How Redefining Failure Creates the Seeds of Resilience (Q & A)

   “We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen.”

“We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen.”

Failure feels like such a loaded word.  It still carries a social stigma to it. How can we reframe it in a way that is less off-putting?

I agree. On the surface, failure sounds like a final judgment, an endpoint in which there is no recovering from. And there are definitely cases where people can do serious harm or have severe lapses in moral judgement. But failures are also subjective. There’s a spectrum.  We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen. Often times the judgment we have about our actions are overly harsh and critical. I think failures can be an invitation into a different kind conversation with yourself if you can get passed the shame and tendency to shut down.  I think of it as an invitation to develop resilience by embracing the resistance and the uncomfortable feelings to get to the deeper meaning or lesson behind it.


How does meditation and mindfulness help us with failure experiences?

When we can combine contemplative practices like meditation and mindfulness  with a compassionate, courageous form of inquiry---we can become more skillful at working with our ourselves. And when we can soften our self judgement ,we can figure out what next steps to take. Do we accept that something isn’t going to happen?  Or do we try again?Meditation and mindfulness are amazing tools for self regulation...and for calming down the anxious mind.  You can’t metabolize the lessons of failure when you’re in an emotionally reactive state. You can’t get the value or the meaning out of the experience until you can distance yourself from the web of negative thoughts and emotions that can obscure the clarity and wisdom that might just be lurking beneath them.  

How do you “redefine” failure?

Perhaps a more approachable way defining failure is a feeling of deep disappointment and loss frequently coupled with shame or frustration.  And when you define it that way--so many experiences in life can fit that description: losing a job, making a bad financial decision, going through a divorce.  Maybe we’re failing at love, or failing at parenting. It’s rather specific to the individual. One person’s success could be another person’s failure. Often times, we don’t realize that our feelings of failure have a lot to do with comparing ourselves to others, and that can influence our perception of how well or not well we’re doing. That’s something to be mindful of, so we don’t lose our connection with our internal compass.

Why are we so afraid of failure?

Failure triggers a stress response in our brains and our brains perceive the thought of failure as a threat. It’s not making distinctions though --whether the failure is an actual threat to our survival or, let’s say a perceived threat. It’s responding the same way. Social humiliation activates the same system of fight or flight in the emotional center of our brain.  None of us want to suffer with the painful emotions or hyper critical thoughts that we associate with failing. Of course we want to avoid it or even deny it. But when we don’t do the inner work, we set ourselves up to repeat the same patterning that led us to this point in the first place.

From your perspective, why is failure so critical in terms of our psychological development? And how does it foster resilience?

Failures drive our psychological growth. That’s why they’re such rich experiences to mine.  But we get so caught up in the the embarrassment or humiliation, that we miss how failures serve our development. Myself included.  A little self disclosure here. Resilience is born precisely out of adversity, out of challenge. We’re not born resilient. We don’t magically become resilient reading self books or watching TED talks. You become resilient by integrating those difficult experiences and consciously adapting.You only start to trust that you can resource yourself as you go through difficulty and crisis. And as parents, there is finally a recognition in the culture  that we’re not helping our kids anymore by taking away every disappointment from them. In fact, we’re doing them a great disservice if we never allow them to fail.

How does changing the story or narrative around failure help us become more resilient?

Language is so powerful because it shapes our experience.  If we get stuck in a shame story, we can’t move into a more  generative conversation --what did we learn? What would we do differently next time ?  What meaning can we get from this? In order to build resilience, we need a thoughtful process, an opportunity to mindfully assess and reflect so we can integrate the experience.

One way to ease the vice grip of  over-identification with failure is giving yourself  permission to learn and make mistakes or allowing yourself to be a beginner and have a beginner’s mindset when you try new things. Those are both compassionate reframes . When we change how we language our story, we can start to shift how we perceive it. I use it with the couples I work with who come in and feel like they’re failing at marriage because they’re fighting all the time. I show them that their reactive bids for connection or problem solving are what’s failing. Instead, curiosity, compassion, persistence and self-awareness, can create a set of patterns, to become skillful in relationship.

