Fearless Friday: Failure

Last weekend I had a grand plan to go camping.

I’ve been intrigued by camping for as long as I can remember, but have only ever gone once, years ago, with my then-boyfriend who was an eagle scout. I loved it. I wondered when I would go again. It was definitely the last day of camping that year. And when we broke up, it turned out to be the last day of camping for a while. I figured eventually I would camp again, once I had a partner or some friends to go with.

But years passed and I didn’t camp. Several months ago, one of my friends suggested that I go camping on my own. Just get out there, find a spot off a forest road, and camp out for the night. I was scared. I feigned interest, but I think we both knew it wasn’t going to happen.

For some reason, this summer, the idea came up again. This time, I agreed to start working on my car so I could camp in it. So for a few weeks we built a platform for me to throw a mattress on. We finished it on Friday and on Saturday I was off to the national forest nearest us.

It was beautiful, but I’m not sure what I was expecting. As I got farther and farther on the forest road, it became sketchier and sketchier. My phone had no reception and my confidence in my printed out directions was slowly waning. I kept calming myself down, reminding myself that I was a capable human being.

Then I hit a spot I wasn’t sure I could pass with my car.

And for some reason, I decided to go for it. It was a steep angle, and for a moment it seemed like my car was stuck, nose into the ground. But I managed to get out of there (thanks to the many off-roading trips I had taken with my friends from Michigan). I was really shaken, but decided to keep going. I had made through that obstacle it after all.

But then came another such spot and I decided to turn around.

It was all too much.

I had failed.

I turned around and headed back to the main road with my tail between my legs.

The closer I got to home, the more my body burned with shame. How could I face my friends again?

I was all ready to go home, shun myself from the world and watch some movies, when I realized how it would all play out.

I was feeling shame. I was going to isolate. That isolation would confirm that nobody wanted to be my friend, that my failure was shameful, that my failure made me unworthy.

And with that, I remembered that the only cure for shame is vulnerability.

So I made plans with friends. Sort of. And I spent the evening talking to people, eating food, and watching silly movies.

With some distance from the experience, I was able to recognize some of the things I would have done differently. For my first solo camping trip (and only my second camping trip ever) I should have gone to a campground – sure it’s less isolated, but it’s not isolation I was looking for, I just wanted to get out of the city.

I have plans to go camping with some friends in August. I truly hope I can make it out again before that. Just take some books and art supplies, a hammock and my car, and go do what I do in nature.

I’m not sure that will happen, but I do know I didn’t let shame get me this time. I do know I recognized what was going on and did my best to not repeat old patterns.

Last weekend wasn’t perfect, but I would say it was the kind of failure that became its own kind of success.

Beautiful Words, pt. 9

From White Oleander by Janet Fitch. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read.

“A person didn’t need to be beautiful, they just needed to be loved. But I couldn’t help wanting it. If that was the way I could be loved, to be beautiful, I’d take it.”

“This is how girls left. They packed up their suitcases and walked away in high heels. They pretended they weren’t crying, that it wasn’t the worst day of their lives.”

“…I thought love was like that, pulled out of the air, something bright and unlikely.”

“The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you wants, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

“It smelled like stew, or meatloaf, the way time should smell, solid and nourishing.”

“I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.”

“That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific–chair, eye, stone–but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this and not that, they couldn’t include all the meanings.”

“In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build the ruins inside them. It wasn’t like America, where we scraped the earth clean, thinking we could start again every time.”

The Stories We Tell

A few months ago I took a training for Crucial Conversations at work.

We spent one third of the training learning how to set ourselves straight, one third on what to say to start the conversation, and one third learning to recognize insecure behaviors in others.

In the first third we did several exercises to help us recognize our emotions and break down where those emotions are coming from. This sections was called “Master My Stories.” And it’s stayed with me since that training.

To master our stories we were told to first separate fact from fiction, watch for the three common stories of victim, villain, and helplessness, and then challenge those stories.

Separating fact from fiction was the hardest part. It made me realize how quickly our brains formulate the stories we tell ourselves.

According to Merriam-Webster a fact is “an actual occurrence; a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”

A fact is: you were late to our meeting three times. A fact is rarely: you are always late to our meeting. A fact is not: you don’t care about our meeting.

The third statement above is a story, a story our brain crafts to simplify and explain someone else’s behavior. When unchecked, stories (like beliefs) can run our lives without our consent.

“Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories.”

That statement is what really blew it wide open for me.

The truth is, once our brain creates a story it will (through confirmation bias mainly) gather all the facts it needs to make that story true. It won’t discard others, but it’ll notice them less, focus on them less, it won’t store them nearly as readily.

That means that while we’re busy telling ourselves “He doesn’t care about this meeting.” The truth might be “He always has a meeting on the other side of the building before this one.”

What I’m saying is: if unchecked, your brain will pick one story and it’ll hold on to it for dear life, discarding the other infinite possibilities to the wayside, and proving to you how true the chosen story is.

There are stories we tell ourselves and quickly forget, but there are also stories we carry with us our entire lives, unchecked, hoarding decades worth of self-confirming data.

The trick then is to recognize the stories we tell ourselves and to learn to present them for confirmation. Instead of assuming “He doesn’t care about this meeting” and letting that paint our behavior, we can say “this is the third time you were late to this meeting, this makes me think you don’t care about this project, is that true or is something else going on?”

Notice, this is different from saying “you don’t care about this meeting.” That is accusing someone with no room for them to respond and no explanation of your assumption.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect, and people are complicated. I can’t promise that someone will respond with kind understanding when you explain your story. I can’t promise that people won’t get defensive. But that’s a whole other part of the training.

I highly recommend this training or reading the Difficult Conversations book.