Why Failure is So Traumatic and What to Do About It

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Our society cherishes success. Success defines the person, the organization,the culture. Success is not only defined by the achievement of a goal, but also by its opposite, failure. We are told at an early age, and reinforced throughout our personal lives and in the working world that failure must be avoided, and that it has not equal place with success.

Generations of young people grow up in fear of failure believing that only perfection is acceptable. So failure begins to impact our personal and professional lives, our beliefs about accomplishment and our sense of self-worth.

Failure wasn’t always all encompassing in life in the past. For example, In the 1800’s failure was commonly defined as business failure, or bankruptcy. Over time, this narrow business perspective evolved to apply to our personal lives, and an element of our identity..

Scott Sandler, in his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, links failure to the “American Dream,” arguing that failures “embody the American fear that our fondest hopes and our worst nightmares may be one and the same…. the [American] dream that equates freedom with success…could neither exist nor endure without failure.” We need failure in our society he says “to sort out our own defeats and dreams.” Put in contemporary Darwinian contrast, Sandler contends “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Both at the personal level and at the organizational and country level, we are hesitant to admit that we have failed. One need only look at issues such as climate change, income inequality, racism and lately, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan to see the truth in that.

Yet we have conflicting views of personal failure in comparison to the scientific world. For example, In the pharmaceutical industry, the clinical failure rate for drugs entering phase II testing was reported to be 81% in 1993–2004. In sports, major league baseball batters fail to hit the ball 75% of the time. Batters with a .300 batting average are considered superstars. In pro basketball, more than 90% of the players have less than a .650 average for sinking free-throws.

According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failureis directly linked to your self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person. As a result, Covington found in his research that students will go to great lengths to avoid failure and maintain their self-esteem.

How Failure Creates Problems for Us

Failure can make repeating efforts at the same goal unattainable. In one study, people were asked to kick a football over a goalpost and then estimate how far and high the goalpost was. The caveat was there were no yard markers on the field. In the experiment, the people who failed kicking the ball over the goalpost estimated the goalpost was much further away and higher, than the people who succeeded. In other words, the researchers concluded, failure automatically distorts your perceptions of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable.

Failure can distort your perceptions of your abilities. Much as it makes your goals seem further out of reach, failure also distorts your perceptions of your actual abilities by making you feel less up to the task. Once you fail, you are likely to assess your skills, intelligence, and capabilities incorrectly and see them as significantly weaker than they actually are. Knowing this and correcting for it in your mind is important because by making you devalue your abilities.

Failure can make you believe you’re helpless. When people fail, they often feel helplessness, because it causes an emotional wound. Your mind wants to give up and not try again as a way of protecting you from pain. So you end up avoiding challenges because not just the fear of failure but because of the fear of pain.

Failure can lead to a ”fear of failure.” Some people would argue that they fear success, not failure, but it’s not the same. Fear of failure is unconscious and often imaginary. Your mind doesn’t deal with the fear of failure as being rational or probable. This unconscious focus on avoiding future failure (avoidance) rather than determining what is necessary to be successful creates the problem.

Fear of failure can lead to self-sabotage. People can protect themselves from the pain of future failure by self-sabotage — by making excuses or avoiding trying something in anticipation that they will fail at it. So better to avoid trying altogether. It can go as far as creating illnesses or minor crises to justify the avoidance. These kinds of behaviors often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure.

The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame

Brene Brown is acknowledged as a foremost expert on the topic of shame and its link to failure. She says this about it: “The difference between I am a screwup and I screwed up may look small, but in fact it’s huge. Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough. Failure can become our most powerful path to learning if we’re willing to choose courage over comfort.” Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong, outlines a three-step process to help readers overcome failure:

  • Reconning: Reckoning with your emotions is a two-step process. First, you must examine your emotions. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. Put names to those feelings.
  • Rumbling: Examine closely the narratives and stories you tell yourself about yourself, and challenge them.
  • Revolutionizing: Question if necessary your beliefs and worldview, and revise them if needed. This may involve asking for help to do this.

Former Stanford University psychologist John Atkinson argued there’s a link between the two basic achievement motives, need for achievement and fear of failure, and specific emotions. Atkinson described need for achievement as “the capacity to feel pride in accomplishment” and fear of failure as “the capacity or propensity to experience shame upon failure.”

Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of seek to avoid challenges. In so doing, those high in fear of failure keep themselves from the mistakes and failures that many psychological experts say can act as motivation to develop one’s competence.

In essence, avoiding failures has a negative impact on our emotional growth and maturity, and ironically, it will lead to more mistakes and failures. This avoidance of failure becomes a self-perpetuating process and self-fulfilling prophecy.

The science of failure

We take credit for our successes but not our failures. When we are successful we engage in attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our experience. But we don’t like to admit to failure. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task, rather than taking responsibility.

Failure makes us more selfish. After succeeding at a task, research shows the positive experience makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. In contrast, the research shows that if we fail, we’re less likely to want to be helpful and generous to others.

We have trouble admitting that we’re wrong. In the book 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.’” So 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.”

How to Deal with Failure

The following is a collection of ideas from research and practices that can help you deal with failure.

Become mindful of your self-talk and argue back. The first step in addressing any problem is identifying it. So, the first thing you need to do to change your mindset is to identify when you are slipping into a fixed mentality. This involves asking yourself if what you are thinking is really true and anchored in reality.