How does meditation help us with our resistance to working with failures?

Over time, a meditation practice not only teaches us how to sit with those difficult emotions, it starts to soften our resistance.  What do I mean by resistance? It’s our discomfort confronting and unpacking our feelings around failure. I like to think of the resistance as a monolithic wall that makes it seem impossible to walk through.  But the more we sit, the more the energy changes...and the wall turn into a fog that we can walk through and get curious and compassionate about. We still need courage --as we can’t always know what’s on the other side, but the resistance becomes permeable.  And it’s this experience that allows us to feel a renewed sense of possibility. That change is possible. Failure isn’t so much a barrier or inconvenience, or  obstruction in our lives as much as it is a doorway into self reflection and profound self growth.

My series on Redefining Failure on the Evenflow App is a deeper dive into that exploration of compassionate inquiry.  Making mistakes and confronting emotional challenges are extraordinary doorways to uncovering the essential questions in failure experiences but also discovering ourselves in the process.


Are Open Marriages the Future of Relationships? A Couples Therapist Explains

To see the full article on Mind Body Green, click on this link

An open relationship certainly seems alluring on the surface: sexual gratification and novelty without the harm or shame of betrayal, especially for long-term monogamous couples who are no longer sexually satisfied. It is entirely possible that open relationships can work for some people and may be the shape of things to come. But that path needs to be taken mindfully, with careful consideration, and no illusions about the pitfalls. The ideal of the open marriage may be as much of a fantasy as an idealized monogamous marriage is.

Our culture has developed unrealistic expectations about sex, often fueled by unfettered access to online pornography and dating apps that promise constant and immediate opportunities for sexual gratification. The idea of being able to have it all—a primary partner and a diverse sexual life—is tantalizing. However, when the New York Times publishes articles on the joys of open marriage, it often gives short shrift to the very real pitfalls.

As a couples therapist, my clients are often struggling to manage the unresolved, unconscious issues open relationships bring up. The inconvenient truth is we bring our unprocessed issues to every relationship we’re in—particularly when we feel threatened by insecurity, anxiety, possessiveness, attachment issues, and jealousy. No matter how consciously an open arrangement may be negotiated,there are no guarantees that partners can maintain control of the situation or that love and sex will stay neatly compartmentalized. It gets messy.

All of these variables can complicate any marriage—opening it will only increase their volatility.

The problems only multiply in an open dynamic unless you’re dealing with people who are very communicative, psychologically secure and willing to live with disappointment, resentment, and frustration. Individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar and borderline disorders, addiction, trauma, abuse, and narcissism are inherently unsuited for this kind of situation.

Sometimes only one partner fares well in an open scenario while the other partner struggles and becomes resentful. Or worse, one partner falls in love with a secondary relationship and abandons the primary relationship altogether.

That’s the irony here: Transparency and full disclosure don’t ensure that no one gets hurt or betrayed. Children are often the first and most vulnerable casualties. And children are primarily the reason many couples get married in the first place: to create a stable structure for a family.

Sex advice columnist Dan Savage, a longtime proponent of "monogamish" marriage, says most gay couples inherently understand males need multiple sexual partners and have much less of a problem with incorporating the need for sexual variety into their partnerships than heterosexual couples do. But making the switch to a radically different paradigm is far more challenging if sexual fidelity is part of the foundation of your partnership.

And here’s the rub: Not only is it normal to be attracted to other people; it's normal to be curious about ways to explore those feelings. But there are no easy answers. If you’re contemplating opening your relationship, it might be wise to engage a therapist who can create a safe space for this discussion with your partner.

Here are a few important questions to ask as you begin to test the boundaries in your relationship:

1. Where is the line between privileging your personal sense of entitlement to happiness and prioritizing your relationship’s security and your partner’s feelings? How would you propose to avoid crossing that line were you to open your relationship?

