I felt heat flushing through my chest and forehead, like physical pain. My dreams were crashing down in front of me, and my mind was frozen in disbelief. After the shock came immense sorrow, as I mourned the death of a dream that I had believed in.
My company was imploding. But despite the anxiety and uncertainty in the following days, I tried to remind myself that this, too, would pass. There must be some purpose behind it all – as they say, personal growth, or even a blessing in disguise. As humans, and entrepreneurs, we are resilient.
We find a way to start planning and preparing for the pathway forward. But underneath, we carry these wounds that no amount of logic seems to heal. I was struggling with new and visceral emotions. Guilt. Embarrassment. Vulnerability. It wasn’t just that my dream was dead – I lost the positive narrative I’d been telling myself about my company and its role in my life.
Why Failure Hurts
Every day, we relived the pain. Letting down the team and our shareholders. Facing questioning and disgruntled employees. Feeling guilty for not being able to share the full context, while hoping to protect them from the ugliness. Then, the press. The story, told over and over again through their words. It was just a silly news cycle that blew over quickly. At the time, though, it seemed permanent, giving our reputation a beating. Expectedly, all eyes were watching leadership. I’m sure I was projecting this through the lens of my own guilt, but I felt ashamed just walking around the office.
Why does failure hurt this badly? I finally realized it was because it wounded my self-worth. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me to taint my self-esteem. And, it was overpowering my own inner voice.
I lost my happy self. Being around people who question you depletes energy. Reading negative news about your company depletes energy. Thinking negative thoughts in a state of anxiety depletes energy. It’s difficult to think positively and creatively about the future when the negativity is overpowering.
What to Do When You Question Your Self-Esteem
- Ask for support. Share how you feel with a few trusted a close friends and family, and maybe your close colleagues if they went through the same experience. Find someone who understands and will remind you who you are.
- Write down all the fears. With each negative thought, ask yourself if it’s really true. What can you do to overcome it? Remember that you’re never as good as they (others, the press) say you are – and you’re never as bad as they say you are, either.
- Start making small wins. Prepare for the pathway forward and put together a plan for yourself. If the future is too daunting, try the next 30 or 60 days. Essentially, grip the wheel and try to steer as everything seems to be spinning out of control.
- Remember your values and strengths. Separate your core values and self-worth from the mistakes you made. To remind yourself, do the things that help you reinforce those values and strengths. Are you accountable and trustworthy? Then take accountability, and be a trustworthy friend.
- Focus out and support others. The team is hurting too. Maybe your direct reports are confused and looking for direction. How can you be a support for them? They are all likely feeling varying degrees of the same pain.
- Bring your energy back to life. Take care of your health. Invest time into self-care. The basics usually go out the window during a time of stress. What makes you feel happy, worthy, alive? Do that. Remember how it feels.
How to Learn from Failure
My colleague told me to accept the feelings I’m dealing with right now. Accept the failure. Even accept the resistance I have towards my negative thoughts. This is a phase I’m in, and this too will pass, but I need to be at peace with it for now. I need to go through all the stages to process it, reflect, and learn from it. That’s the only way to be able to let go of the baggage and move forward.
According to Barrett Values Centre’s Personal Values Assessment, self-esteem is rooted in the lower levels of awareness, coming from the fear that “I am not enough.” The first three levels of awareness, Survival, Relationship, and Self-Esteem revolve around self-interest. It’s about protecting yourself and feeling good. The next level, Transformation, is about letting go of fears to develop and grow. And the highest three levels of awareness, Internal Cohesion, Making a Difference, and Service, focus on finding purpose through making the world a better place. While self-esteem is important, know that it is rooted in our need to belong and feel good about ourselves. It will bounce back over time, but in the meantime, you may find healing through focusing on higher values. How can you be more outwardly focused and selfless? Think of others who need your support and be there for them. Start planning for your future self and the new narrative you’ll adopt about moving forward.
It helped me to reflect on the failure and objectively identify my mistakes and weaknesses, separate from the emotions. Understanding your mistakes and recognizing the patterns so you can spot them in the future is a true blessing we are given from failing. Remember how you’ve grown and experienced new sides of yourself through this experience. You may be more jaded and cautious moving forward, but this was a lesson you needed to learn.
Painful Ways to Cope
It’s natural to react to failure by doing any of the below (I’m guilty of a few of these myself). Here are some ways to fail while inflicting more pain:
- Don’t accept accountability for your own mistakes and weaknesses. Blame others.
- Be a victim. This poor thing happened “to” you and your friends have recurring invites to your pity party.
- Rewrite the story through rose-colored glasses. Because of the pain, sometimes it’s easier to rewrite the story of what happened so it sounds good in your head, and you can move on. I do this so often, and it’s a hard cycle to break.
- Block it from memory. Don’t even process it. Forget the details and pretend it never happened.
- Lash out at others. Channel the guilt, vulnerability, embarrassment, and hurt into anger.
- Stop taking care of your health. To cope with stress or punish yourself, you start eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little – and the list goes on.
Rewrite Your Narrative
So what to do instead? Rewrite your narrative. Honestly reflect on what happened, your mistakes, what you could have done. But then – let it go, and start thinking about how this event will shape your future. Be able to honestly talk about what you learned and how this event will alter the trajectory of your life for the positive.
If you’re working towards big dreams in life, you will fail over and over again. It’s going to hurt each time. I wish it would get easier, but the bigger the dream, the further there is to fall. So instead, we must change the way we think about failure.
Be open to the outcome you want, but stay unattached to it. Know that you are already on your way, but there will be curveballs along the way. Whether we like it or not, failure is a necessary experience on the path to success. And remember, you survived and came out even stronger the last time it happened. Repeat the steps you took to heal. Build your support network of friends who will be there for you through the challenges and successes. Because as humans, and entrepreneurs, we are resilient.