The Fine Art of Failing

by Caelen S. Cann, LPC, LAC, ADS

PACT Level 3 Candidate


Irish novelist Samuel Beckett once said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

When I graduated from Naropa University with my master’s in counseling, I was fortunate enough to have Buddhist teacher, author, and nun Pema Chödrön give the commencement speech. As a longtime fan of Pema, I was thrilled to be able to hear and see her (and bow to her as I received my diploma), but what stuck with me the most was not the star-struck nature of being in her presence, it was the lesson she provided in her speech. When trying to decide what to tell the auditorium full of graduating people, fresh-faced and new into the world of counseling and other fields, she thought about what skill we really needed that was not stressed enough: the fine art of failing. 

“There is a lot of emphasis on succeeding,” Pema said, “and whether we buy the hype or not, we all want to succeed, especially if you consider success as ‘it works out the way I want it to.’ You know it feels good in the gut and in the heart because it worked out. So failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to. And [failing] is what we don’t usually get a lot of preparation for.” 

Learn

As with most new skills, PACT has a learning curve. During my Level 1 training, I decided that I would immediately begin using PACT with the few couples I had at the time. I had kept Pema’s words in my mind over the years and had talked about the concept of allowing myself to fail as a supervisee and a supervisor in various settings. Because there are so many elements to PACT, failure, or having things not work out as you may have hoped, is inescapable.

As is common with new therapists and those new to PACT, my first mistakes came in the form of doing too much. Wanting to jump in and disrupt the process because of my great intervention, to point out what I thought was an important moment, or to drop some of my new-found PACT knowledge only served to disrupt the energy of the couple.

It took several times of doing this to recognize how my over-involvement was more about trying to have things work out the way I wanted them to or to prove my importance as their therapist rather than to benefit their journey. Okay, fail, fail again, fail better. Stan would wander into my head and say, “Sit back and eat your popcorn.” I began to remind myself to relax my body, scoot my chair back, and let the couple show me who they are.    

Endeavor

One of my favorite parts of PACT is the use of psychodramatic interventions. As PACT therapists, we use both posing and staging as a way to trigger procedural memory in couples, mainly by positioning couples in physical positions that are evocative of real as well as imagined events. I use staging all of the time for fights but found it harder to jump into posing, primarily the Lover’s Pose and Redemption Pose*. I had used Redemption many times with couples who had cases of betrayal and found it effective and powerful. 

With one particular couple relatively new to me, I did Redemption Pose. It blew up in my face. They were struggling with a history of financial betrayal and felt stuck about how to move forward with one another. I believed I had their buy-in about wanting the relationship and, with not much time left in the session, decided to move into the pose after hearing one partner say, “What do you want me to do? Get down on my knees and beg?” 

As it has been in my mind to do Redemption, I set up the pose, a little rushed, and started to move forward with the script. The partner who had betrayed the other became instantly angry with me, accused me of aligning with the partner, not understanding the point of the exercise, and stormed out of the session. I called my supervisor directly after the session, told her my intervention and what had happened to which her response was, with a deep breath, “Ouch.”

Persist

Turns out in their case I could have simply had the couple lower and raise their chairs to demonstrate the point of the intervention, rather than move into the full psychodrama pose, which proved to be too charged for them, especially as there was underlying ambivalence regarding the relationship. Well, fail, fail again, fail better. While that couple did not return, I had a better understanding of how interventions can be shaped to better support the couple’s container and ability to regulate. I was also sharply reminded of how this pose only works if the lowered partner does not want to lose the relationship and why we don’t reward acting out with therapy. It was one of my most fruitful learning experiences.

Because I believe in relationship and the therapeutic alliance, not all of my PACT “fails” end in disaster. In the years that I have been using PACT, I have found that becoming more comfortable with getting things wrong has opened a two-part path: one for myself as the clinician and one for my clients. Our couples come to us in various states of failure within their relationship. How many of us have heard, “Well, I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work,” or “I don’t know how to do it!”

The more I allowed myself as therapist to be wrong in session with my couples (try or say something, have it fall flat, move on), I noticed my couples having a willingness to be wrong with one another. Couples will laugh at their mistakes, make quick repair when they realize what they have done, voice their dissent to their partner, and allow for fruitful conversation to arise.

James Joyce wrote in his epic novel, Ulysses, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” If this is true, and I like to think this is what Pema was saying in her commencement speech, mistakes open the way to creativity, curiosity, and learning something new. Perhaps, as Pema says, failure is “the most direct way to becoming a more complete, loving, and fulfilled human being.” I will add that it also is the direct way to becoming an engaged, powerful, and fully human PACT therapist.


*The Redemption Pose was formerly called the King and Queen Pose. It was renamed in 2021 to be more gender-neutral and inclusive.

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