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The Relationship Between Failure, Shame and Humility– and What You Can Learn About Change from Flying a Kite

Growth takes risk. And risk leads both to learning and failing.

Why is this important to understand? Because you are bound to fail at something. If you shame yourself for that failure. you’ll either quit, you’ll define yourself by it, or you’ll be frantic to hide that failure.

But if you accept its presence, failure becomes a predictable part of risking growth.

Stop for a moment and think about how you’ve actually learned what you’ve learned. I bet it involves failure. All the attempted points not made. All the good relationships lost. All the opportunities wasted. All the stupid arguments that meant nothing.

Failure teaches, perhaps not lessons that you want to learn, but lessons you need to learn. There’s one exception. If you shame yourself for failure, if you pummel yourself with perfectionism, if self-contempt or criticism constantly follows you around,  then you risk living out that shame every day. But you don’t have to.

Failure doesn’t have to bring shame...

My dad used to tease me, very lovingly, when he would call and ask how my practice was going.

Knock on wood, it’s doing pretty well, Dad,” I’d cheerily respond.

Well you know, you screwed up your own life so much there for a while, there must not be too many things you wouldn’t understand,” and we’d chuckle together. It was funny because one, it was true. And two, I’d worked through the shame I felt about the chaos I’d created back in my twenties, at least to a decent extent. I was, as they call it, a late bloomer in the maturity realm. It had taken me a decade of roaming around, trying to find emotional stability, before I found where I was going, who I was going there with, and how to not hurt others and myself along the way. I will always have regrets, but my failures taught me a lot.

The difference between defining yourself by failure and humility…

If you’re humble, you recognize your strengths and are aware and accepting of your struggles. If you define yourself by your failures, you’re creating shame, pure and simple.

So what are the risks that involve potentially failing? Any desired change involves risk.

Maybe you want to manage your anxiety better, to stop being so angry, or to learn a different way of talking with your kids. Life may have handed you trauma and one day, you can put one foot in front of the other> Yet, the next, you can’t.

I’ve never seen anyone grow or heal in some kind of perfectly angled positive ascent, like a well-engineered rocket blasting into space, your only trajectory upward.

Quite the opposite. When you attempt change (even if it’s welcome change), when you risk, you travel a jagged course, with the occasional YES! moment, and then suddenly thinking or doing something that’s a mistake or a relapse. The journey of change looks much more like you’re learning to fly a kite. It sputters, dodges and weaves up and down, being whipped by mischievous winds, before you can attain a taut line and a firm position.

You have to practice to keep that kite up in the air and soaring. That is, until something happens that you can’t control, and the wind dies down. And the learning curve begins again.

What kite-flying can teach you about the process of change…

There are several steps in flying a kite that have their equivalents in approaching change.

First, choose the right kite.

Expert kite-flyers will tell you that elaborate 3-D kites look cool, but beginners should opt for a triangle-shaped “delta” kite. They’re easy to assemble—just attach the line and place the pole across the back—and they’re more stable once in the air.

What’s the life equivalent here? Choose a behavior that it’s possible to change — that you actually have control over.  Give yourself credit for doing simple things first. Don’t choose a behavior to change that’s overly complicated or complex.  If you’re working on social anxiety, for example, then start by saying hello to someone in the grocery store line. Or at a park. Start small.

Second, assess the wind.

Too much wind is damaging. I’ve had people try to make substantial changes in their lives when other things were happening that were challenging already. You wouldn’t try to put contacts in during a tornado. Don’t discount the potential storm that’s in your life. Wait for that storm to die down before you attempt a difficult change.

Third, look for a wide-open space.

Too often, you can try to expect success in an instant. You need space and time to create lasting change. Remember that change is not a steep positive ascent. It’s not a rocket. It’s a kite that weaves and bobs. If you feel that a change MUST happen right now, then you’ll get in your own way. Try to think of it a process, not a destination. When I’m working with a couple, for example, their relationship is in big trouble. They’re demoralized and want immediate relief. So I have to slow them down and remind them that the smallest of changes can begin to make a difference.

Last, prepare for launch as carefully and realistically as you can.

Let’s say what you want to try approaching a friend who you haven’t talked to in months. You miss them but aren’t real sure how to approach. You’re not quite sure what’s happened between the two of you.

Check first to see if your mind and heart are in a good place. Think through their potential reactions and decide how you might handle them. This step is about accepting the ambiguity of what you cannot control, but still deciding to act — while setting things up for success. Use your support system to help.

And when you’re ready, risk.

You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford

If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression will be arriving November 1, 2019 and you can pre-order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

Thanks to Today’s Parent for these kite-flying suggestions!

The Relationship Between Failure, Shame and Humility– and What You Can Learn About Change from Flying a Kite

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments --

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2019). The Relationship Between Failure, Shame and Humility– and What You Can Learn About Change from Flying a Kite. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Sep 2019
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