In this article, YLC mental health expert Lysanne Sizoo looks at the topic of failure; the fear of which looms large in every expat’s life, and yet is inevitable if we’re to gain precious experience from our foreign adventures.
As small people learning to walk, talk, and generally make sense of the world around us, it seems unlikely that we assessed our efforts in terms of success or failure. We didn’t think, we just ‘did’; rolling over, the first steps.. the first words… and all the parental cheering just made us want to achieve even more. We’re all hooked on praise, and it’s a great motivator.
And even those of you that learned to walk and talk without proper acknowledgement know the feeling of ‘I did it’, and the rush of adrenaline that pushes us on. This magical inner power drives us to continue on, despite the pain; upwards and onwards: on the feet, boom. Down on the bum. Up on the feet. Wobble, wobble, boom, and back down on your bum.
And yes that is exactly how it feels to be an expat sometimes. As expats we just can’t fail to get things wrong. I still mix up the Swedish words for lesbians and braids, let alone farting and bargaining. And I forget at Swedish dinner parties that loud political opinions are considered too much, unless the right level of inebriation has been achieved.
I learned all these things through the embarrassment of getting it wrong in order to get it right.
And what about the cheering? No one is cheering, no one seems to notice how hard this all is, and how much a pat on the shoulder would make you want to try, try and try again. And far from praising ourselves for the effort, we seem to assume that now that we are adults we’re not allowed the privilege of down on the bum and up again.
Failure is fun!
The ease with which we used trial and error as our natural guide to learning about life, seems to become lost as most of us reach adulthood. And there are different reasons for this, parental and cultural influence being the main one.
Being a particularly accident prone child myself, or daredevil, depending on who you asked, I made friends with a learning style that involves trial and error. I tried the ice, or rather broke the ice, by falling through when everyone else was still giving it ‘one more night of frost’. And yet one year the ice held, and I was first out. And I learned that sledging down the icy slopes of a WWII bunker on a sheet of corrugated iron, results in an almost sawn off thumb and fourteen stitches.
I thank my mother for her insight that the only way I would learn was through trial and error, and it took guts on her part to let me get on with it. I do remember once hearing her share that she hoped I had a good gang of guardian angels, but I never experienced criticism or shame, not hers at least. And later in life the physical lumps and bumps would be joined by those of a more intellectual, emotional and spiritual kind.I suppose that on one level at least, it has given me a more playful and light hearted approach to my own run-ins with success and failure. These days when I ‘get it wrong’ I shrug and say to myself; ‘well THAT didn’t work’… and try and figure out why.
Yet many people assume that failure is to be avoided at all costs. Failure is NOT part of their life plan. If, despite every form of control exercised, failure does come knocking, it debilitates and has to be hidden from view, like a shameful little secret. But where would you be today if, back then, as you were learning to walk and talk, you’d given up at the first hurdle, berating yourself and loading the dice of success with self-criticism and perfectionism?
Do you hear the inner toddler saying, “oh dear, must learn to put left foot down before I lift right foot… what an idiot I am, I knew this. I fell over once already… come ON now.. get it together?”
If they did – I think we’d all still be swimming around like amoebas in the sea. Failure is the same as learning… it’s your attitude that makes it bad, not the experience itself. And trying to control life to avoid failure is like stubbornly remaining on your nappy padded bum pretending you’re too good to join the walking wounded. We will meet failure time and time again, and we can embrace it as a natural process of learning or beat ourselves up. Just as one client of mine once said; “just because I did something wrong, doesn’t mean I AM wrong.’
Finding new ways of doing things goes hand in hand with stepping outside your comfort zones, and moving country is one hell of a swing out of your comfort zone. So if you, as an expat, have an issue with failure, then you’re going to hurt much more than you need to. A positive attitude towards failure, towards this natural process of learning is what will see you through; if not this, then that…
Failure as a narcissistic wound
And then there is Narcissism, a fear of failure that is so deeply buried that all that is left is a self-inflated false self. When the gap between being successful and being ‘a failure’ is too wide to bridge, therapists talk of a narcissistic wound. The narcissistic wound is about either believing you have to be perfect at all costs, because imperfection leads to loss of love, or believing that we are too useless to even try, and that there will always be people bigger and better than us, so why even go there. In a terribly simplified form, this is what happens when these two sides of the same coin, become like shifting continents in our psyche, moving further and further apart.
One moment we’re the Kings and Queens of the castle, omnipotent in our new found toddler freedom, in control of our own bowels and letting our feet carry us away into the sunset. We ROCK!! And then… we fall humiliatingly flat on our faces, having run too fast, climbed the climbing pole too soon, and crawl back to the support and comfort of our parents. It is at this stage that we begin to develop an emotional relationship to failure. If our ‘fall from grace’ is met with a loving, ‘never mind, you can try again another time’ response, we learn that to fail is okay. With an older child perhaps a gentle exploration of why it went wrong can add to this middle of the road approach.
Eventually we learn; failure is painful, but I am still okay.
The strongest place to be is where we experience ourselves as ‘imperfectly perfect, or perfectly imperfect. Or, as one good friend often says; “amazingly fallible.” So think back to your first steps the next time you put your adult foot into some intercultural mess. Remember the time before you judged your small steps forward in life through the lens of success or failure.
Be as free in your trial and error exploration of the world as you were then. Fall down, lovingly pick yourself up, have a cheer, have a tumble, and above else, have a giggle at yourself and give yourself a break. Meet yourself with empathic care as you reassure yourself that this was just one more step on the path to deeper wisdom.
Copyright 2013: Lysanne Sizoo
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.
If you have any specific problem that you would like Lysanne to consider in her articles, please contact her here (anonymity will always be preserved).