No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed


Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:







pac man


You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.


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This week I had the opportunity to meet with a group of college students who are on academic probation.  There were supposed to be over 20 in the class, and 10 showed up, 5 late.  One of the the things I was struck by initially was how subdued they were, and I suppose I can’t blame them.  The class they are in, on how to succeed in school, meets twice a week in different locations at the college, half the time in a basement computer lab even though they won’t be using the computers.  If they don’t pass this class they are out of the school altogether.  There was something discouraging about the whole setup.

When I asked them how many of them played video games, they all did.  Most of them had played their favorite game as recently as this past week.  And when I went through the room and asked each what they liked playing, I was taken by how for a moment their face would brighten and they’d smile, even make eye contact.  Probably the most memorable moment for me came after I shared with them the statistic that 80% of the time we play a video game we are failing at it, and asked them to think with me about why we can tolerate failure so much in video games yet have so little tolerance of failure in other parts of our lives such as school.  What was different with a video game?

One student, I’ll call him John, raised his hand and said, “I might win.”

What a sad commentary on what education can do to students who don’t fit a certain mold.  Somewhere along the line, John and thousands like him have lost a sense of optimism, a sense that they even have a chance to win at life.  And yet, throughout the one and a half hours I was with these students, every one of them participated, had really interesting comments, argued and engaged with me.  The last holdout was a guy in the back row.  I asked him what he had learned so far today about video games and our discussion.

He sunk a little into his seat, and said, “I’m drawing a blank.”

“Let’s take a minute,” I said, “and let’s assume optimism.  Because you can add something to this discussion.  I know you can.  What have you learned in here today?”

Long pause.

And then he said, “self confidence.”

I should add, and did say to the class then, that we hadn’t even brought up that key concept to academic success yet.  If he hadn’t have added it, we might not have ever gotten it into our discussion.  Each of them had unique ideas, worthwhile ideas, not all of which we agreed with, but ideas nonetheless.

It takes optimism to risk answering a question in class, start a business, go to therapy, or play a video game.  Without optimism we won’t risk trying and failing, and without trying and failing there can be no innovation.

Take a second and think about the world around us.  Is it perfect in every way, or would you like some things to change?  If you think it is perfect we’re done here.

But if you think that the world can be a better place, for people and all sentient beings, then you’re thinking something needs to change.  Maybe you think racism needs to change.  Maybe you think poverty and starvation needs to change.  Maybe you need to be a better parent or partner, or learn more about something in school.  Maybe you want a better job, or want to create a work of art.  Maybe you want to better understand what it all means and how to fit in?  Maybe you want your daughter to have a better life with more respect, maybe you want your son to have a better future.  Maybe you want a war, all war, to stop.

Nothing gets better without change, and risk of failure.  But to risk failure we need to think we can win.  To fail and try again we need to think we could win this time.  Optimism improves resilience and changes our body, according to dozens of studies done by Seligman and other positive psychologists.  And optimism can create a more conducive learning environment.

Optimism, in my opinion is not simple delusion, or a brain defect, as some would say.  Yes, we might fail, but let’s not let that get in the way of making an effort.  Yes there is a lot of suffering and injustice in the world.  We’d better get busy.

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Fun & Failure

Early in the summer I had the opportunity to give a workshop at the University of Buffalo.  The evening before I gave it I had the opportunity to sit down and have dinner with Nancy Smyth, the Dean of the School for Social Work.  Although we’d never met before in person, the time sped by with good conversation and laughter.  Fortunately I had finished my prep for the workshop, because I was quick to crash that night.

The next day I spoke in front of a group of clinicians, caseworkers, and administrators.  The age ranged from 20s to 60s, and the discussion was so lively that the day sped by, and before I knew it, I was being ushered out of the classroom and into the car to the airport.  The workshop participants did not agree with each other (or me) on all points, but everyone said that they were walking away with me having changed their thinking about technology, video games, social media and healthcare.

Sometimes I take for granted how much fun my work is.  There is enough diversity in who I work with to keep me invigorated most days, and the balance of a portfolio career really suits me.  Being my own boss suits me as well, and this year I mixed it up a little.  I dropped one class I was teaching and took this semester off so I could focus on writing and promoting my new book.

Promoting Reset is not something I enjoy doing.  Although I coach and blog about the importance of self-promotion and what hold us back from doing it, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy doing it all the time.  But one thing I have been learning is that writing the book was the eas(ier) part.  I need to keep getting the word out about it, and sometimes I feel like I am overtaxing the patience of my Twitter followers, Google+ circles and Facebookies.  Some of these people are in multiple groups, and I can imagine that they get irritated with another post about the book.  “Enough already!” I imagine them saying.

