In her little book, Fail Fail Again Fail Better, Pema Chödrön teaches us how to sit with uncomfortable feelings. Specifically, the feeling of having failed at something.

We often confuse the feeling of having failed at something with what we think of as the emotion of failure. But failure isn’t a real emotion. Failure is just a zero, or an F. Anger is an emotion. Sadness is an emotion.

“I feel like a failure” usually feels worse than “I feel angry.” Why is this? Why does the downward spiral that comes with feeling like a failure hurt us more than when we feel angry?

Because of attachment. When we get something we want, something that we feel proud of, we can’t help but call it ours. We do the same thing when we don’t get what we want.

When we feel like we’ve failed at something, we can’t help but attach our identity to the results of what we did. Identity is no trivial thing. When we talk of identity, we talk of everything that we identify with. Failure in this” must mean that we’ve failed in “that.”

Logically, that doesn’t make sense. Winning the tournament can’t mean that you’re doing well as a husband. Those are two different domains that use different instruments to measure how well you’re doing.

But it’s logical for our amygdala (which processes emotions) to conclude that the results of this must mean the results of that.

When we feel like a failure, our amygdala tells our prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for reasoning) to go away, I’m not going to listen to you right now.

I don’t know why or how, but meditation seems to be one of the only ways to get our amygdala and prefrontal cortex to coexist. It allows us to recognize that, yes, we’re feeling this way, but we are not this way.


For more of my thoughts on Pema Chödrön’s book, check out this week’s (little) episode of Readings and Riffs. It comes out this Wednesday. You can watch the previous episodes here.

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