How to Deal with Failure — A Compendium of Research

  • Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition. Whenever it occurs, failure reveals just how close our existence is to its opposite. Out of our survival instinct, or plain sightlessness, we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place. And we find it extremely difficult to conceive of that world existing without us.”
  • “Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be.”
  • “We are designed to fail. No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.” The “existential threat” of that failure has been with us all along, though in order to survive in a state of relative contentment, most of us have pretended not to see it. Our pretense, however, has never stopped us from moving toward our destination; faster and faster, ‘in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death,’ as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich expertly describes the process.”
  • Failure at reaching a goal will make it seem unattainable. In one research study, participants were asked to kick a football over a goalpost on a field that had no distance markers from the goalpost and they were not told how high the goalpost was. The participants who guessed that the goalpost was further away and higher were more failed in comparison with those who saw it closer and lower. The researchers proposed that failure can distort your perception of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable.
  • Failure can develop a feeling of helplessness. Failure causes pain. Your mind responds to this pain by giving up trying so you don’t feel the pain again. Feeling helpless or not inadequate to the task gives you an out.
  • Failing at something can create an unconscious “fear of failure.” Most of our fears of failure are not conscious which means that you may not be actually dealing with something that is real or not. .
  • Fear of failure can lead to self-sabotaging your success. WE can protect ourselves from the anticipated pain of failure by creating excuses and reasons that justify why you failed after. For example, external rationalizations may be “I wasn’t feeling well,” or “I was upset because of an argument with my friend,” or a famous one for students, “the professor just doesn’t like me.” The trouble with these justifications is that they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure.
  • The pressure to succeed increases anxiety and can cause you to “choke.” When an athlete misses a crucial play or singer or musician misses a desired sound, or speaker is stumbles during the speech, performance anxiety causes them to choke. Choking happens when you overanalyze something you know how to do.

We Can’t Admit We’re Wrong

  • We don’t admit our failures. Dale T. Miller in his article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues “We don’t hesitate to talk about our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our past experience.” Miller argues we don’t like to admit to failure. Research by Irene Frieze and Bernard Weiner published in the journal Personality, has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task or shifting responsibility to someone else.
  • Failure makes us less generous. According to research by A. M. Isen, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology, after succeeding at a task, the positive reinforcement makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. If we fail at a task first, however, we’re less likely to want to help others, according to research by L Berkowitz and l W. H. Connor published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  • We literally can’t admit that we’re wrong. In Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz explains the problem of error blindness: “… the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say ‘I was wrong.’” She goes on to that even for those of us who try hard to admit our mistakes, it’s almost impossible for us to do so, at least in the present: “… we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”
  • Emphasize effort over ability. Thanks to Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets, many teachers have started to give more importance to students’ efforts rather than their “innate” ability. This is particularly important for teachers of upper elementary students through university as research has shown that as children get older, they tend to value ability over effort. One way to encourage effort is to provide specific feedback to students that recognizes and praises effort. Studies have shown that students who receive this kind of feedback are not only more motivated to succeed, but also believe that they can succeed. However, be careful not to tell students to try harder if they failed, particularly if a lot of effort was expended to succeed. Otherwise, they may begin to doubt their abilities and eventually become failure-avoidant or accepting.
  • Encourage students to practice self-compassion when they fail. Covington suggests that at the heart of the fear of failure is a push-pull between self-acceptance and being able to see ourselves as we really are. This is where self-compassion can help. Kristin Neff writes in her book Self-Compassion that in order for self-compassion to be effective, we have to first realize that, “Our true value lies in the core experience of being a conscious being who feels and perceives.” In other words, rather than making our self-worth contingent on categories such as academic success, appearance, or popularity, we must value ourselves solely for the fact that we are human beings and accept that failure is part of the human experience. When we do that, it is easier for us to extend compassion to ourselves when we fail. Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect in something like academics — as the Overstriver might do — we practice self-talk that is kind and compassionate. This makes it easier to look realistically at what caused the failure and then consider what can be done to improve next time. Research has found that people who practice self-compassion recover more quickly from failure and are more likely to try new things — mainly because they know they won’t face a negative barrage of self-talk if they fail.
  • Children should be allowed to make mistakes. A study conducted at Queensland University of Technology by clinical psychologist Dr Judith Locke and associates demonstrates the harmful effects of so-called “over-parenting”. “Over-parenting”, in this case, is defined as a parent’s “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In interviewing psychologists, guidance counsellors and teachers, the authors found that such over-parenting had the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. Students need to suffer setbacks, says Dr. Locke, in order to learn important life skills such as responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. Letting our kids struggle is a difficult gift to give — but it’s a vital one. In her best-selling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, American clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel suggests that children insulated from unpleasant situations or challenges become less capable of dealing with adversity. As Dr. Mogel puts it, “It is our job to prepare our children for the road, not to prepare the road for our children.”
  • First, we have created a rigid dichotomy in our society that views and reinforces the belief that success and failure are diametrical opposites, and that failure is the absence of success.
  • Second, we have attributed moral and values weighting to success and failure — success is always good and failure is always bad. That has extended into viewing people in unrealistic terms — successful people are better, more desirable, etc, and those who have failed are the opposite.
  • Fear of failure has become such a debilitating emotion for many people, that it prevents them from pursuing their dreams or ideas.
  • Shame has also become a debilitating emotion for many people when they fail, believing that the failure means they are a failure.

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others