In gaming there is a concept known as the “Epic Fail.” Roughly translated this means, a failure so colossal, so unbelievable in its nature, that it will go down in history as epic. Epic failure can be extremely frustrating in the moment, but is almost always funny in retrospect.
Recently I was playing Dark Souls, and I was trying to down two bosses known as the Belltower Gargoyles. Just as you get one down to half health, the other, who likes to breathe fire on you, shows up. Oy. I kept getting killed, which sent me back to a save point, running back up the belltower, and trying again. What kept me going up there was that each time I was surviving a few seconds longer, and each time I was getting the gargoyle’s health down a little more. At one point I started to consistently kill the first gargoyle before the second one finished me off. Finally, through an unbelievable feat of mashing all the buttons, luck, and strategy, I beat them both.
The failure that kept happening was not what I would call Epic Failure. It was certainly what Jane McGonigal et al call fun failure though. It was failure with just enough progress mixed in that I’d say, “Oooh, you’re going to get it,” to the gargoyles and try again. And again. Fun failures in video games are designed to work that way. The game can’t be so hard that the person gives up, but can’t be so easy that you don’t feel challenged. Because if you don’t feel challenged then there is little or no sense of accomplishment.
Heinz Kohut, one of my favorite psychoanalytic thinkers, would probably have a lot to say about video games if he were alive today. Kohut knew that failure was a part of life and human development. In fact, he thought that therapy was full of failure. He talked about empathic failure, when the therapist fails to respond empathically to the patient in some way. Maybe we don’t pay attention enough to a story, or don’t remember something, or start 5 minutes late. These are all parts of the therapist being human, and therefore being unable to stay absolutely in empathic attunement with the patient. This kind of failure is inevitable.
Kohut goes on to say that it is not necessary to deliberately make mistakes and empathically fail our patients, because we are going to do so naturally in the course of our work with them. In fact, to deliberately fail our patients is rather sadistic. But usually we aren’t being sadistic when we forget something, or run late a few minutes, even though the patient may experience it that way.
So first a note to therapists here. In the course of your work with patients you are going to fail a lot. But not all failures are epic. That is not to say that your patients won’t experience it that way. That vacation you’re going on may be an epic failure on your part, as far as they are concerned. Does that mean you cancel your flight plans? Of course not. Our job is initially to help the patient by understanding by empathy the epic nature of our failure from their point of view. We try to imagine ourselves into that moment they are having.
But that doesn’t mean that we stay there. We need to maintain some perspective, have some sense of fun failure, to keep doing our work. By that I don’t mean have fun at our patient’s expense, but rather be able to be lighthearted enough in our introspection to say “Oops, I missed that one,” or “there I go again.” If we can do that we are able to then refocus on the patient. If we instead get sucked into the idea that this is an Epic Fail we will lose all perspective, and actually start focussing on ourselves rather than the patient.
Do you ever say to yourself, “I’m such a bad therapist?” I don’t. Of course, I also don’t say, “I’m such a perfect therapist” either. I do frequently think, “I was not at my best today,” or, “oooh, how come I keep missing that with patients!” This helps me keep perspective so that I can get back in the game as soon as possible.
Whether you are a therapist, a gamer or someone else who is still breathing, chances are that you are failing sometimes. In fact, this time of year with all its’ hype and expectations about being joyful and loving families can make you feel even more like a failure. Some examples of Epic Fail statements that we think consciously or unconsciously include:
- I’m a terrible parent.
- I’m a terrible daughter/son.
- I’m a terrible sex partner.
- I’m a terrible worker.
- I’m a terrible cook.
- I’m a terrible student.
and the list could go on.
If any of those sounds like you, take a moment to reflect. Is this really an Epic Fail? Or are you distorting things? Chances are you are not a perfect parent, child, worker, sex partner, student or anything else. But if you really identify this as an Epic Fail, chances are you are solidifying a form of self-identity rather than accurately appraising yourself.
Why would we do that? Well, one reason is that we learned those messages of Epic Failure as a child. You probably still remember a few failures that can make your stomach churn if you think of them. But as often, I think we grasp on to solid identities, even negative ones, so we can stop working on ourselves. I’m just X, I’m the kind of person who can’t Y, Nobody ever thinks Z about me: These all kill our curiousity about ourselves and help us stay stuck.
Mindfulness is about fun failure. It is about being able to look at ourselves and reflect on ourselves without going to extremes. Mindfulness is about being able to be curious rather than judgmental, having roominess in our minds and souls rather than rigidity. This perspective leads to “Ooooh, I’m going to get that boss down this time.” The other leads to hopelessness.
So try to remember this as the days are getting shorter and tensions may be rising: Not all Failure is Epic. And if we can be right-sized about our failures we can learn from them. We can take an interest in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors rather than judge ourselves. If we catch ourselves saying “what kind of monster I must be to hate Aunt Myrtle,” we can perhaps think, “oops, there I go again. Isn’t it odd/interesting that I feel hatred towards Aunt Myrtle, what’s THAT about?”
Eighty-five percent of the time gamers are failing. And yes some of those are Epic, but the gamer attitude is to view those Epic Failures as moments of camaraderie and learning. In life outside the game, do you treat the Epic Fail that way? Do you seek out others and try to learn from the experience, or do you isolate? There is always some observing ego in the game Epic Fail that is often lacking in our non-game life. And in some ways that is understandable, you can’t always reset in life outside video games.
But consider this: Where there is life there is hope. If this was a true Epic Fail in your life you can still learn from it in time. Failures are inevitable, but with time and perspective they can be instructive as well. In the end I’d say that whether you think you’ve had an Epic Failure or not what matters most is how you move on from it. Who knows, maybe the only real Epic Fail is the one where you give up..
Note: No real Aunt Myrtles were hated in the writing of this post.