A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

What You Need to Do to Bounce Back Stronger from Failure

Updated: Jun. 29, 2022

We all make mistakes. It's how we handle it that can make matters better—or worse.

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Congratulations: You failed

Call it what it is: You messed up! Did you crash your car into a light pole? Or was it only that you tucked your skirt into your underpants and walked through the office before realizing it? As long as you’re okay physically, dust off and get right back up. (Resilience is key.) As skiers say, if you’re not falling, you’re not getting better. Rule one of bouncing back from failure: Admit it, own it.

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Do a post-mortem

Post-mortem translates to “after death” and doctors use it to refer to the review done following a patient death to spot any errors. You’re still breathing, but you’ll have trouble moving on from a mistake unless you conduct your own post-mortem.

Analyze the situation and figure out what went wrong. For an outside perspective, you may want to enlist friends and loved ones. Recently, a client of mine was supposedly fired for frequently coming in 10 minutes late. The thing was, he hadn’t been late since his boss warned him about it three months earlier. So lateness wasn’t really the reason. By speaking with coworkers, colleagues, and a coach (me), he was able to figure out what led to the firing and deal with the real issues.

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Grieve the loss intentionally

If this was a significant screw up, give yourself space and time to think about it, to feel the emotions that go with a loss of this magnitude. Shame, disappointment, embarrassment. Be as compassionate as you can—treat yourself the way you would a friend. Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies. Go gentle on you.

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Set a deadline

After you’ve grieved the loss, you come to a point where it’s time to reengage. Depending on the nature of the mistake, it may be a matter of hours or it could take a few weeks.

After you grieve, make a commitment to move on. Set the deadline based on your needs. And when that time comes, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to it. The closure will help you reengage and reemerge in the world again. And if you’ve had a thorough post-mortem, then you’re walking back into the challenge knowing what you did wrong and what you’ll do differently next time.

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How is your mental health?

A big bump in life’s rocky road can send you into a negative tailspin—yet most of us don’t pay close enough attention to our mental health. Typically people list their priorities as family, job, home, money, and vacations. Rarely does happiness and mental stability make the top five.

If you’re often “taken for a ride” by your own thoughts or waking up in the middle of the night going over your mistakes, consider therapy and/or meditation—which is a proven way to take charge of your mental health. I frequently recommend meditation to clients, especially now that it’s easier than ever to get started, thanks to the many meditation apps on the market. My favorite, Headspace, takes just 10 minutes a day. I can’t think of a more valuable way to spend 10 minutes, and the effects are long-lasting and cumulative.

If you don’t have a regular mental health routine, give this one a try.

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Are you exercising?

In the midst of a bad stretch, it’s easy to toss aside your healthy habits—but that’s a bad idea. Not only will you feel cruddy for missing workouts, but you’ll be abandoning an easy way to deal with the stress and frustration you feel from tripping up. Check out all the ways exercise can help your brain.

Even better, exerting yourself during the day will help you sleep better at night—and that’s crucial to recovering from failures and avoiding future mess ups.

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Are you managing the increased stress?

Experiencing failure inevitably leads to some degree of anxiety, so this is a good time to see how you manage stress. Do you use alcohol to calm down or coffee to rev up? Do you turn away and take a nap to avoid dealing? Do you overeat or starve yourself? Do you skip workouts or wear yourself out at the gym? Needless to say, any of these extreme behaviors are less healthy than finding calming, centered, and sensible ways to ease stress, such as yoga, meditation, or even breathing exercises. You should be able to find some solutions in these 37 stress management tips.

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Have you apologized effectively?

If you’ve experienced a fall, you may have hurt someone else in addition to yourself. There’s something wonderfully freeing about a great apology, for both the giver and the recipient—provided you can deliver regrets that will truly put things right. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley—a psych and well-being research institute—walk you through the three parts of an effective apology: Express your feelings of remorse, admit both your mistake and the negative impact it had, and then ask how you can repair the damage. This is the kind of heartfelt apology that heals the recipient and eases your guilt or shame.

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JOHN G. MABANGLO/EPA//Shutterstock

Model your comeback

Who doesn’t love a great comeback story, whether it’s fact or fiction? Cue up The Bad News Bears or watch, read, or listen to the story of Louis Zamperini, the hero in Unbroken. Prefer animals to people? Seabiscuit is a classic book and movie for a reason: The unexpected champion horse with a huge heart.

Think of great comebacks in sports and business—the Cleveland Cavaliers from 3-1 down in 2016, the Golden State Warriors triumphant return in 2017, or Steve Jobs legendary return to save the company he was fired from.

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Plan your future

Time to get back on the horse. Create the next phase of you, the version where you learn from this failure and move forward even stronger. Try this Best Possible Self exercise from the Greater Good Science Center: Spend 15 minutes a day for two weeks envisioning your best possible self. Ponder a life that you can actually build; a life you’d be excited to lead.

My clients report feeling exhilarated after the exercise; it provides the momentum needed to restart. As Vince Lombardi famously said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”