Speaking up is not easy, and many of us actually have a much easier time speaking up for others than for ourselves.  We speak up for our clients, our kids at school, our pets when they depend on us for care.  It’s ironic that we get so good at striking blows for freedom, blogging against oppression, picketing, and political advocacy; and yet we cringe at the idea of promoting ourselves.  Perhaps that is because the former makes us feel righteous, and the latter makes us feel guilty.  I definitely enjoy advocating for technology and the people who use it with my colleagues, but I wonder if I would have promoted my book at Buffalo if it had been published then.

I’d better get used to it, because now there are more speaking engagements coming up, and having an eBook means I can’t just lug a pile of them to the the hotel and have them sit on a table.  I need to be speaking up about Reset, because no one else will.  And one thing I have also learned to do at talks is to let people in them know I enjoy speaking engagements and am available to do more.  And each time I have done that, I have gotten a lead.  Hopefully out of all of you reading this I’ll get hired to do another few.

This is such a contrast to my clinical work, where I am required to be more quiet, reflective, and other-focussed.  I am not alone in this, psychotherapy tends to require us to listen more and talk less much of the time.  It is also a safe place to “hide out” if we aren’t careful.

One of the most unfortunate lessons our current educational system teaches us is that we should hurry up and find out what we are good at, what comes easily for us, and then stick with that.  In school settings, not-knowing is considered a bad thing rather than the predecessor to curiosity.  By college we have learned to speed through any unpleasant “requirements,” and major in something that interests us.  The problem with this is that by then we have learned to take an active disinterest in things that we struggle with.  So we arrive in adulthood having learned to play to our strengths, and avoid the rest.  And whereas children are fairly powerless to avoid what they struggle with in school, adults can often construct a life that cocoons them from learning unfamiliar things.

Therapists in particular, have pushed themselves through grad school and internships, licensing tests and boards, and by the time we get licensed to do private practice we feel entitled to close the office door on outside influences.  Several times when I have been hired as a coach or consultant, I still find my clients reluctant to “come clean” about things they aren’t good at.  Some haven’t billed insurers for months because they don’t know how to do the paperwork, or a claim has been denied and they are letting the appeal sit on their desk.  Websites lie around half developed, brochures printed up but not mailed, and all of this is nothing compared to the disarray and avoidance of work/life balance.  Office hours are whenever the patient can make it, their specialty is “anxiety and depression,” and they are running themselves ragged.  And all the time, they suspect that they are really frauds awaiting discovery, and why?  Because they learned that you aren’t supposed to admit you are confused or don’t know something, let alone ask for help.

Fortunately I play video games.

As Jesper Juul points out in Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games failure is more than just about not winning.  It forces gamers to readjust their perceptions.  In fact, players prefer games where they feel responsible for failing.  What’s more failure adds content to the game.  Think about what a powerful paradigm shift that is.  Failure adds content that wouldn’t be there.  What might happen if we were able to see failure in our lives as adding content?

Actually, therapists often have a lead in understanding this.  We know that empathic failures are often inevitable, and that when we successfully navigate them with our patients the relationship deepens.  The failure adds content.

So think about your life, your practice, your business or your relationship.  And look straight at where you are failing in it.  I know, it’s tough, but try it for 5 minutes, and then ask yourself, “what content is this failure adding to it?”

This is much easier to do in hindsight, which is why we need to try to practice it in the now.  Because if we don’t avoid seeing the failures, we can readjust our perceptions and progress farther.  Maybe just a small progression, but anyone who works with kids knows the importance of proximal goals.

To go back to the Buffalo speaking engagement, this began as a failure and the setting of a proximal goal.  The failure was this:  I wasn’t getting enough paid speaking engagements.  How did that add content to my life?  Well, it added the mission, should I choose to accept it, of getting more paid speaking engagements.  So I set the proximal goal of starting to let people know I was looking for them.  One night on Twitter Nancy said something complimentary about a blog post, and I quipped that she’d better hire me as a speaker before my rates went up.  A few months later I was invited to speak.  And in addition I deepened a connection, met some really cool students, and saw Niagara Falls for the first time in my life:  How’s that for added content?

So much is possible for you, your business and your life.  None of what I have described above was achieved because I have some special gene.  It took what Pema Chodron calls going to “the places that scare you.”  We are all failures at something–come out of the closet!  Over 6 billion people around you are failing and trying and failing and trying again every day.  Those that aren’t are hiding inside an ever more rigid and constricted life.  That doesn’t have to be you, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be me.

Oh, and I hope you buy my book, and I’m available for speaking engagements, so call me.  😉


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