2. Is frustration, boredom, or lack of interest within your relationship a shared responsibility, or are the feelings of discontentment something that is your responsibility to address?

3. Are passion, creativity, connection, adventure, and intimacy shared values in the relationship?

4. Are you asking your partner to shoulder those qualities?

5. What are the implications of an open scenario for you, your partner, and your children?

Sex therapist Esther Perel is absolutely correct in her assessment that long-term monogamy is buckling under the weight of the unrealistic expectations we have foisted upon it. While there are no easy solutions, there is room for thoughtful discussion. Before pulling a trigger, we can certainly become more compassionate, more curious, and more mindful about imposing our expectations onto our relationships or partners. And we can consciously nurture a sense of connection, joy, passion, and creativity between our partners and ourselves.

Surviving Family Time During The Holidays

by Shira Myrow and Kristine K Johnson

For most of us, family is incredibly complicated. While the holidays can be a time of celebration, tradition and coming together, the idea of a happy, loving family can also provoke feelings of anxiety and stress for those of us whose families don’t quite live up to our hopes and expectations.

On some level, most of us know that the perfect image we envision is largely a cultural fantasy shaped by the media and advertising.  But if we don’t consciously question that fantasy, it can create a false sense of pressure --and an expectation for us and our families to conform to an unrealistic ideal. 

The truth is that there’s a huge range of experience around family. Families are the tribe from which we come from, and the desire to be with family and stay connected is deeply compelling.  The other truth is that our familial relationships are often fraught with unresolved issues that may carry simmering tension and ambivalence.  The holidays can exacerbate what’s already a built-in tension. 

Yet there are several ways to approach this desire to connect and also take care of ourselves in the process.

Cultivating Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, without judging your experience. Mindfulness is a practice of simply observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations whilehaving compassion for yourself and for others.  It’s a powerful mindset that can free you from over-identifying with your emotional reactions. Mindfulness can help you stay groundedas you create space from thoughts and emotions that arise, and that would otherwise derail you. Most importantly, mindfulness cultivates compassionate awareness--for yourself and for others.

Take care of yourself by knowing your limits. Family time cannot always be controlled or curated into a meaningful or joyful experience. Sometimes not even a peaceful one.  There are always different agendas and personalities at play and oftentimes, without healthy boundaries, family time isn’t a particularly safe space. 

No one is going to take care of your feelings. So knowing and respecting your limits is critical to staying centered. Advocating for yourself may mean setting a boundary or stepping if you find yourself getting triggered.  Resist the temptation to get into a heated argument over politics or some other loaded issue. Your family may not have healthy boundaries, but you can be aware of your own limits. Honor the part of you that has reached a threshold, otherwise stress, resentment and overwhelm can quickly sour your mood. 

Reduced Expectations. None of us can fully be our authentic selves in the family context.  If we reduce our expectations and separate our desire for acceptance and closeness from what is actually present, we can suffer less. If we accept the inherent limitations of being with our families--we don’t have to superimpose and experience such intense disappointment when our family holiday doesn’t live up to thefantasy. 

Your family may never fully recognize you or see you in all of your complexity or authenticity.  But it doesn’t mean that you have to dread family time or opt out altogether.  If we can accept the paradox instead of denying it, it’s easier to release some of the pressure and tension off the holiday season.

By consciously identifying unrealistic expectations, practicing mindfulness, and accepting your limits, you can negotiate the holidays in a way that is more compassionate and self attuned. 


What if Your Partner Refuses to Go to Couples Therapy? You Are Not Powerless to Change

This is a very common question. There is trouble brewing in the relationship and you’re ready to reach out for help or you’ve been thinking about getting help for a long time. You’ve finally made the decision to act on it, but your partner refuses.  This can lead to tremendous frustration, depression, despair and even a sense of failure.

