly and just need to move up and on. Such a mentality is not only deceitful to our authentic selves, it’s also counterproductive to our abilities to be successful in the future.

If you never let yourself crumble, how will you learn to build a better foundation? If you continue to deny your needs, how will you ever learn to take care of yourself? If you never face the emotions of your failures, how will you ever understand how to deal with them? How will you learn?

As many will agree, failure is about learning. Suffering a loss can be one of the most valuable educational resources life can hand us. Yet, we don’t start the learning process as we are preparing to climb the mountain to success again. No, the learning begins the minute we feel that pang in our guts telling us that something has gone horribly wrong. We start the learning process in the swamps of our despair.

As we sit with our emotions, they soon become less charged. It’s similar to watching a horror movie over and over again; each time the clown jumps out from behind the door, you jump less and less. Soon, you’re noticing the asymmetry in the clown’s makeup; you’re appreciating the slight delay in the sound effects; you’re smirking when the clown’s nose goes slightly askew. Instead of being scary, the scene becomes an objective puzzle whose pieces are slowly becoming more clear.

When you fully embrace your failure and let yourself feel it to its fullest, it begins to lose its bite. As the energy of your emotions die down, logic and rationality are naturally infused into your thinking process. While we may believe we can’t ever recover from our biggest failures, history tells us otherwise. Most of us can name an experience, either of our own or of another, that seemed insurmountable, but was tackled eventually. Emotions linger, but intensity fades. Give them time; let yourself wallow in them.

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After a good, healthy period of wallowing, take note of how your perspective on the situation has changed. Are you no longer itching to throw eggs at your boss’s car? Did you hit delete on that nasty email you had drafted to your friend? Are you now rethinking your impulse to pack up your belongings and move across the country? The answers to these questions aren’t important. The point is that wallowing allows you to come to these answers with clarity, thoughtfulness, and rationality. Wallowing allows you to learn about the substance and source of your emotions so that you can move forward as a more competent decision maker in the future.

I can’t convince you that wallowing is enjoyable. While an excuse to eat a pint of ice cream may be inviting, sitting in your unpleasant emotions is likely something you’d rather pass by. Believe me; I’d rather run two marathons back to back through a storm of sharp rocks than wallow. I get it. I’ve learned through experience though, that wallowing is a key step to fruitful failure. A commitment to wallowing is a commitment to the lifelong learning of one’s self that’s required of goal achievement and success. While self-awareness has yet to be claimed by any mainstream superheroes, it would be my superpower of choice any day of the week.

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