How Failing Might Actually Be Progress

Optimist: someone who figures that a step backward after a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a CHA-CHA. —Robert Brault

We all know how it feels to be making progress toward something that really matters to us—overcoming an addiction, improving our relationships, losing weight, etc—and then suddenly find ourselves moving backward.

You lose ten pounds only to gain five. You go two months without smoking a cigarette and then smoke three (or five or ten) in one day.

You give up coffee for a few weeks and then finally give in and drink a latte.

It can be so frustrating and demoralizing to watch all of your hard work seemingly flushed down the drain. I’ve been in this place so many times and so I know from experience it can make you feel like giving up on your goals altogether. But I’ve also learned something about this experience of failing that has been really helpful for me.

Failing is perfectly normal.

In fact, there is virtually no way around it. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not progressing as much as you think you are.

This is something I learned a few months ago from a marriage counselor.

My husband and I started going to marriage counseling sometime early last year. We started seeing her because we were fighting more than we wanted to, and every now and then our fights would turn south and we would say or do mean things. We always felt really bad about it after the fact but we couldn’t seem to curb the negative cycle.

So we decided to ask for help.

The first few months of counseling were so helpful. Within two months, we had learned enough about ourselves and our marriage and each other that our fights went from four or five per week to more like one per week—and even when we did argue, we were able to keep our cool and talk ourselves through to resolution.

It felt great. For me, it restored my faith in us as a couple and in our marriage. If I’d had any doubts before, they were all melting away. We could do this!

But then, something frustrating happened. After weeks of not having even one of our old yelling arguments, we totally slid back into that pattern. An argument started over something stupid, got out of control and ended with me leaving the house and slamming the door.

The worst part of all of this, for me, was that all the hope I had felt before—the “we can do this!” feeling—suddenly seemed to be in question. Maybe we couldn’t do this. Maybe we just weren’t meant to be married. Maybe neither of us were built for it. Maybe we were both just too selfish. Maybe we never should have gotten married in the first place…

It’s so easy to get carried away with “what ifs” when you’re failing.

The next week when we went to see our marriage counselor, we sheepishly admitted to her what had happened. And I’ll never forget what she said to us. She told us, “Oh, good. You’re failing. That means you’re making progress.”

She went on to explain how failing was a perfectly normal part of the process. Failing means you’re trying to reconcile your old way of doing things with the new one. It means you’re working to internalize the new way of thinking and existing.

Failing is actually a good thing!

This was such a relief for me to hear. Failing didn’t mean my marriage was doomed or that we were destined to fight forever. It was just a natural part of the process to my husband and I learning new ways to relate to one another. Failing was just one step in a really long process to creating a enjoyable marriage.

Since then, we’ve continued to make progress toward our goals of relating to each other in healthy ways. We’re happier than we’ve ever been—and we just keep getting happier.

Whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish—whether it’s losing weight, redirecting a relationship, reading more, complaining less—failing is a totally normal part of the process. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. Don’t get lost in the “what ifs”. Instead, make the decision to keep making steps forward, despite your setbacks.

You won’t regret it.

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

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