January 10

A New Perspective on Failure

January 10, 2007

Marriage

I once received the following letter:

"Dear Greg,

I get so discouraged by my failures. I’ve been studying Real Love for some time now, and I’ve had some wonderful moments when I’ve felt more loved and loving than I ever have before. But with some people—like my husband and my mother—I feel like I just keep failing, over and over. I feel like I know nothing. Just when I think I’ve learned something about loving, my husband snaps at me, and I fall right back into my old behaviors. I snap back at him or withdraw or act like a victim. I feel like such a failure.”

On many occasions, I have spoken with people who have described situations like these above. We often feel like such failures when we make mistakes, but I suggest that we see our “failures” in a new light.

Imagine that you’re beginning a weight-lifting program. Right now you’re capable of lifting twenty pounds over your head, but with daily exercise, you develop the capacity to lift eighty pounds. Would you call your efforts successful? I hope so. By anyone’s standard, increasing your strength by a factor of four would be considered successful.

Now let’s suppose that one day while you’re holding eighty pounds over your head, someone suddenly hangs an additional twenty pounds on the weight bar. Overwhelmed by the additional weight, you immediately lose control over the bar and drop the weights to the ground. At this point, how you see this event is very important. When you dropped the weights, did you fail?

Certainly, failure would be one way of looking at the event—most people would see it that way—but we just established that you had accomplished an enormous success by increasing your ability to lift from twenty to eighty pounds. What then is another way to view this event? We might consider the possibility that when the twenty pounds was added to the bar, you just discovered the limit of your strength.

This is not a matter of positive thinking. It’s a matter of telling the truth. When you dropped the hundred pounds, you actually succeeded in lifting eighty pounds and simply learned that you were not yet able to lift a hundred pounds.

And so it is in real life. As we learn and grow in Real Love, we gain an ability to love that can almost be quantified. For a moment, let’s consider Real Love as a power that we can be measured in, say, pounds. Each time we encounter the anger, conflict, and inconveniences that inevitably come our way as part of everyday life, we’re required to use up some of the love we possess in order to respond positively to those difficulties. Fortunately, Real Love is renewable, but in any given moment we use up at least some of the love we have as we deal with our problems.

In the beginning of our process of acquiring Real Love, let’s say we have only twenty pounds of love. Then someone makes a critical comment to us that requires us to use ten pounds of love to respond in a loving way. All is well, however, because with twenty pounds this event will not empty us out. But what if two people make critical comments—which requires ten pounds for each one—and we’re also physically tired, which saps another ten pounds. That leaves us with nothing—less than nothing, in fact—and then we tend to respond with those Getting and Protecting Behaviors that cause so many problems in relationships: We lie, get angry, act like victims, and run. We all know what happens after that: Getting and Protecting Behaviors are exchanged and relationships are injured.

As we exercise our love, it grows, and let’s suppose that with practice we acquire eighty pounds of Real Love. Now we can love people in even more difficult situations. We can remain peaceful and loving despite more intense attacks and insistent manipulations. But now imagine that even though you have eighty pounds of Real Love, one day your husband or wife comes home from work and bites your head off with an especially sharp comment. In an instant, you are transformed from a condition of relative contentment to one of emptiness, fear, and defensiveness. You snap back at him or her, act like a complete victim, and stomp out of the room.

And now you feel like a failure. But is that the truth? Did you really fail? Over the last several months your ability to love has grown from nearly nothing to eighty pounds. How could that be a failure? It’s not, and you need to reconsider the event with your husband. Rather than believing that you failed with him, consider instead that you simply discovered a circumstance that required more love than you had in that moment. That’s all that happened. You had eighty pounds of Real Love, and in order to respond lovingly to your spouse—or whoever it might be—on that occasion, ninety-five pounds would have been required.

So you just made a mistake and learned how much love you had, as well as how much love you didn’t have. Big deal. So what? You’ve learned only that you have more work to do, and don’t we always? That’s the whole idea of learning and growing. What I’m suggesting here isn’t some technique of positive thinking, meant to cover up our mistakes. It’s a truthful assessment of our behavior and growth.

Real Love in Marriage

Find genuine happiness now and forever. Learn how to love, mistakes and all.

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