Dealing with failure


Dr. Tony Willis
Clinical Director for Diabetes, NHS North West London

We've probably all done it...made a New Year's resolution, started on a diet, joined a gym, tried to kick a habit...only to fall down.

Here's an important point. It's normal to fail and take steps backwards.

Life is experienced as a constant, never-ending shift between successes and failures — sometimes occurring within moments of one another. To be human is to fail. We know this to be true from personal experience - Joshua Becker

Failure is an important part of growing. However, it's our attitude to our failure which decides what happens next. It decides whether we remain stuck or whether we move forwards.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

“I’ve done it again”

“I’ve done it……again.” Oh yes, it’s the “…again” that gets us every time.

We can tell ourselves that failing once is OK, but twice, three times, or more? The result can be a negative self-destructive spiral.

The reality is this, however. We all fail, and we all fail many, many times. Whether it’s learning a new skill, whether it’s a messed-up conversation we have with someone, whether it’s a mistake we make at work or whether it’s that we didn’t stick to the activity plan we were trying to follow or the New Year’s resolution we made. We all fail.

There are three potential areas that failure can have a negative impact:

1. It may confirm what we may think about ourselves. If we suffer from low self-esteem, depression or shame-related issues, we may see failure as just another confirmation that we are worthless and that we don’t deserve anything better.

2. It may create a negative spiral. Let’s say we’re trying to lose weight or get more active, and slip up for some reason. We eat a load of pizza and drink a load of coke or we lie in rather than get up and exercise for a week. What happens next? For many of us, our brains tell us that we’ve failed, sometimes many times. Sometimes quite abusively. This critical inner voice can become quite harsh and dominating, telling us: “You’re stupid”, “You’re lazy”, “You’ll never succeed”.

The critical inner voice can come from earlier life experiences which we’ve taken in as ways that we think about ourselves. These experiences may have come from ways that parents, carers, siblings, teachers, or people at school have spoken to us or treated us. Maybe we were bullied at school. Maybe we experienced racist abuse as we grew up.

The result of this can be a downward spiral. We look for comfort from the harsh internal critic. We look for things that will help us feel good.

Those things might include sugar (or starchy foods like bread, pasta or rice, that break down into sugar in our bodies) or alcohol or addictive habits.

We fall for the temporary relief those things will provide and then criticise ourselves even more for the double failure. The harsh critical inner voice has a field day! ”What do you mean, you didn’t get up? You’re so lazy”. And on and on.

And the cycle repeats.

3. We can stop trying. This is particularly true if we’ve had a number of negative or traumatic experiences previously. If we experience setbacks or failures, we can sometimes stop trying, in order to protect ourselves from disappointment. The problem is that in doing so, we also put a barrier in the way of progress.

Failing forward

In his book "Failing Forward", John Maxwell explains the importance of failure in achieving success.

If you're not failing, you're probably not really moving forward...Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward - John Maxwell

What does that mean? Here are six tips for failing forward:

1. Accept that failure is part of the process. A lot of us will identify with this quote: "I thought about losing weight once, but I don't like losing." 

But we need to realise this...if we face a setback it's not our final destination.

Thomas Edison is famous as the inventor of the light bulb. However, most of his early inventions were failures, and even with the light bulb, he didn’t get there in one step. Edison made 700 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. The light bulb was an invention with 700 steps.

I have not failed 700 times — I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a light bulb - Thomas Edison 

2. Feel our feelings. Let out our frustration. We need to take some time, walk it off and clear our heads, cry, shout into the air. The emotional rush will gradually go down and we can then focus on trying something slightly different.

3. Be honest with ourselves. The most important bit is to understand what went wrong and why. It’s so easy to switch on the TV, open Netflix and binge on a box set, or go surf the internet. We distract ourselves from looking honestly at what went wrong and why. This honest look at our failure – what happened, why it happened and what triggered it - is important in helping us avoid taking the same route next time.

Sometimes, this is about recognising the ways that we sabotage ourselves. We might surround ourselves with toxic people who criticise us. We may speak negatively to ourselves about the future.

4. Realise that our brains are more able to change than we realise. We can actually rewire the connections in our brains. Our brains can literally be rebuilt. Seemingly hardwired patterns of thinking, the critical inner voice, addictive behaviours, comfort-seeking, can all be rewired, but it does take time.

We call the ability of the brain to do this “Neuroplasticity”, in other words, “brain moulding”. This short 2-minute video explains some of this process.

Realising that our brains can actually change in this way can give us hope that a different outcome is possible. For example, we can improve our self-esteem by speaking positively to ourselves, by using mindfulness exercises or by choosing not to accept responsibility for someone else’s failures. We can choose to think in shades of grey, on a scale of 1 to 100, rather than black-white, right-wrong.

For example, I might think, “You can’t do anything right. You just blew your diet by having that second bite of ice cream.” Let’s examine this for a moment. What is the likelihood that my entire dieting routine — one that I’ve been following for a few weeks — is now made worthless by a single additional bite of ice cream? On a scale of 0 to 100, it might be about 1% likelihood.

5. Learn from our setbacks and make the necessary changes until we succeed. We can’t stop obstacles from appearing in life, but we can choose how we handle them.

6. Be compassionate to ourselves. Sometimes we can be really harsh critics of ourselves. We need to treat ourselves like we’d treat our best friend.

If all you did was put your hand on your heart and wish yourself well, it would be a moment well spent - Elisha Goldstein

When we speak to ourselves kindly and with compassion, it releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in a variety of situations, including when a mother breastfeeds her child or when someone gives or receives a hug. Thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether they’re directed to ourselves or to others, so self-compassion triggers oxytocin release.

In other words, if we treat ourselves with respect and literally put a kind hand on ourselves and speak gentle words, it releases powerful, soothing chemicals.

Why not get inspired by this fun 30-second video and try it out? You may be laughing at it internally, to begin with, but it works.

Getting help

It may be that this article has made you realise that you’re stuck and want to move forwards, but it seems too difficult. Maybe you sabotage yourself or have a critical inner voice telling you that you can’t succeed.

It is possible to move forward.

Sometimes outside help is needed, and you can get this free on the NHS through psychological therapies services.

This 3-minute video from a team in Manchester explains what’s involved and the benefits:

Take a look at the Know Diabetes psychological therapies page today to find out more. You can even refer yourself to a programme.

Find out more


Dr. Tony Willis

Clinical Director for Diabetes, NHS North West London

Tony has been a GP in West London for 20 years and leads the North West London Diabetes Transformation Programme (NWL-DTP).

His passion is to support people make healthy choices, improve their wellbeing and reduce their risk of developing diabetes complications.