Gathering Evidence for Failure

Today’s topic is collecting evidence of failure vs collecting evidence of success.

As I look around my home and my life, I constantly see evidence of my failure. There are many relationships and areas of my life that are not the way I would like them to be. And since one of my challenges is clutter, there is literally physical evidence littered all over the place reminding me of my lack of mastery.

So – yes, the evidence is there for my failures. It’s absolutely true. I see it around me, and there is no denying it.

I’m thinking of those situations where there is something terrible happening and we just gawk at it, the car accident or a tragedy on the tv. When we just gape and stare at the tragedy, nothing happens, we are just lost in frightful musing. In that vein, I have this unconscious habit of gaping at my failure, which makes it seem bigger than it is.

But when I consciously redirect my attention and look around for evidence of my success, even looking at the same objects, there is actually abundant evidence of my success. There is lots of evidence for both, but the evidence for failure is what I notice.

s my untidy bookshelf evidence of failure or success? I could make the case for either. But I seem to default to seeing failure everywhere. Weird, right?

In this newsletter I explain why those of us
with developmental trauma patterns
might unconsciously seek out evidence of failure.

And I offer ways to shift our attention
and look for evidence of our success.

In the spirit of shifting focus, I just now physically took my face into my hands and moved it, pointing my vision in a different direction. And interestingly, the place to which my hands directed my gaze was the wall where I have my evocation, the picture of my guru, and my index cards with reminders of healthy practices and reminders of my superpowers.

Seriously, try it. Just take your head between your hands and gently redirect your gaze. It’s an interesting experience, soothing even.

Even that simple physical act, moving my head and gaze with my hands, feels like a useful practice to try for a week or so. Because my hands are telling my body, “You don’t have to just look where you automatically look, you can choose where you look, and that will change your experience.”

And that translates into: “You don’t have to just think what you automatically think, you can choose what you think, and that will change your experience.”

“You don’t have to just do what you automatically do, you can choose what you do, and that will change your experience.”

And so on. Just picking up my face and moving it with my hands gives my body a direct invitation to shift out of automatic and a sense of what that feels like.

Now let’s look at why we focus on our failures, so we can have compassion and curiosity for ourselves, rather than frustration and impatience.

Why do we focus on our failures!?
Here are three possible answers.

Why do we focus on failure? Answer One:
A general focus on Threat vs Joy

When we have repeated experiences of lack of safety, including emotional safety, we develop the habit of focusing on threats, real or imagined threats, current or potential future threats. This is a survival pattern, because if there is real danger, it is more important to survive the danger than to enjoy flowers or the taste of food. 
After the lack of safety persists on for a while, our nervous systems become permanently tuned to watching for and mitigating potential threats. The percentage of our attention that is directed at protection remains much higher than where it “should” be, and the percentage of our attention that is focused on enjoyment, connection, and just feeling good is much lower than where it “should” be.
If my attention is habitually geared to detecting and responding to threats, where would I look, at successes or failures? My failures would tend to seem more dangerous. If I don’t master time, money, stuff, and relationships, I could end up destitute and alone. That’s a threat!
It’s like I’m running around saying, “What’s bad? What’s wrong? What’s off? What’s broken? What do I need to fix so that I will be ok and safe?”  I wouldn’t be looking at my successes for answers to those questions.

Why do we focus on failure? Answer Two:
Not having my needs met must be my fault 

A key element of developmental trauma is that our needs were not met. Exactly which needs and exactly to what degree they went unmet varies from person to person. But the fundamental ingredient of needs not being met is one of the key aspects of developmental trauma.

And as I’ve talked about before, as a tiny person in the world, we know that our needs are supposed to be met, that’s the way it’s all designed to work. When it turns out that our needs are not met, repeatedly, chronically, or for a long period of time, then we know that something is wrong.

And here is the choice: Either my environment or caregivers are incapable of meeting my needs, the consideration of which is utterly terrifying, OR I am defective or am not performing correctly in some way. 

