Why failure is important for success and wellbeing

Failure is not an easy emotion to cope with. Defeat can feel debilitating and exhausting, whilst fuelling intense doubt in ourselves and our abilities. However, failure is not the end of the road and it can even be the beginning.

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Spirits were high as people of all ages and backgrounds tuned in excitedly to catch yesterday’s World Cup semi-final. From those who have always adored football to those who had never seen a match in their lives, the nation watched as one. When England scored, we cheered as though we were a fellow teammate, right there on the pitch with the players. But when the match ended and we realised they had lost, we felt the England team’s failure as our own.

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Professor Andy Lane is a sports psychology professor who specialises in emotion regulation, helping people to change their understanding of unpleasant feelings.

“What we’ve got from the England game, and following any loss, is a wave of unpleasant emotions,” says Andy. “Real frustration, as they analyse what they could have done, they might be angry at themselves for not taking opportunities [or] feeling that they’ve let others down.”

However, what is important to remember, according to Andy, is that these feelings are completely normal. The reason we experience disappointment when we don’t succeed at something is because that situation is important to us. The first step is to try and accept that it is natural to be feeling these emotions and that they won’t last forever.

There is also often pressure on us when we are working towards a goal. It may be from our own ambition or the weight of others’ expectations of us. This can be a good thing, says Andy, as this pressure can inspire us to keep going.

Unfortunately, if you don’t succeed in these cases, the disappointment may feel all the more overwhelming. However, although the England team lost the semi-final, they still achieved many successes to be able to fail so close to the end. The same is true for you.

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“Failure is just an indicator, that you weren’t there yet or you weren’t there this time,” says Andy. “When you see it in those terms, you see next time as an opportunity to try again.”

We can’t move forward without failing along the way. Through these experiences, we learn and grow so we are able to succeed further down the line or in another way.

“Failure is absolutely fundamental,” says Andy. “You won’t get better without losing sometimes.”

What we need to do, is learn how to overcome failure and use it as motivation to propel us forwards. If you’re feeling disappointment or defeat, try following our 5-step plan to get yourself back on track.

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5 steps to help you overcome failure

1. Take a break

When the situation is still feeling fresh and painful, take a step back. “Try and change the situation, take a break,” advises Andy. Allowing ourselves a little space can provide perspective and allow us reflect more objectively on what happened. A break also provides an opportunity to divert your mind towards something more positive or calming.

2. Stop dwelling

Try not to replay what happened over and over again in your mind. A little constructive reflection can help you to see where you may have gone wrong, but getting lost in what could have been will only drags you backwards. “After a while, those intense emotions will die down,” says Andy. Although it may not feel like it to begin with, you will get past this eventually.

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3. Set a new goal

Once you have maintained some distance and have begun to think less negatively, the way to really get yourself going again is to refocus your ambition. “Thinking forward is positive,” says Andy. “Set a new goal and think, ‘what am I going to do to get to that goal?’” With a fresh target, we are able to direct our energy towards something empowering and look to the future rather than the past.

4. Make a plan

Use everything you have learned from your failure, but also from all of your successes. Put this experience towards working out exactly how you can reach your new target. “Try and make the best decisions here and now,” says Andy. “Develop a plan of action to achieve that [goal] and then it’s not about what you’ve done, but what you can do.”

5. Think positively

It’s natural to feel doubt creeping in and the fears of your previous failures weighing on your mind. “Every time you think about the other [failure] and it makes you feel negative, you hold those thoughts in your head and you think, ‘we’re not going back to there again’,” says Andy. “Going through that [failure] might inspire you to get up and try with a greater intensity.” Rather than feeling defeated by negative thoughts, use them as reminders of where you’ve been and to propel yourself towards where you’re going.

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We can’t promise this will be your final failure or that the way ahead will be smooth, but if you keep getting up and trying again, you can never be defeated.

Words by Bethan Rose Jenkins.

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Photos by Asdrubal lunaYolanda Leyvaraw pixel and all others Getty Images.