Kick Starts

Turning Setbacks into Comebacks: Finding the Gift in Failure

January 29, 2024 Sylvia Flanagan, LMFT, Motivational & Behavioral Coach Episode 39
Kick Starts
Turning Setbacks into Comebacks: Finding the Gift in Failure
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, I tackle the topic of failure and mistakes, discussing what happens in our brain when we make mistakes and how we can train ourselves to deal with failure more effectively. I emphasize the importance of maintaining a positive mindset, preparing for failure, and analyzing mistakes only to the extent of understanding why things went wrong and what we can do differently during the next encounter. The brain's reaction to success and failure is outlined and why it can respond either productively or avoidantly when we fall short. I conclude with suggestions to help our brains manage failure better. I highlight the invitation to embrace our failures and mistakes because they will most surely lead to personal growth, a fuller manifestation of potential and more success in areas that matter most.

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Sylvia:

Hi this is Sylvia and welcome to Kick Starts. Today I'm gonna talk about failure and making mistakes and what mistakes and failure can do for us, and what happens in our brains when we do make a mistake or when we fail. But, most importantly, how we can start training our brain to deal with failure way more effectively, having less stress and more opportunity for success. So, first of all, mistakes are made. They're just part of the human experience and they unite us with everybody else. Anyone who's lived any amount of time fails. The only way you can escape failing or making a mistake is to essentially just stop participating in your life or stop moving towards any type of goal that you have. So if you're not failing, then you're probably not trying. But, even your worst attempt is better than no attempt at all.

Sylvia:

Now, anything of value is discovered through paradox and tension, and we need to live in that tension to create and to feel alive. If you just succeeded all the time, it wouldn't mean anything. We can't know anything without also knowing its opposite. And to know it, we've got to experience it. So, to know what success is, we've got to experience failure. In actuality, sometimes mistakes open up doors. Well, they always open up doors, but sometimes mistakes can open up doors to things that you never expected and way better things than you ever thought possible. Now, in the literal sense, some of my worst wrong turns while driving on road trips have led me to the most beautiful places and gave me the best of memories, and some of my own personal mistakes and failures have led to insights and became foundational principles of how I live and who I am today. So try to keep in mind that mistakes and failure always have some other opportunity in store.

Sylvia:

Now, some of the most basic positives or positive consequences of making mistakes and failure is that, first of all, you can say goodbye to guilt because you know you're not a loser. Actually, a lot of people feel very guilty when they fail because they feel that they just somehow should have done better, should have succeeded, and, like I said earlier, you can just consider yourself part of the human race because you've failed. And good. You can take a deep breath. It also brings about humility because again, you know you're not perfect, you're not going to succeed at everything. Thank goodness, because then you wouldn't be able to feel the reward of success and have all that that goes along with succeeding. It increases creativity. We become more adaptable. We problem solve better. It's also a big opportunity for courage to step into things after we fail, step back into that thing that led us to make a mistake or led us to fail and have a different outcome. It decreases perfectionism, which I have an episode on that earlier. That's often just a reason not to step in or not to try. It brings about empathy, because when you've experienced something difficult and you see somebody else out there who has, you usually have a lot more empathy for them because you know. You know what it feels like. And also, failure just brings about a certain maturity and we learn to cope with the consequences of just, you know, living a normal life.

Sylvia:

Now, I don't think that anybody's probably in disagreement with what I just said, but still a lot of us react really unproductively and and we just have a hard time when it comes to failure and making mistakes. So let's take a look at how the brain reacts when we fail and when we make a mistake, because that's going to tell us so much and we can be way more on top of our game when we know what the brain does. So when we succeed at something, the brain feels really good and it releases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. And dopamine is the neurotransmitter that basically is associated with reward and definitely motivation. So when we do well at something, we get this big surge of dopamine and the brain feels good. We feel good and the brain wants us to do more of whatever that was. So when we succeed, we get a dopamine spike and we're just motivated to do it again. But when we make a mistake or fail at something, the brain releases the stress hormone called cortisol and that leads to stress and anxiety and it just sets off that anxiety alarm. There's no reward and we're not motivated at all because we're not getting that hidden dopamine that fuels motivation. In fact we're getting that effect of the cortisol, so we're just anxious and scared and we're on high alert.

