An artist friend of mine used the term failing forward while talking about a student of hers who was making mistakes learning how to paint but was nevertheless progressing. I immediately fell in love with the term. It captured everything I believe about this thing we call failure.

Working in the field of drug addiction for years, I avoided using the term relapse, with its connotation of back sliding. Clients were terrified of relapsing, as if it were a bad thing, but I never saw it that way. In my mind, relapse (see archived blogs on the subject) is a learning opportunity, a chance to stop and examine what is unknown and needs to be known in order to achieve recovery. The term failing forward captures the way I view returning to old behavior—be it starving, stuffing or picking up the crack pipe again. It’s an occasion to look at what triggered unwanted, unhealthy action and, hopefully, eliminate it hence forth. It’s a time to use the present to spring ahead into the future.

Failing forward means using mistakes or failures in the service of moving ahead. Whereas relapse has a focus on slipping backward, failing forward is about the future. Every failure to be a functional eater is preparation for success—a practice session, a rehearsal, a dry run, an experiment. Locked away in every failure or mistake (or relapse, if you will) are all the secrets to success. If you analyze your errors, you will know exactly what you have to do to avoid them in the future.

The problem with recurring unwanted behavior has always been our attitude toward it. We eat or don’t eat and feel terrible, wrong, hopeless, despairing. We are so consumed with what we’ve done wrong that we forget about the time between mistakes and what we’ve been learning and doing right. Imagine bingeing or purging and having no negative feelings about it; imagine intentionally skipping meals or obsessing about weight and not torturing yourself over it. Instead, envision feeling neutral or (gulp) even positive about what happened because you interpret behavior as an opportunity to learn something you need to know for recovery. I’m not saying it’s easy to make sense of old, unhealthy behaviors. I am saying that you can learn to do it with practice and determination so that you don’t beat yourself up when progress takes a breath and stands still.

Here’s an image to keep in mind—picture yourself falling, but instead of collapsing backward, see yourself pitching forward. That’s what failing forward is all about.