If at First you Don’t Succeed -
holding onto positivity when all seems lost can yield against-the-odds results –and build resilience
Would you judge yourself to be someone for whom the glass is always half empty - or half full? Do you tend to look on the bright side when things don’t go according to plan, or beat yourself up mercilessly, throwing in the towel and telling yourself that trying again is pointless?’ Psychological studies have certainly evidenced that positivity increases our wellbeing, improves health and strengthens our relationships. An entire self-help genre that began in the US has been urging us since the 1950’s to embrace positivity as the key to happiness. Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks and was translated into 15 languages. But is it really as simple as talking the talk until you can walk the walk? Why is it that some of us are better than others at not allowing a first-time failure to stop us trying again?
My family doesn’t have a good track-record with cameras. Over the past three years, we’ve lost – well, three. Each time, we lamented not the loss of expensive hardware, but the photos, which we’d failed to back up for safe-keeping. On a sailing holiday in Greece this year, we jumped off the back of the boat one morning to do a spot of snorkelling. My husband grabbed our waterproof camera to get some action-shots but, as he was about to climb back on-board, he yelled in dismay and held up his wrist: the camera’s strap had come undone and it was sinking down into the water. We spent an exhausting hour snorkelling over and over, straining to spot the camera lying on the weedy sea-bed, even setting up a line with a weight on the end so we could drop it down and mark the spot where we thought it had sunk.
Eventually, we had to accept that a fourth camera had been lost. With heavy hearts we admitted defeat and set off to our next destination, spending that night on a neighbouring island. The following morning, as we set off on a new course with the sun shining, our breakfast inside us and an air of optimism prevailing once again, a plan was hatched: it would take us only a short distance out of our way to drop back into the bay where we’d lost the camera and give it one last shot. A long shot - yes, but rising to the challenge gave us purpose, and pulled us together as a team; we agreed to give it just one hour.
Mooring up in the same position, the weighted rope was dropped once more and we worked our way outwards methodically, diving down again and again. Then – barely 20 minutes in, I thought I saw something glint. My husband dived, and surfaced fist-first, clutching the camera with a victory-cry! It felt unbelievable that we’d retrieved it from the sea-bed nearly 24 hours after we’d lost it, and what’s more, it sprang to life as normal, with all our photos still intact. The euphoria was almost tangible, and the lunch that followed was certainly a jubilant affair.
There is an inevitable ebb and flow to life that includes times when things don’t go as planned – we can’t always prevent them happening, but can think about how to respond. It may seem as if thoughts and feelings that arise are purely instinctive, just part of who we are – but seeing that there are choices in how to respond to any life-situation can help encourage more flexible and creative solutions that shift entrenched beliefs. ‘I never do well’, ‘things always go wrong in my life’, ‘I always make a fool of myself’ – and so on. These kinds of statements latch on like sticky burrs, encouraging a negative state of mind from the outset, which in fact is influencing the possibility of giving up, like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
So how do we shed those annoyingly clingy burrs? Being able to hold on to positivity is about so much more than just training ourselves to repeat, parrot-fashion, positive mantras until they start to stick. Grinning through gritted teeth whilst playing on a loop the message that I WILL get that job - or lose enough weight to squeeze into that dress for the party - or become successful and wealthy by the time I am 30 doesn’t always mean goals are achieved through sheer force of will alone.
Acquiring enough resilience is the key to coping with setbacks when things seem beyond our reach and self-esteem has dropped into a dark hole, helping us climb back to a healthier and more optimistic place. In fact, there seems to be something about accepting those setbacks, and the difficult feelings that accompany them, that enables positivity to enter the arena and set us off again with renewed intent.
In 2012 a 10 year study tracked the emotional state of San-Francisco residents. Researchers found that those who often felt a mix of positive and negative emotions - ‘taking the good with the bad’, enjoyed better health than those who generally felt just positive. Buddhist teaching and mindfulness practice present us with what can feel like a conundrum; that wellbeing is more valuable than positivity, and to achieve it we should not try to avoid our negative feelings at all. The key is rather to learn to observe them - through meditation, or other simple mindful techniques, reducing their sting and allowing us to let them pass. In a sort of ‘yin and yang’ opposition of forces, The Buddhist leader Osho said:
‘Experience life in all possible ways – good-bad, bitter-sweet, dark-light, summer-winter. Experience all the dualities.’
Osho is saying that to embrace all experiences in life is vital, because without sadness we cannot know what happiness feels like. The defeat and despondency my family and I felt when we realised we’d lost a fourth camera in as many years could easily have led to ‘all or nothing’ over-catastrophizing that told us the odds were firmly against us and it was pointless wasting our time: ‘we’re useless, we always lose cameras – in fact, there’s no point even taking pictures any more’.
When thinking about emotional resilience, psychotherapists point to a complex interplay of experiences during childhood as crucial to how people make sense of the world, and critically, how they equip themselves to cope with the difficulties that life throws up. Recalling when you first learnt to ride a bike without stabilizers can help illustrate a pivotal moment in the building of your own resilience – the ability to ‘dig deep’ and keep going until you get there. I remember my dad behind me, on the slope outside our bungalow that felt like an enormous hill back then, desperate to know that he was still holding onto the saddle once he’d felt I was ready to try cycling with my stabilizers off.
Young children internalise messages they receive from parents, absorbing these as mantras, or ‘life-scripts’, like a sponge. So in these moments, a negative comment about our abilities can feel crushing, just as positive encouragement – ‘look at you – WELL DONE, you’re almost there’, and so on, can make all the difference.
Oliver Burkeman, journalist and author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ explores the upsides of uncertainty, failure and imperfection. He says: ‘we should remain ready to adapt where we are heading and embrace the uncertainty that scares us’. It’s that ability to adapt, so bound up in resilience, that took my family off our planned course and back for another camera-hunting attempt, which of course included facing the possibility of failure again, and being able to bear the feelings that would ensue.
‘If at first you don't succeed try, try and try again.’ Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, is meant to have said this to rally his troops shortly before walloping the English in 1314. The idiom, said to have been inspired by a humble spider stoically weaving his web as Bruce hid from his English pursuers in a cave, encourages us to reach inside ourselves and see if we can come up with something new next time we’re up against it, grappling with despondency and despair. When the chips are down, it’s easy to tell ourselves that others have all the luck, life is unfair, so what’s the point in trying? Whereas accepting feelings of loss and sadness, not beating ourselves up and drawing on resilience to ‘give it another go’ can allow the successes not only to be up for grabs, but perhaps even sweeter.
Jo Bisseker Barr is an Accredited Psychodynamic Counsellor, trainer and Writing for Wellbeing Practitioner. She runs ‘Write your Mind’ experiential workshops from her home in the New Forest, where participants are free to wander in order to write their exercises. She is passionate about cycling and baking sourdough, which she feeds to her workshop participants.
Committing to dedicated time to write in a group makes it easier to leave outside stresses and concerns behind, and focus on personal expression and exploration of self.
With an Honours degree in English including Creative Writing, I am a qualified and experienced psychodynamic counsellor, working within my private practice.
To book yourself a place at one of the writing workshops or to find out anything else you would like to know about the Write Your Mind workshops - please get in touch.