Sylvia:

Researchers have found that there's actually two different steps or responses that the brain has when we do make a mistake or when we fail, and they happen at different times. The first thing that happens and they jokingly refer to it as the "oh crap response and that's what the brain does and there's nothing we can do to control it. It's totally automatic and that's when the cortisol is released and that's when we become stressed or upset or even panicked, but the brain, just, it, recognizes the mistake or the failure and it sends out that "oh crap. Response. And we've all been there and I don't think I need to say anything more about it, because we know what it feels like. The second response that the brain has is varied, and this is where we have the influence and this is where we have the leverage.

Sylvia:

The brain either responds with what's called an approach motivation or an avoidance motivation. So we either approach the problem again that led to the failure or the mistake, or we avoid it. And when we approach something, that's when the brain's able to look at it logically, it learns from it and it can come up with different plans on how to engage with it again, or go for it, whatever it was that we were going for. And this is how the brain should function. This is when it's functioning really well, and we're in a healthy state, that's how we're going to respond to failure. But when we avoid the situation, the brain sees whatever it was that we did that led to the mistake or failure, it sees it as dangerous. That's when stress is going to take over and the brain says, no way, I'm not doing that again and it runs away and it avoids it.

Sylvia:

Hey, it's me. Quick break. So you want to buy me a coffee? A virtual coffee that is, if you like, my podcast. Consider supporting me and fueling my inspiration. Any support received goes to my heart and not to my pockets, and helps pay for the various expenses needed to produce the show. A coffee's $5. Just go to www. buymeacoffee. com/kickstarts. I'll also put the link in the show notes. Thanks so much for any support.

Sylvia:

Al right, there's one important thing I have to talk about, though, about what influences whether the brain wants to try again or not after it encounters a failure, and that has to do with a certain kind of dopamine receptor called the D2 or dopamine 2 receptor. And a receptor is basically a catcher. It catches a message from a messenger molecule. And I'm not going to go deep into this, but I need to lay this out because it's so important, and when we know this, there's so much we can do with it. So there's different types of dopamine receptors that catch the messages that come from dopamine, and, again, dopamine's the motivating neurotransmitter. So there's two types of dopamine receptors. There is one called D1 and there's another one called D2 receptors. D1 receptors are like cheerleader receptors. They're the ones that get turned on when you succeed at something, or I succeeded something, or when something good happens or something feels good. The message of the D1 receptor is do more of it. So if I eat a piece of chocolate because I really like chocolate, or if you get a raise, maybe after a project at work that you worked really hard on, your D1 receptors are going to get activated. You know, eat more chocolate. Yes, work because it really paid off, you nailed it on that project and you got a raise or you got a promotion. So they're the cheerleader ones. D1s are the cheerleader ones.

Sylvia:

D2 receptors are more of the calming and stabilizing dopamine receptors and their message helps us get up and go again after a mistake is made or after we failed. They're the key player in whether we try again after something goes wrong. But what can happen is that those D2 receptors they don't catch the message of encouragement after we make a mistake or after we fail. Then we're most likely gonna get into a habit of just avoiding, because when that D2 receptor doesn't get the message of encouragement, stabilization, getting calm, we're going to want to avoid the situation that led to the mistake or to the failure, then the brain is just going to look at that situation as dangerous. We're then going to feel hopeless, probably helpless and the general things that people feel, then they feel apathy, depression, their self-esteem tanks, they're not going to be productive. So when those D2 receptors aren't getting that message of encouragement, we're not only going to get the original "oh crap. Reaction in the brain that always happens, and then the stress in cortisol, but we're also going to default to avoidance and then when we have to face that situation again, or when we even think about that situation again, we're going to have stress, anxiety and insecurity and all the crappy feelings that come with it. So to respond productively and adapt after we fail and make a mistake, one thing that needs to happen is that those D2 receptors need to be catching that message of hope. Now there's a lot that goes into why those D2 receptors may not be functioning well and why they then lead us into avoidance, but there's things you can do to help those receptors function better and this is the point I'm getting to, the stuff that you can do.

