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Your setbacks can be experiences, not failures

By: Steven Campbell
March 16, 2018
Mind, Body and Spirit

I just learned a wonderful pearl of wisdom; to see our mistakes, mishaps and disappointments as experiences, rather than as failures.

After all, as we have learned so often in this column over the last eight years, our brains believe what we tell them, without question! So when we declare to our brains that a particular failure is NOT a failure, but an experience I can learn from the failure and hopefully never repeat it. Our brain then says, “OK! I believe you!” (I have also shared many times about Thomas Edison’s reaction when he was asked how it felt to fail 999 times when looking for the filament for a light bulb. “I did NOT fail 999 times,” he declared! “I simply found 999 filaments that didn’t work!”)

We have also learned in this column that our feelings primarily come from our beliefs. For instance, rather than coming from how we were raised, or events in our lives, or the mistakes we have made, they come from our beliefs about how we were raised and our beliefs about events in our lives and our beliefs about the mistakes we have made.

And dear reader, we can change those beliefs! And our feelings…follow! 

Is it easy to change our beliefs? Of course not, for we have had our beliefs for many years, or perhaps our entire lives. However, psychology has discovered that we can change those beliefs! 

(I personally think that the fact that we can change our beliefs and what we are thinking, is the most exciting discovery which psychology has made since it began as a science back in 1879.)

In other words, we are stuck in our beliefs only when we insist we are, for our brains not only believe what we are telling them, it rewires itself to make what we are believing not only our mindset, but who we are!

However, there is a challenge to this. Jeff Bernstein’s, “Mindfulness for Teen Worry,” quotes noted psychologist Rick Hanson, who wrote, “In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

In other words, the negative stuff stands out far more clearly in our brains than the positive stuff. For example, if I were to show you a white PowerPoint screen that showed nothing apart from a little dot in the lower left hand corner, all of us would be looking at the little dot.

Bearing the above quote in mind, many of our daily thoughts are negative in content, especially after we mess up. So it really can be quite a challenge to think we can stop centering on our failure after making a really big mistake. 

The great news, however, is the discoveries we have made about neuroplasticity; that you and I can actually carve out new, more self-compassionate and empowering pathways in our brains! 

Dr. Bernstein suggests that one way to do this is to see our mistakes and failures as experiences we can learn from. Making this shift (and it can be challenging) can actually deter us from being our own worst enemies when we fail.

You can start this by examining what you are feeling after you make a mistake (angry, scared, worried, self-condemning, stupid, etc.). Then make a point of resisting our tendency to condemn ourselves for those feelings, as so many of us do, myself included, even after 70 years of walking this good earth.

Remember this: feelings are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that can harm either ourselves, or other people. 

You can then go speak to the person who decides what you need to work on, or the person whose child is bullying yours or the man who puts his garbage in your bin. Whatever the problem is, you need to identify it, acknowledge your feelings and then be proactive. 

When you have done all you reasonably can, you can then let it go! 

This can stop a lot of ruminations all of us bring on ourselves when we fail. 

I love the Reinhold Niebuhr quote, “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.