We choose option 2. I must be doing something wrong. As long as my needs are not being met, the root cause must be that I am doing something wrong. So I need to look at my failures and correct them. That is my requirement if I hope for things to ever get better.

A picture from the beach, to break up the text. I was exhausted the two weeks since we got home, apparently a medication side effect. Finally feeling somewhat better. So I want to re-remember the beach.

Why do we focus on failure? Answer Three:
As an animal, when something goes wrong,
I am designed to look at my actions
to see how I made it happen.

Higher animals including humans are hard-wired to learn from our mistakes. When something adverse happens, there is a process that kicks in saying, “What did you do that caused or contributed to this bad thing, and how can you ensure that you never do it again?”
When I was a child, I drank spoiled juice once and threw up, and my body refused any and all juice for at least a year after that. 

What did you do that caused or contributed to this bad thing?
Make sure you never do it again!

We look at our own behaviors to find the root causes of our suffering, and whatever we find there must be the problem.

If my suffering is my fault, then the solution to suffering is not in my successes, it is in my failures. If I fix all my failures, maybe all of the bad things that have happened to me will not happen again.

One way or another, there are deeply embedded reasons our attention goes to our failures so easily, automatically and unconsciously. 

What did I do that caused or contributed to this bad thing?

What do we do?
Don’t do Snowballs of Shame!

Here’s one thing that won’t work: beating myself up for focusing on failure! Those snowballs of shame are always a thing to watch out for. I feel bad. It’s wrong of me to feel bad. I feel bad for feeling bad. That’s wrong. I feel bad for feeling bad for feeling bad. It can go on forever. Try to soften and not do that, and forgive yourself when you do find yourself rolling down the hill in a snowball of shame.

Slow down and visit one instance of your success.

It helps when we can slow down. When you are scanning your home or your life, pause and breathe. First just notice, “I’m seeing evidence of failure. Look at that, and that, and that.” And just breathe. And pause. See if you can allow some stillness into the moment. And then look around in physical space or in your mind and look for one thing that reminds you of any success you have had, of something you did well. Name that thing that you did well. Say it out loud. “I accomplished this thing:…” And just pause with that. Make space to remember and feel the good thing you did, and the good that came out of it. Be aware of other people who were positively impacted by the thing, directly or indirectly.
I invite you to literally, physically, reach over your shoulder and pat yourself on the back and say, “Good job for doing that thing!” And then just pause and sense your body. See if there is anything that feels a little more open or a little better in some way.

Look at yourself from a distance

Pretend you are watching yourself from up above or as if you are watching the movie of your life. You are looking at this person in their life – you – doing what they do, after all that they have been through. Watch with curiosity and kindness, and let yourself see all of the courageous, generous, and creative things this person has done, this person whom you are watching. With the same attitude you have for people you love, appreciate and bless this person. Send them a heartfelt message of love and respect. If it feels right, you could even write down that message and put it in an envelope with their name on it, so they can read it later, so they can read it in moments when they are having a hard time.

So that you can read it in moments when you are having a hard time.

*** Declaration! ***

Survey the wreckage of your life and declare, out loud:  

“Of course things are a mess! WTF would you expect!? Did you see where I came from? Did you see what I went through!? I am alive! I am standing! I am still looking for the way forward! That is amazing enough, so back off and give me a break!”

And then feel yourself giving yourself a break. And a cheer.

Move your head and look somewhere else

I invite you to try what I did above. Physically redirect your attention by moving your head with your hands. Notice where your gaze ends up when your hands have moved you.

What if it doesn’t work?

Trying any of these things might bring a great sense of relief and ease.

Or it might create a small shift or just feel a bit odd. Or it might just not resonate at all.

Each of us are in different places in our personal work. We adopted a posture of self-criticism and disconnection for our very survival. If this is not the moment when you can shift that particular pattern, I invite you to not be hard on yourself and to also not be discouraged.

There are many places to start, and start again, on this journey of self-discovery and self-healing from developmental trauma.

In other news, I got my first COVID vaccination last week. Woo-hoo!

Stay well, be well, blessings!

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