It now feels harder than ever to admit when life doesn't go to plan.
In the highly curated age of Instagram, it feels harder than ever to be open about failure. Social media has made us our own personal publicists, constantly promoting the message of Brand Me with carefully plotted announcements about the events of our lives. Got engaged? With any luck you’ll have had the nails done for the all important ring pic. Bagged a flash new job? Concoct a suitably humble ‘some personal news’ tweet with which to alert your followers.
While we know by now that social media is a highlights reel, that people don’t share the less attractive parts of life, it’s easy to forget when you’re scrolling through a parade of smiling faces and picture-perfect scenes. ‘Instagram vs reality’ photos are the new trend on the platform, but the ‘reality’ they depict is still sprinkled with a healthy dose of Insta-sheen. Even people’s failures look gorgeous! No wonder it feels unnatural to openly admit that things haven’t turned out as you hoped they would.
One woman working to change that is author Elizabeth Day – she hosts the podcast How To Fail, on which people like Phoebe Waller Bridge, Lily Allen and Emeli Sandé talk about what they’ve learned from the personal and professional failures that have marked their lives. In her book of the same name, she says the idea for the podcast came when she realised that the lessons she had learned from failure had been “ineffably more profound” than anything she had learned from success.
“What if other people felt the same way but were too afraid to talk openly about it for fear of humiliation?” she writes. “But what if this is a conversation we needed to have, in order to feel better about ourselves and less isolated when life didn’t go according to plan?”
When Keira, 29, realised she needed to leave her increasingly controlling and manipulative fiancé, she worried about how it would look to the outside world. “I was the first of my peer group to be engaged, and it was easy to tell the fairytale story,” she says. “Gradually, though, things started to change. My purpose in life began to revolve around my partner, his moods and feelings. I rarely saw my friends, I neglected other relationships, and I abandoned hobbies. “We had posted news of our engagement online and loads of people had been in touch. Many people asked about the wedding plans and I began to feel sick when they did this towards the end, as I had lost faith in us. I felt deeply embarrassed that I had made a public commitment and I was breaking it.”
These days, ’public commitments’ feel more public than ever, with all our achievements laid out for anyone to scroll back and see. Having to walk back on something you were shouting about from the rooftops is a unique kind of shame. Is everyone judging you? Have you unwillingly exposed a weak, disappointing part of yourself? And are you the only one who’s ever messed up like this? The answer is no, of course, but when you’re in the thick of failure, it can feel incredibly isolating.
“I moved from Dublin to Paris with my college boyfriend,” says Amy, 26. “I was terrified of going, but he was convincing, and I was willing to be convinced. So I left my friends and family and moved into his family home in the centre of Paris. It was sink or swim, and I sank. I was writing bits and pieces, but my motivation was on the ground – I was lonely, and he was supported by his family, not needing to work. “We moved again to Edinburgh so he could do his Masters. I was even more afraid, even though I was closer to home. I’d changed countries and lives and realised that what I had previously was what I actually wanted, but I was stuck with a lease and a man I was seeing with clearer eyes day after day. I felt like a big disappointment when I realised I was going to have to leave. I felt like I was leaving something half-done, bitching out on a life I’d been complicit in planning.”
Amy came home and moved back in with her parents, feeling like a “zombie” for the first few months – but even though she’s sad about how things ended up, in hindsight she knows she made the right decision. “Looking back, I feel really sad for the Amy of a year ago, who was really quite miserable but didn’t have the words to call a halt to anything. I feel like I escaped, honestly. If I’d stayed, I really would have been locked into a life between countries and away from home,” she reflects. “The guilt still gets me sometimes, but it’s much gentler nowadays.”
To her surprise, Keira found that telling people about her experience has helped her “more deeply connect” with them, and she has since heard many similar stories: “I’ve heard so much about broken engagements and ended relationships. It’s much more common than I ever would have imagined – even Ariana Grande was doing it at the same time I was.”
A friend’s (single) mother recently congratulated me on getting married and I just laughed and said, ‘Oh I didn’t!’ She laughed back and said ‘Better off!’ These moments of understanding show me there is always a navigable path onwards, even if it’s with a different iteration of support or companionship than I expected.”
When Elizabeth Day turned the tables on herself and spoke about her own failures on How To Fail, people she hadn’t spoken to in years got in touch to say they were “relieved” to hear that someone else shared their struggles. She was surprised by the reaction, reasoning that it’s quite natural to her to be this open – but for many people, it’s not. No one posts ‘failure announcements’ on Instagram because vulnerability is scary. Looking your missteps and blunders in the eye is scary. Maybe this could change if we started thinking about failure not as an end point, but a stepping stone to greater understanding, deeper connection, more empathy.
Our failures help us to see life in a full rainbow of colours and nuances. “I think all [failure] means is that we’re living life to the fullest,” Day writes. “We’re experiencing it in several dimensions, rather than simply contenting ourselves with the flatness of a single, consistent emotion. We are living in technicolour, not black and white.”