He continued his thought, elbows resting on the table, fork in hand, with the food barely holding on. It had been minutes since he wrestled the food onto his fork. I was staring at his face, nodding in agreement, noticing the dangling food out of the corner of my eye, and doing my best to listen. Distracted by the other conversations around us, the whizzing of the machines, and the distinct smell of coffee.

But mostly, I was distracted by the nagging critic in my head.

“You fucked up again, CJ. I told you, you aren’t strong enough. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t man enough. And this is proof. Figure your shit out and be stronger. Do better.”

I shook my head, trying my best to scramble my thoughts and refocus on the conversation happening in front of me. I felt impaired. Impatient. Scared. Pathetic. Unable to be present, only able to focus on the past.

Mostly, I felt like a bad friend.

My inner critic has no respect for boundaries. No respect for time and place.

He is always there, trying to save me from myself, but in his attempt for salvation, he is making me miss out on actually living. And if we are still breathing but not living, what is the difference between that and being dead?

Failure is hard.

First, we need to see that we have failed. Then, we must be strong enough to admit it to ourselves and brave enough to reach out to those we have hurt or wronged. Big or small, how we handle failure impacts how we live our lives.

Dealing with and coping with failure is a long, arduous cycle where, at each point, you need humility and strength to confront yourself and your shadow.

When we feel the familiar sting, our first reaction tends to have us acting out in all sorts of weird ways. We bend and contort our minds to make us the protagonists in our life story again. We feel the pang, and we want to run away.

And who the fuck wouldn’t? Failure feels like shit.

Personally, I get crushed under the weight of the humiliation. My insecurities rage, and the cycle of rumination and negative self-talk begins. The inner critic takes over my mind. It is doing everything it can to “move me to action.” To make me better so I never mess up again.

It doesn’t want me to hurt anyone and needs to prove to ourselves that if we can live perfectly, we will be worthy of love. Because at the end of the day, it always comes back to love for me.

Am I someone worth loving?

The truth, though, is that it is only protecting my ego.

I know this because I have very real thoughts: What if I could live my life and never disappoint anyone again? What if I could take all the abuse, pain, and hurt and be strong enough to hold it all? I would never need to worry about my needs.

I’m not kidding. Those are actual thoughts that I battle, and my attempt to deny them causes deeper rumination. Which in turn leads to fear and sadness. The fear that all that is good in my life will be taken away.

So, if you are keeping track, my reaction to failure is:

  1. I am unworthy of love
  2. All good in my life will be taken away

Mix all of this with grief, and it creates a beautiful storm of shame and doubt. In my grief, especially earlier on, I was barely able to function, and in that dysfunction, I would forget entire conversations I had with people, including my kids. I would miss appointments. I would forget to show up to places and be completely unavailable, because responding to people’s messages and calls took too much energy that I didn’t have.

One of the most challenging aspects of my life now is how heavy the weight of parenting has become. It’s not that I’m a single parent, but a single-widowed parent. And I am constantly disappointing one or more of my kids. Daily.

It is overwhelming to have to shoulder their emotional burdens and my own. Many days, I am out of resources required to hold space for them. Those times, I have nothing to give, but they want to be near, snuggle, and feel reassured that I am still there and love them.

But over the past three years, I have had to learn to accept that I will, without a doubt, fail the people in my life, from big things to small.

And it is okay.

I’ve had to learn to accept that I will never be “perfect,” which alone is such a fucked up and arrogant idea to have anyway. How insecure is my ego to think I could get close to “perfect,” and by whose definition? Because mine is constantly changing and evolving. So, I would be doomed to live a life chasing a moving target.

We all are given opportunities in life to learn the lessons we need. For me, grief has been my teacher, and what I learn from my grief often directly applies to the rest of my life.

Ariana was my judge and jury. I looked at her to see if I was okay. It was unhealthy, I know, but it was the best I could do at the time. So, when I lost her, I lost my extrinsic force of balance in my life.

She influenced who I have become, teaching me to stand up for myself and speak up for my needs. Or, often, letting me know when I was being ridiculous.

So now, without her, I find myself hitting the bottom of my emotional well, finally in a place where I am ready to be my own anchor. I will learn to rely on my internal systems to regulate my emotional well-being and not look to some extrinsic force telling me I’m worthy of love or okay.

This all sounds amazing on the surface, but figuring out how the fuck I can do this, is going to be a journey of failures until I began to hit on some success.

It means it’s time to return to the depths of my heart, mind, and spirit. Into the pit to fight and come back stronger and healthier.

And I don’t want to do it. I have done it so many times already in my life, especially over the past three years. I want to coast and be ignorant, but I know this is coming up against my desire to live freely and my inability to live.

So, I have to make a choice.

Go back into the pit and come out to a life I want, or retreat and hide back into my fear and self-pity.

I don’t have to say it, you know what I’m going to do, but here is what makes this time different, I won’t be alone.

The antidote to the exhaustion of the fight for healing is to have people around to lift you when you get knocked the fuck down.

In April 2022, I spent four days locked away with twenty other men. I spent four days fighting through my grief, surrounded and supported by these men, and it was the first time I realized I didn’t need to do this alone.

So, now, I need to remind myself of that lesson and keep reaching out to those I trust, because I know isolation will keep me locked into a cycle of self-hatred and fear. It will hurt the relationships I care about and rob the people I love of the joy of being able to show up for me.

The same people who cheer you on in your journey and growth and celebrate your victories are those who help you heal your wounds.

I cannot keep forgetting this lesson. I cannot get it wrong anymore. I don’t want to keep brute forcing my way through life. I don’t want to pretend that because I had to deal with everything I’ve gone through alone for the past 38 years means, I have to keep living that way.

Most of us aren’t truly alone if we can look up long enough to see the people reaching out for our hand.

Failing Forward: Embracing Imperfections and Finding Inner Strength