How to Debrief Catastrophic Failure (Part 2)

Failing doesn't make you a failure.

Failure is part of life. Everyone fails. Failure can be anything from missing a free throw to bankruptcy to letting down the people closest to you.

Failing doesn't make you a failure.

This is Part 2 of a series on failure. You can read Part 1 here, or read the recap below.

  1. You experienced some kind of failure (we all have, and we all will)
  2. Describe your perceptions of the failure event in detail (what did you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch?)
  3. Perceptions cause thoughts. Did your thinking about your failure include any thinking errors?
  4. Thoughts cause feelings. How much joy, sadness, fear, or anger did you feel before and during your failure?

Now we’re picking up with the remaining steps in the process. Remember that we are breaking down a mental and behavioral process that happens in minutes, and possibly in fractions of a second, so we are being really granular.

What Urges and Decisions Led to Failure?

Feelings cause urges. In one sense, your feelings are the running average of your whole life’s emotional lessons. The reason for your feelings is that they are supposed to urge you do do something. Feelings are instincts. Instincts urge us to respond.

You might be urged to respond to a child throwing a fit by yelling and telling them to calm down (which would be a fit of your own). You might be urged to give a one finger wave to the driver that cuts you off on your drive to work. You might be urged to … [fill in the blank].

Great cop movies pass or fail based on how they can make the viewer’s “gut feeling” about the case line up with the main character’s “gut feeling.” If the writers and actors do their job, you will be aligned with the main character in that inevitable scene when they argue with their boss or partner about having to follow their gut. This is an example of when feelings and instincts cause exactly the kind of urges they are supposed to.

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Now, here’s the problem: if your feelings are right, but out of proportion to reality, your urges may be wrong. If your feelings are wrong, but in proportion to reality, your urges may be wrong.

Only when your feelings are right about the situation, and in proportion to reality will your urges be right. That basically means your urges are right only 25% of the time.

What makes “follow your gut” cop characters so entertaining is that we subconsciously know that our guts are only right 25% of the time. We are entertained and inspired by people whose guts are right more often than that.

Only when your feelings are right about the situation, and in proportion to reality will your urges be right. That basically means your urges are right only 25% of the time.


What Actions Led to Failure?

Urges (+ decisions) cause Actions. The bad news is that your gut is only right 25% of the time. The good news is you can make a decision not to follow it.

So… “Trust your feelings, Luke” is really not good advice. (Thanks, Obi Wan).

Here again, I need to remind you that in life, this whole process takes very little time, depending on the situation. When I wrote about responding to crisis, I emphasized the importance of slowing down. The decision making tools that I shared in that post are great if you have time to use them before making a decision.

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Those same decision making tools are twice and painful, and four times as beneficial when analyzing your own decisions in hindsight. Hindsight, by itself, is not 20/20. Otherwise we would learn from our own histories and not make the same mistake over and over.

When debriefing a failure, there is tremendous benefit in re-analyzing the decisions made. When other people do it for us, we call it arm-chair quarter-backing. But when we do it for ourselves, we learn from our own history, and we are no longer doomed to repeat it.

Honestly analyzing our own decisions protects us from repeating our mistakes.

What Reactions Informed You of Failure?

Actions cause Reactions. Reactions happen in ourselves and others. Reactions include another set of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, urges, decisions, and actions within ourselves. We can only speculate about those things for other people, unless we directly ask about them.

This could be crazy making. You could start to see the endless cause-effect mechanism at play here. But to avoid the crazy making, think of our discussion so far as the cause, and the reactions as effects.

Not only does examining reactions involve repeating the work done to examine the factors of the failure, it includes moral judgments. Were your thoughts just incorrect, or were they morally wrong? Were your feelings just incorrect, or were they morally wrong?

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Examining reactions is the hardest part, and the most valuable part, of debriefing a failure. To do it best you need to ask other people about their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, urges, decisions, and actions before, during, and after the failure event.

If your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, urges, decisions, or actions were morally wrong, then what?

Future Commitments

Moral judgments lead to commitments. They might be unconscious or conscious.

Failure is unavoidable. But the cost of failure can be minimized by making commitments for how to respond to similar situations in the future.

Fill in the blanks here:

  1. When I think… I will…
  2. When I feel… I will…
  3. When I want to… I will…
  4. When I choose to… I will…
  5. When I fail… I will…

If you have really done the full work involved here, you will have filled in the blanks in those commitments. To cement those commitments, write them down and put them where you will see them at least daily, if not multiple times a day. Post them on your refrigerator. Carry them in a 3×5 card in your wallet. Tape them to your steering wheel. Write them on your bathroom mirror. Make them the desktop background on your computer. These are your affirmations. These are your commitments not to repeat your past mistakes.


  1. When have you examined the reactions of others to your failure? What helped you to do it?
  2. What are your affirmations?

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By Dan

Founder, Executive Director, Mental Health Counselor at Restored Life Counseling