Recover from Failure with a Dose of Self-Empathy

Recover from Failure with a Dose of Self-Empathy

Recover from Failure with a Dose of Self-Empathy

In my classroom, I encourage risk-taking and often reassure my students that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn. However, I do not always practice what I preach: like many adults, I work hard to avoid failure.  

So how do we work toward accepting mistakes and learning from them rather than avoiding and denying them? Here are some ways to approach mistakes with an openness that will allow you to learn more deeply.


All people are imperfect, and all people lead imperfect lives.

When a friend tells you about a mistake they have made, how do you typically respond? In all likelihood, you offer reassurance, comfort, and kindness through your words and actions. In contrast, how do you respond to yourself when faced with a similar mistake or setback? Because making mistakes can be painful, you may feel guilty or embarrassed and struggle with how to make things right. You may also be tempted to ignore your mistake, rationalize your behavior, or perhaps blame someone else.

We are all going to make mistakes; it is just a question of choosing how we approach them. The kindest approach we can take—for ourselves and other people—is to acknowledge what happened and make amends from a place of compassion. While it can be hard to move past our mistakes, self-criticism, blame, beating ourselves up mercilessly, or ruminating about what happened gets in the way of positive personal growth. It is easy to respond to our suffering with frustration or resistance, but responding with acceptance or kindness allows us to learn about ourselves and how we want to respond to a similar situation in the future.


If my best friend came to me and told me about this situation, how would I respond?

Consider once again how you respond to a friend’s mistake versus how you typically talk to yourself when you have experienced failure. In what ways do these responses look different? If we responded to the mistakes of others with the negative words we often reserve for ourselves, we probably would not have many friends. 

There is a common misconception that self-criticism and self-judgment are motivating; in fact, the opposite is true. When you show yourself empathy for your mistakes, on the other hand, you gain insight from them while also developing empathy for others. By replacing self-criticism with self-understanding, it becomes more natural to extend this understanding to others, making it easier to forgive other people. So the next time you make a mistake, instead of dwelling on the error, treat yourself like a friend:

  1. Look at the situation objectively and without judgment.
  2. Recognize, but do not dwell on, what went wrong.
  3. Forgive yourself.
  4. Treat yourself with kindness.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up!


“Empathy is a connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame hole.”—Brené Brown

As we navigate life, we are all going to fall short, make unwise decisions, and find ourselves making mistakes. These errors connect us: personal inadequacy is a natural part of the human experience. Remember this the next time you do not rise to the expectations you have for yourself; then take a moment to pause and reassess. Ease comes from accepting yourself even when you are less than 100 percent. After all, mistakes are why there are erasers on pencils. 

Ramona McCullough is a Responsive Classroom educational consultant and coach.