Focus on the process, not the outcome. When you get rejected or fail, you may just want to throw your hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then you can remind yourself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what you wanted, you still benefitted from the process.

Develop a growth mindset. Just learning that your brain can change is enough to rewire your mindset. One study found that teaching children about how our brains are malleable can help the children the brain’s malleable quality led them to mindset, rather than seeing that their brains are fixed and never changers. Check out the research on “neuroplasticity.” and watch the TED Talk by psychologists Carol Dweck on the topic of mindset.

Focus on achieving the things you want rather than what other people think you want. Far too many people desire others’ approval as a way of validating their worth. This is a recipe for a world of disappointment. When failure and rejection occur, if you’ve chosen do the things you want for your own approval, you will weather the storm a lot better.

Praise others for their effort not just their accomplishments. In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and her parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging her to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with future failure and improves their performance.

View decisions as experiments. Recognizing our mistakes is almost impossible, according to Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong. Since it’s so common for us to brush aside or forget our failures, a better way to learn from when we go wrong might be this approach from Zen Habits author, Leo Babauta: “See decisions not as final choices, but experiments. The anxiety (and paralysis) comes when people are worried about making the perfect choice. And worried about making the wrong choice. Those are two outcomes that aren’t necessary to decide, because if we conduct an experiment, we’re just trying to see what happens.”

Don’t make it personal. Separate the failure from your identity. Your failure(s) are not you. They are only events in time. It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Continuing to personalize failure can take a heavy toll on your self-esteem and self-worth.

Stop dwelling on it. People can sometimes ruminate and obsess over a failure. It doesn’t change the outcome, and you’ve spending your time living in the past. Instead, focusing on the present and future and taking positive action will change outcomes. An example of this can be taken from professional football. Don Shula, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins is the winningest coach in theNFL, holding the record for most career wins (including two Super Bowl victories) and the only perfect season in NFL history. Shula had a “24-hour rule,” where he allowed himself, his staff, and his players 24 hours to celebrate a victory or brood over a defeat. During those 24 hours, Shula encouraged them to feel their emotions of success or failure as deeply as they could. After the 24 hours, he and his team focused on their next challenge.

Release the need for approval of others. Often our fear of failure is rooted in our fear of being judged and losing others’ respect and esteem. We easily get influenced by what people say about us. Remember, this is your life, not theirs. What one person considers to be true about you is not necessary the truth about you, and if you give too much power to others’ opinions, it could douse your passion and confidence, undermining your ability to ultimately succeed.

Embrace your emotions with mindfulness. Failure is accompanied by a variety of emotions; embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame. Those feelings are uncomfortable and many people will do anything they can to escape feeling emotional pain. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making argues you shouldn’t try to block or repress your negative feelings. Researchers discovered that thinking about your emotions — rather than the failure itself — is most helpful. Allowing yourself to feel your negative emotions for a limited time can actually be motivating. Label your emotions and allow yourself to experience them.

Understand that success takes time, unlike popular stories about instant success. How long does it take to be really good at something? And what do the people who master their endeavours do differently? A cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been investigating the role of effort, practice, and knowledge in top performers. He has studied the most talented creators in history — people like Mozart and Picasso — to determine how long it took them to become world class at their craft. Furthermore, he has investigated the choices and experiences that have led to their success. The results of his research showed that not a single person produced incredible work without putting in at least 10 years of practice. Professor Hayes referred to this period as the “ten years of silence.” In follow-up studies, Hayes found similar patterns among famous painters and popular poets. These findings have been further confirmed by research from research by K. Anders Ericsson.

And finally use humor. People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways Research from the University of Kent has shown that positive reframing, acceptance, and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures. In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology describes a diary study that found having a sense of humor about your failures was to be one of the most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day.

Children and Failure

Dr. Joseph Loscalzo, of Harvard Medical School argues contemporary American education has focused too much doing whatever it can to eliminate student failure. It’s been based on the belief that discouraging students to experience failure is too devasting for students’ self-esteem and their learning. As a result, a “no-fail” curriculum and grading system was implemented. Maintaining the student’s self-esteem at all costs has been the mantra of American public education now for some time, and while it has had its benefits, especially for students who would be severely defeated by even modest failure, it has had its disadvantages, as well, creating a self-affirming culture of narcissism among many students. We would be better served to help students accept and deal with failure as a reality of life.

“Parents are a really critical force in child development when you think about how motivation and mindsets develop,” says Kyla Haimovitz, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She coauthored the study, published in Psychological Science with colleague Carol Dweck, who pioneered research on mindsets. “Parents have this powerful effect really early on and throughout childhood to send messages about what is failure, how to respond to it.” “The more parents believed that failure is debilitating, the more likely their children were to see them as concerned with their performance outcomes and grades rather than their learning and improvement,” the study found.

So what can parents and teachers do to help children become success oriented — rather than risk aversive?

Emphasize effort over ability. Thanks to Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets, the education system is giving 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. Critical in this process is giving specific feedback to students that praises effort not just achievement. 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. Care must be taken, however, to not give students the message when they fail, that they must give more effort. 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 delicate balance between self-acceptance and being realistic. And self-compassion can help. Kristin Neff writes in her book Self-Compassion “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. 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 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.”

Summary and Conclusions:

It is clear from a review of the research and experts’ perspectives that a few things stand out:

  • 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.

Be sure to read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders CanTransform Chaotic Workplaces, available on Amazon and Barnes andNoble in paperback and Kindle form.




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

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

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

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