Sylvia:

So negative thinking is a big one and it impacts the functioning of those D2 receptors. The meaning we place to a mistake or the story we make up about our failure is key. Those things are key. And when we think negatively about ourselves or the future, the brain then starts to form and strengthen a bunch of unhelpful and negative neural pathways that influence the direction that our brain defaults. In essence, if you think negatively, you're going to create a neural pathway centered around incompetency, let's say. And then if you fail at something or make a mistake, those negative pathways make it really hard for those D2 receptors to catch that message of motivation. And then you avoid, then you get anxious when you think about the problem that you walked away from and then you think you suck. Then you're in a pattern of avoidance that gets worse and worse if just left unchecked. So positive thinking is basically sort of a fake it till you make it sort of deal. But there's something definitely working behind the scenes. When you change the way you think about mistakes, you're going to start changing the way that your brain manages them.

Sylvia:

Our mindset is crucial to how our brain deals with failure and mistakes. I can't emphasize this enough. So, for the sake of time, here's some things that you can do to help your brain catch that message of motivation that's available for it and not go into that pattern of avoidance that I just described. Like I said, all of us are gonna, all of our brains are gonna go into that "oh crap reaction and we're gonna have that stress and we're gonna experience that anxiety. But we've got a lot of influence on what the brain can do next, whether it steps back in to play another round or whether it runs off the field crying, and we can train our brain to get better and better at stepping back in after we make a mistake. So the first thing is what I already talked about Work on a positive mindset, even if you don't totally believe it.

Sylvia:

Don't give airtime to negative thinking about yourself or your future. Next, normalize failure and even plan for it. Don't expect it, but plan for it because you know it's gonna happen at some point in time. So just plan for its guest appearance. Next, don't dwell on your failure or your mistake, because that strengthens those neural pathways that are associated with the stress, the anxiety and the avoidance. Now study it long enough to figure out what led to the mistake or to the failure and then go to plan B.

Sylvia:

The other thing is there, this was a tip by Shawn Achor I really liked. He suggests ask yourself what are the things that you have more control over and what are the things that you don't really have any control over? You know, as it relates to what you're trying to go back into and learn and succeed in, and then take the things, or even just one thing, that you have more control over and just make a manageable, organized plan or approach. But leave the rest aside and he suggests to identify and visualize a really specific outcome for that part of the problem that you're dealing with. So you're really just biting off a little bit at a time from something that you feel you have more control over and then you're gonna see small wins and that's gonna kick in that dopamine, the D1 type that says "yes, more of that. And you're gonna get those hits and you're gonna be more motivated and you're gonna have more energy and your mood's gonna rise because of it.

Sylvia:

Another thing is be willing to be wrong, and this just takes some humility. You're not always gonna be right and you're not always gonna be a winner. Also, I can't stress enough I know it's cliche but exercise, diet and sleep. They're foundational principles. Another thing is mindfulness. I talked about that in the last episode, but mindfulness exercises and anything you can do to reduce stress. And lastly at least for this list, but of course it's not exhaustive, but it's really important are having supportive and positive relationships. So those things that I just described, especially the positive thinking, though that's key. If you work on those things and you plan for the failure and you're ready to take them on and you're ready to take on the mistakes you make, you're gonna navigate them so much more effectively and you're not gonna have nearly as much stress and anxiety that goes along with them.

Sylvia:

Now, you and I, we're probably never gonna be the best at anything we do, but what we can do is be our very best, and that's a lot, and I think that each of us is called to be the best that we can.

Sylvia:

There's others out there who are gonna get the direct impact and the positive effects by what we accomplish and what we bring to the table.

Sylvia:

You or I, we may not get the trophy at the end, but it's in the middle where we meet ourselves, where we learn, grow and find out what we're made of and what we're capable of. The real gift lies in between all the tension, between success and failure, when we stretch ourselves out and we make ourselves vulnerable. If we don't embrace failure and we don't embrace our mistakes, we're never gonna meet ourselves. We'll never find out all that we are and all that we're meant to be. Life can knock us around a lot and mistakes can cause pretty big shifts. But you're the creative force behind your day and your life, not your mistakes, not your failures and not your circumstances. You are. You know, I think of Janice Joplin's lyrics "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. And I guess how I think of that is when you know that failure won't destroy you, then you'll be free to act. To put all of yourself out there, to become more of what you're meant to be. You got this.

Embracing Failure Introduction
Reframing Failure
How the Brain Reacts to Failure
How We Can Help Our Brains Help Us
Reflections on Purpose and Growth