Many people have a strong resistance to the idea of therapy.  Maybe there is a fear of being vulnerable or a fear of being exposed in front of a therapist. But the solution isn’t badgering your partner into coming or giving him or her an ultimatum.  Couples therapy may not even be the right answer. 

First you must face the disappointment you feel when your partner refuses your call to make a partnership more conscious.  You may feel let down, rejected, devalued, and even abandoned in the relationship. But you can’t change if you keep circling back to the idea that the only way forward is coming to couples therapy.

It’s easy and justifiable to feel angry and resentful, but ultimately, it’s disempowering for you. When we move from a position of victimhood, we lose our sense of agency when we allow ourselves to be driven by despair.  And despair stems from a sense that the possibility of change is a closed door to you.

But when you decide to do individual therapy —it’s a step out of a habitual sense of powerlessness.  It’s the beginning of a new process and it can open up a completely different kind of conversation. Beyond the circular fixation around the conflict—and perhaps the illusion of control that we can fix it through sheer will power —we have to anchor the discussion in the light of the fact that any radical change will come from you.

Couples therapists often say that if you alter your behavior and your actions, you will inevitably change the relationship.  The relational dynamic will shift into more tension or more harmony.  Either way it will change.

The bigger question is how you can show up for yourself despite the resistance you encounter. How can you stay true to yourself in your pursuit of a more conscious way of relating? If the conflict has obscured and diminished your sense of worthiness, how can you strengthen your inherent capacity for love and belonging? 

You can think of the grief, disappointment and stuckness you feel-- as a call to reclaim yourself,  re-assert your sense of agency, and an opportunity to rekindle the parts of yourself that have become buried in the relationship. 


Worthy of Love

On the road to finding an ideal romantic partner, many of us think we need to strive for perfection first, or strive to be fully self actualized in order to be worthy of attracting a loving, long term companion. The thinking goes—once we’ve lost those 10 lbs, or taken up  Ashtanga yoga or started volunteering at the local  animal shelter, we’ll finally be ready for that perfect soul mate. 

Or conversely, we may be waiting for Mr. or Ms. Perfect with a long, carefully selected bucket list of qualities they need to possess in order to be worthy of our love.

This kind of thinking can blind us to our own inherent worthiness of love exactly as we are, imperfections and all. It may also completely blind us to the love that may already be in our experience or coming in our direction because we’ve pre-defined and limited love to only present itself in one specific package.

Most of us know that perfection is an un-attainable ideal. If perfection were required for love, humanity would have died out a long time ago.

And yet popular culture relentlessly reinforces the ideal of perfection. Couple that with society’s focus on individual empowerment and agency, it’s easy to think both perfection and love are things you can make happen by sheer force of will and determination.

But love is not something we can orchestrate or manufacture. We can’t choose who we fall in love with or force romantic connection and intimacy. We may have to surrender the idea that we can control this aspect of our lives. Acceptance is really important here. No amount of weight loss, e-harmony dates or even therapy is going to guarantee that you’ll find a soul mate. But what we can take heart in is that attracting love actually has nothing to do with perfection, ours or anyone else’s. 

Many of us feel that finding a romantic partner is the most important kind of love relationship we can experience as adults. We can become more open to loving connection by casting off the heavy goggles of perfectionism and either an inflated sense of entitlement or conversely, feelings of unworthiness and insecurity. Both positions fuel the perfection trap.

The fundamental truth is that we are all in relationships, whether in a committed romantic one, or not. We all have the possibility to strengthen and expand our connection to our sense of love in our lives, right in the present moment. No perfection required.

Deeply entrenched habits won’t dissolve in a day, but if we continue to bring mindful awareness to this subject, we can experience a shift in how we we relate to this issue. Romantic love is not something we need to acquire, although it is something that most of us feel is absolutely essential to a fulfilling life.

We all have an evolving relationship to our definition of love and if we choose to cultivate it, a deep capacity to express love as well. If we’re not constantly privileging one expression of love over every other kind, we’ll start to become more and more aware that love is in our field of experience.

 All the time.