What Does it Mean to Fail? Open Up to Imperfection!

Confronting the “F” word in early recovery…

In addition to my clinical work, I also do freelance gigs in the community. Over the weekend, I had one such engagement.


For whatever reason, I wasn’t quite myself that night. Walking into the workshop, I felt uneasy – dread creeping in. You see, I have a sixth sense for failure. And when it was my turn to speak, my mind went blank. I attempted to mask my panic, but as I met the gaze of my fellow facilitators, I realized I wasn’t doing that well either. They looked horrified.


Typically, I pride myself on a stoic demeanor. Steady voice. Focused mind. Cool, calm, and collected. But in my moment (90 minutes, really) of panic, I wasn’t stoic. I looked like a child. And as I stumbled through the rest of my presentation I thought, I’m not doing very well… No, in fact, I’m doing really poorly. I’m ruining everything. By the end of the evening, I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and small. And I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.


I “failed.”




Failure in Recovery

This got me thinking, what does it mean to fail? What happens when, try as hard as we might, we don’t meet our own expectations? Our goals? What happens when I don’t live up to the me in my mind? When things don’t go as planned? When (inevitably) I make a mistake?


Several of the clients at Sanford House at Cherry Street identify with the “need” for perfectionist behavior. “Who are you,” I sometimes ask in response, “when you aren’t perfect?”


And when the mistakes are great – when our sobriety is on the line, when the health of our relationships… our jobs… our families are on the line – how are we to deal with relapse?


Who am I if I relapse?


Open Up to Imperfection…

After the workshop I connected with my co-facilitators and acknowledged my blunder. My performance felt off tonight. Can we meet and brainstorm ways to improve for next time? Thanks for your patience. That’s me being stoic. Then I called my best friend and cried my eyes out. (His advice? “Alright kid, enough is enough. I know you. This type of thing gets to you, but you can’t be perfect all the time. Move through it.”) Opening up allowed me to process my mistake, not ignore it. By talking with someone I trust, my feelings were validated and the experience was normalized.


When we experience roadblocks in early recovery, it’s vital we open up. Triggers will happen. Nights won’t go as planned. People will say hurtful or insensitive or ignorant things about our sobriety. And when those things happen, it’s best to talk to someone about it. Not ignore it.




Take Ownership

Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling. Brene’ Brown The Gifts of Imperfection


When we relapse, it’s our responsibility to stand back up. To take a close look at what tripped us, and how we can dodge it in the future. To learn from our mistake. It’s important we keep our wits about us in early recovery, as not to slip into self-destruction. In this way, we need to be FBI’s of our own mind: Focus: Notice your feeling state. Am I grounded in the present? Does my reaction feel extreme? Curiosity: What happened? How was I feeling right before the trigger or relapse? Introspection: What did I learn? What are my next steps?


Move Through the “Failure”

Once you establish a game plan (like going to an AA meeting, opening up to a therapist, or re-enrolling in treatment), be gentle with yourself as you pursue it. Let down the stoic demeanor. Have a sense of humor, if at all possible, instead of fearing things won’t work out. Adopt an attitude of “be better“, not “woe is me.”


In the wake of a mistake, negative self-talk prevents us from finding a productive solution. It can even keep us sick. Quiet this voice by indulging in healthy thoughts and activities that will make the situation better, not worse. (For me, that meant throwing on some Mac DeMarco and running off my anxious energy.) Focus on gratitude, on gaining perspective. How has this situation bolstered my resistance? Made me a more empathetic person? Once we get through the intensity of the moment, we will start to move through it.


And isn’t this just life’s cyclical way?


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.