Why Addicts Struggle So Much with the Fear of Failure

By Ken Wells - 03/15/2021


Series Two: Blog Twelve

Don’t place your mistakes on your head, their weight may crush you. Instead place them under your feet and use them as a platform to view your horizons.” – Unknown

Baseball great Mickey Mantle once reflected on the average experience of his Hall of Fame baseball career. He said, “During my 18 years of major league baseball I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked another 1,800 times. You figure a ball player will have about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

The word failure is intimidating. Most people are afraid to talk about their failures. Tucked away inside the secret lore of many families are stories of failure wrapped in blankets of shame and embarrassment. Bankruptcy, mental illness, addictions of all kind, are examples of failures people won’t admit or talk about.  Yet, everybody fails. Failure is a part of life experience.

Chuck Dickerson is a retired former NFL defensive coach for the Buffalo Bills. He is most known for a sports radio talk show in Buffalo where he gave his former boss, Marv Levy criticism and cutting invectives for his style of coaching. Regionally, fans who followed his sports show revered his insights and prognostications. He was not popular with Levy nor the Bills. During an interview, Dickerson spoke highly of his coaching experiences throughout his career. However, he did not mention his coaching experience of 1969 at a High School in Mattoon, Illinois. That was the team I played on. We went 0-9, winless after Dickerson hyped that we would win our conference his first year. He printed 20,000 green and gold Go Go 9-0 stickers — one for each resident in our town. Too bad there wasn’t a misprint “GO GO 0-9”.  We were awful. We came close to winning one game against a school half our size. The rest were blow outs before halftime. We were teased throughout the year after every loss- “have fun 8-1; can’t be blue at 7-2; get in free at 6-3” etc. When it came to scoreboard results, Dickerson and his team were a total failure. His career coaching record did not include the infamous 1969 Mattoon Green Wave 0-9 season. It only says he once coached high school. Probably a good idea. People experience failure as a very embarrassing experience. Addicts are no different.

Other than the infamous football season, I have experienced a lot of failure along the way of life. I finished in the lower half of my graduating class and in a straw poll conducted by a teacher who was upset with me, I was voted least likely to go to college.  My college advisor told me I would be an everyday 9-to-5’er, nothing special. I made just over $300 for an entire summer after working 80 hours every week selling Bible books one year. One semester in college, I got an incomplete, unsatisfactory and two “D’s”. My Report Card read “I-D.U. D”.  As a minister, the last church I pastored collapsed and folded under my leadership. During that time, I recognized that I was a work addict with not much to show for it and a sex addict whose life was in crisis.  Even in recovery there were more downs than ups in the early going of sobriety. Yet, I would contend that my response to these failures was far more powerful and meaningful than all the successes and accomplishments I have attained in life. My response to my failures is what has created the meaningful experiences I know today.

Here’s what I learned from failure:

Who I am is not determined by the results on the scoreboard.

When I was on Dickerson’s team, I died inside because we were so awful. I used to hate losing. I must have taken losing worse than anyone. I would brood over losses for months. I was depressed when my favorite teams, Cubs and Bears, lost so much (Bears went 1-13 that year and the Cubs- well- you know!). I took it all personally. Many years later I learned that the results in life are not who I am. No recovery insight shaped my destiny more than this lesson from failure. You are not your performance. There is nothing wrong with competition but ultimately competition divides community while cooperation heals it. Zero sum living divides the world into “haves and have-nots”. Recovery defines people by your being and not your doing.

Overemphasis upon the success of doing diminishes the value of being.

I have always had a burning desire to be smart and to learn as much as I could. I just really struggled with the classroom. I always thought I could learn better somewhere else. I still do. I read a ton. I listen to interviews and interview people everywhere I go, looking for insight.  I do have an insatiable desire to learn as much as I can before I die. The fact that I was poor-to-average in classroom work never was a big deal to me. Or the fact that I excelled in graduate level work was not special either. I don’t put my degrees, license, or educational accomplishments on the walls of my home or office. These have not been considered my greatest milestones of achievement. Where I lost myself was in actual work performance. I would work way beyond expectation and lose my being in what I was doing- ministry or counseling. The echoes of those who would tell me that I would not achieve much propelled me with an insatiable desire to demonstrate that I have what is required to achieve anything I want.  Recovery has taught me that the value of self is skewed by all the emphasis upon accomplishment in work. The experience of failure has helped to remind me that when I seek value through achievement, accumulation and adulation from others, it becomes a counterfeit to the pearl of purpose that exists with the brilliance of embracing the being of who I am, not what I have done.

Failure teaches me to let go of what I cannot control

The last church I pastored collapsed and died. It was fraught with inner strife and the emotional pain of betrayal from past leadership. During the month before it closed, I knocked on 4,000 doors in the neighborhood around my church in attempt to invite people to the church, thinking that more people might make everybody happy. Of course, it didn’t work. The best leadership I ever gave a church was to lead this sick brokenhearted church to closure. I am truly proud of this achievement. This was only possible by learning to let go of what I could not control. Though the decision created chaos and uncertainty for my family, I felt anchored and at peace in the presence of this professional failure. Sometimes it takes a total loss before you learn to let go. Recovery brings you to this place–not once but over and again throughout the course of life.

Failure beckons me to come back to center which is always about heart.

When I am broken and have failed as an addict, the opportunity is to bring myself back to center and anchor myself in the presence of who I am. Early in recovery, my tendency was to take action and beat myself up with words of criticism. I never beat myself up to a better place. However, I learned to affirm myself with statements of positive value.  I conditioned my thoughts with an attitude of unconditional friendliness.  I garrisoned my heart with kindness and care.  This practice ignited compassion and self acceptance in the presence of failure. In turn, I was able to draw wisdom from every mistake I ever made. This is what has formed my destiny more than any other recovery concept. Failure feels unfriendly. Yet, when you commit to embracing self-love and kindness, you will be able to turn your failure from folly and disaster into wisdom that will guide you back to your heart. Coach Dickerson, thanks for the experience of total failure on the scoreboard. Through the years I have learned from this experience and so many more to transform the event of failure into a resource of meaning and wisdom. Paradoxically, the experience of failure offers the promise of transforming devastation and loss into the brilliance of knowing the value of being.

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