You Are Not a Failure

I have this thing with labels.

I really don’t like them. But I’m still learning how to stop using them. I have a mentor who reminds me every time I use a label for myself – things like “perfectionist”, “weak”, or “impatient”. Through my talks with her, my eyes have been opened to the power of words.

There is a huge difference between stating, “I’m an impatient person,” or simply expressing, “I struggle with being impatient.”

At first I didn’t really get that, but over time, I have noticed what happens to me when I claim a label over my whole life (IMPATIENT!), as opposed to simply sharing a struggle I am trying to overcome.

That might sound completely crazy to you – just being picky with words. But you should try it. Is there a label you give yourself regularly? Is there any way to change your wording so that you’re sharing a struggle, rather than branding yourself with a behaviour pattern you wish could be overcome?

Ben is used to me pointing out labels, but a few months ago, Anika got her first taste of what happens when she gives herself a negative label in my presence…

Anika had received a special sheet of paper in Sunday School – the kind with lines to cut along, and if done right, will turn into a paper chain necklace of sorts.

I turned all nostalgic when she brought it home, because I remembered doing the same activity when I was a kid in school. Instantly, I had images in my mind of my girls delighting in the magic of a piece of paper turning into a necklace, and anticipated it being a fun activity for all of us to enjoy.

Well.

Things started off nicely, until Anika accidentally destroyed her paper. She made a mistake and cut too far, ruining her necklace. She was very disappointed and discouraged, but I tried to comfort her, and quickly drew another one on a fresh piece of paper.

The same thing happened.

And that’s when she threw her little scissors down on the table, burst into tears, and dramatically wailed, “I’m a FAILURE!!”

At this point, a number of things happened inside of me. First of all, I had the desire to laugh at how ridiculous it was to label herself a failure because of making a mistake in cutting a piece of paper. My word. Could we be any more dramatic?

But at the same time, I was frustrated with her response. Get over it! It’s a piece of paper!

My very strongest feeling of all, however, was the desire to banish the word “failure” from her life, now and forevermore.

FAILURE? It was one of those parenting moments which made me feel as though I needed to tread very carefully, because this was Big Stuff.

This had the potential to change the direction of her future. (Now I was the one getting a bit dramatic…)

I knelt down beside her, and I said, “Anika, I never, ever want you to call yourself a failure.” I went on for a long time, saying many inspiring things, I’m sure, most of which had to do with the fact that I believed in her, and she needed to believe in herself, too. I let her know that I didn’t really care about the paper at all – it made no difference to me if she could make a paper necklace.

But I told her that we were going to keep trying until she could do it, because she needed to prove to herself that she was not a failure. Years from now, I wanted her to be able to look back and remember how she tried her best. I did not want her to remember herself as a failure.

It took a few more tries, and a few more tears, but in the end, she did it.

It was a paper necklace.

But it was so much more than that. The look on her face when she finally, triumphantly, held up her paper chain was worth the effort. Her face was shining with pride – she knew she had tried hard, and she had done it.

I’ve never heard her call herself a failure again. If I ever do, you can imagine how quickly I’ll swoop in with my speech about labels.

I don’t ever want her to think she has to accomplish something in order to please me. But I’m trying to teach her the difference between saying, “I’m a failure!” and “This is a little tricky for me to do, but I’d like to keep working at it.”

And I want her to be aware of the little sister coming after her, imitating everything she does. We’ve talked about how she can show Kaylia what it means to keep trying, and not give up until you’re satisfied with the effort you put in.

Our little paper craft time turned out differently than I had imagined. But it was still pretty magical in the end.

After we conquered the paper necklace, we moved on to paper people chains – just like I used to make when I was a kid.

And there was something wonderful about it – we both had that feeling you get when you’ve done well. She felt it because she victoriously finished the paper necklace. I felt it because I looked at her face, and I could see that she did not feel like a failure.

We had gone over some important, life stuff. I’m sure it will happen many times again, but for that morning, I loved seeing the joy and pride in her eyes.

I know this kind of thing can be hard to share, but is there anyone out there who’s had a similar experience? Any labels you’ve gained some victory over? Inspire us all by telling us your story!

And if this is a hard topic for you, maybe you’d like to check out some of other posts in which I further explore labels in my own life: When Labels Tell You Lies, What Markus Goertzen Taught Me About My Personality, and The Power of Words.

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