Failure That Traumatizes

Sad, Man, Depressed, Sadness, Background
Attending a national conference in 2003 where I was scheduled to speak later in the program, there just happened to be a slot just before a break for me to get up and give a pitch on the subject I was going to present on. But there was a significant problem: not that I understood it when I agreed to get up and speak, but I was completely unprepared to make a pitch (to market what I had to say in a thumbnail sketch).
Immediately I got up before my peers, like intimidated suddenly by their existence in a way that confused me at the moment I became uncharacteristically flustered and bumbled my way through a short presentation which ended up being a complete disaster. If you have ever sat down after one of these kinds of performances and been in immediate mental and emotional turmoil, you’ll know what it feels like to have failed in a traumatising way.
Some failures hit that hard that we question our goal, our place, our presence, even our existence.
But I was not just traumatised for the rest of the afternoon, feelings of ineptness, embarrassment from shame, and guilt, and of course anger that I had harmed my reputation, and disappointment that I’d let down not only myself but others who were counting on me, continued to swirl around in my mind and haunt me for months afterwards.
Whatever I did I couldn’t seem to escape the intensity of the complex anxiety borne in my body, mind, and soul. I know it affected my home life in addition to my work life. I managed to be present in my interactions with my peers, clients, wife or children. I was easily angered because I was angry with myself, and I unconsciously transferred that onto others.
All because of one brutal failure.
Why did one collapse strike so hard?
This one failure did not just harangue me for a couple of months, it shifted my confidence to talk professionally for a year or longer. There was something about that experience of completely failing that shook me to my core, shattering what confidence I had.
I know I will have a lot of friends here in raising my anxieties and concerns regarding public speaking. Getting up to talk to people has been one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, but it isn’t anymore. I used to wonder, ‘Why do I do this?’
There are times in all our lives when we face the embarrassment of failure in a circumstance that bloats intrigue to the point that the experience traumatises us. And trauma changes us. It challenges our thinking to such an extent that we will do almost anything to not have a replica of such a distressing experience.
In certain ways, injury creates anxieties in us, logically for our defense, but illogically in a way that we become hypersensitive to anything even remotely re-traumatising. At the outer extremes injury completely interrupts our lives, and what was can not really be again. Unless we can somehow miraculously reinvent ourselves.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned from incidents that elicit trauma is to drop my perfectionism. Also, to understand that certain events would be the fate of us all (not excusing traumas of abuse). And the value of honesty, which attends to the top two issues.
Some events that involve trauma can actually be good for us, in that we’re given the chance to learn how to deal. Again, however, this is not about trauma we are afflicted with from chronic or acute abuse, though I think there’s hope for a semblance of recovery. (Remember the title of this article; it’s not about the unrelenting injury experienced by victims of abuse, particularly child abuse.)
We’re all susceptible to being shocked by many things: failure, betrayal, disappointment, rejection, inadequacy, abrupt change, and loss.
One thing trauma has taught me is how fast I allow fear to control me in certain situations. Awareness is a wonder; to become actively attentive to that which ought to not frighten me but does. The invitation then is to adhere to the fear with curiosity.
Fear copes well with the safety of gentle curiosity.
If fascination remains gently interested it can help fear to trust in hope again.

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