Two Tiny Words That Hold the Power to Reframe Failure

Feb 18, 2019

“So, basically, I blew it.” Twenty minutes before I’d walked into my counselor’s office with a light step and confidence. But after replaying the events of the weekend before and talking through the words said and choices made, I knew I’d failed. Again.

My good mood escaped like air out of a balloon. How did I let that happen? I’d tried so hard to get it right. But here I was, once again, on the back side of an altercation, discovering I hadn’t handled it as well as I thought I had. Nothing traumatic or irreparable. Still, I knew I had, in fact, blown it. In spite of my efforts to do otherwise.

Defeat pushed me deeper into the leather of her sofa. At the same time, another feeling niggled its way to the front, coloring my neck and face.

Embarrassment. I felt embarrassed.

“I can’t believe I blew it again,” I said, shaking my head back and forth in disbelief. When would I finally get this right?

But she didn’t agree with my conclusion.

“You didn’t blow it,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re learning.”

I don’t think I said anything for a full minute after that. Her words stunned even more than my assumed failure.

Excuse me? I wanted to say. Did you not hear my story?

But she’d heard. Now she wanted me to hear. Not my words, but hers. The ones in which she exchanged my words for better ones.

You’re learning.

I’ve thought of her words countless times since that day, while coaching individuals and consulting with organizations. I’ve shared them with members of my team and offered them as a soft gift to a young woman I mentor. But more than using her words to serve others, I’ve used them to serve myself and my own heart.

I’ve long been merciless with my self-flagellation. I remember moments in childhood when I beat myself up for any and every infraction. I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you failed—punish yourself enough and you’re not likely to repeat the same mistake.

But shame and self-loathing aren’t good companions. And, as it turns out, it doesn’t do much to change human behavior. Instead of inspiring change, self-recrimination fuels shame. And shame is a poor teacher.

With her two words, my friend changed my position after my inevitable mistakes. Rather than positioning myself at the other end of a whip, I prop myself in the chair at the front of the classroom.

I am a student, not a screw-up. This shift—as small as it appears—changes everything about my human experience. And, like a buy-one-get-one-free deal, it also changes how I perceive other in-progress humans just like me.

In other words, I’m a student, not a screw-up. And so are you. 

We’re all learning, doing our best to be our best, even when some days all we offer is our worst.

In fact, we’re learning together. If, of course, we can lay aside our whips long enough to let compassion and empathy connect us.

What about you, friend? What is your typical self-talk when you realize you made a mistake? Whether you say it out loud or not, there is a narrative you follow. And that narrative will either lead you to a prison or a classroom.

The good news? You get to choose. So choose well.


QUESTION: What failure do you need to reframe? Consider pulling out an index card or scrap of paper, and write the words “I’m learning.” Place it where you can be reminded on a regular basis. And the next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up, instead pull out a chair and take notes of all you’ve gained. Because, my friend, you’re learning.


  1. Carolyn

    Thanks so much, Michele! I needed this today.

  2. Tiff

    I need to read this daily, until I really get it!

    • Michele Cushatt

      Me too, Tiff. But … “I’m learning!” 😉

  3. Peggy

    Truth! How did you get inside my life??

    Thanks, Michele.. that’s a comforting reminder.

  4. Deb

    When we are learning from our mistakes, we are growing. Growing increases our growth potential if we allow it. Thank you for sharing!

  5. jilliann

    So appreciate this perspective… I will employ it and share it… thank you Michele!

  6. Elizabeth

    Not only will I write “I am learning ” on an index card, I will also write those same words on my bathroom mirror with a bar of soap.
    Thanks Michele for the words of the week.

    • Damon J. Gray

      HA!! Love the bar of soap, Elizabeth.

  7. Elske

    Thank you, Michele!

  8. anita

    I try very hard not to regard myself as a failure whenever the latest project fails miserably. I always try to do my best, and when it doesn’t come out right, I know it is probably because I haven’t learned enough, or usually, I haven’t understood how it works.
    Life is hard enough, without us making it harder!

  9. Sandy B

    Thank you so much for this “reframing”. To tell myself “I’m leaning” rather than “I failed-again” would be revolutionary. Now all I have to do is scatter those 3×5 cards everywhere! Bless you!

  10. Damon J. Gray

    As I read this, Michele, it occurred to me how we tend to view our lives as a series of completed episodes. Episode Open – I blow it – Episode Close. Next Episode.

    But the “I’m learning” mentality transcends that, and makes it clear that life is a single episode. It opened the day I was born and will not close until the day I die, or the day Jesus comes back for us. One episode with multiple scenes, some of which go really well, and others in which “I’m learning.”

    This was a great post, Michele. Thank you for sharing it. I’m going to make an “I’m Learning” card and post it on my office wall!

    – damon

    • Susan Sage

      I love that, Damon. It’s like the books I write, a beginning, each chapter has its own crisis, a climax, and the resolution. Oh how I look forward to the resolution, but until that day, I’ll keep letting myself process through each part of the greater episode. Thanks.

  11. Diana Stafford

    I’m 72 and I am still learning. If we think we don’t have more to learn, we must be dead!!

  12. Kathy Walker

    Thank you Michele, I feel like this was a free therapy session (minus the couch).
    -a former self flagellant I am learning!

  13. Trudy

    I am so bad at self-condemnation, Michelle, so thank you for this encouragement. I need to remember to tell myself those words – “I am a student, not a screw-up.” Love and blessings to you!

  14. Ellen Cole

    Oh Michele. Yes. I’m learning. I SO hate making mistakes! I’m very willing to accept mistakes from others, but not from myself. I will remember to say, “I’m learning”. Simple.

  15. Susan Sage

    Thank you Michele. Once again, your transparency has been refreshing and sharing what you’ve learned is encouraging and inspirational. Yes, I’m learning and growing. Funny that we don’t tell ourselves that as much as we tell our children that. Grace is a tough thing to give each other when we listen to the devil’s lies telling us we don’t deserve it. We do because of Christ.

    Thanks again, you’re awesome. I see Christ in you.

  16. Maree Dee

    I love these two words – now to remember them. Thank you for sharing them.


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