Think back to a time you failed at something meaningful or important to you. Did you feel demoralized, blocked, hopeless or helpless? Did you feel stuck because you had done what you could yet were unable to succeed? If so, you are not alone.
Small Psychological Injuries Can Have Big Impacts
We all know failures are demoralizing but what we don’t realize is they constitute a form of psychological injury in that they literally distort our perceptions and thus set us up to fail again. There are the three primary ways in which this happens:
1. Failure distorts our perceptions of our abilities such that we feel less up to the task or less capable of reaching our goal than we actually are.
2. Failure distorts our perception of the goal itself such that it seems further out of reach.
3. Failure makes us believe whether we succeed or not is out of our control.
Taken together, we are likely to feel hopeless and stuck which is why so many of us give up after a failure or perform poorly if we do or must persist.
As an illustration of how powerfully our distorted perceptions affect our behavior—in a recent study, scientists examined the self-care practices of patients with heart failure (developing healthy habits are vital for people with cardiovascular disease). Patients who perceived themselves as having little control over their disease were much worse at self-care than patients who perceived themselves as having more control even when they were well aware that self-care was vital for their health and longevity. In other words, incorrectly perceiving a lack of control prevented the patients from taking action and applying vital self-care strategies despite knowing such strategies were incredibly important to their health and longevity.
The Importance of Regaining Control
To avoid feeling helpless and hopeless and to address the psychological injuries failures and setbacks inflict, you must find ways to regain control of as many aspects of the task or goal as possible.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how to regain control in common life situations:
1. You failed to get a promotion at work: You feel the situation is hopeless because you’ve done a good job and if your boss refuses to recognize your contributions there’s nothing more you can do. To regain control you need to realize there is more you can do. For example, ask yourself what your boss considers important and what they ‘see’ of your work. Specifically, you and your boss probably have different priorities (e.g., you may prioritize your actual work and your boss may prioritize what makes their life easier, what makes them look good to their boss, or whether you make them feel like a good manager). Further, bosses don’t see everything we do. Figuring out what your boss values and being strategic about how you can demonstrate those specific things to them so they "see" them is a great way to take action and regain control.
2. You failed yet another diet: After trying multiple diets you believe you simply lack the willpower to succeed. To regain control you have to recognize that most repeat dieters tend to fail at similar points each time (e.g., two weeks after starting or when work gets busy) and they tend to get tripped up by the same situations and temptations. To regain control you have to realize your success does not depend on willpower alone. Figuring out your traditional failure points and building in incentives and plans to manage them (e.g., planning ahead and making healthy meals so you don't have to rely on fast food or vending machines or bringing a thermos of coffee to work so you don’t have to go into the break room and have pastries wink at you) is a great way to regain control and feel more hopeful about trying again.
3. You aren’t getting any dates on dating websites: You’ve written to many people but they don’t respond or follow through and few people write to you. You believe you’re just not attractive, tall, smart, successful, or interesting enough to attract a mate. To regain control you have to realize that you can work on your profile or pursue other venues. For example, ask a friend to look at your profile and give you feedback in case it needs tweaking. Remember, online profiles are marketing tools and as such might need several rounds of tweaking of both content and pictures until you get results. Second, look at sites like meetup.com for activities that reflect your areas of interest and passion. Such groups are a much better platform for meeting people with common interests as it already gives you something to discuss and share with the other person.
The bottom line is there are always ways we can take control of a situation even when we initially believe we cannot. This is one of those situations in which our mind’s way of responding to failure and setbacks is misleading and damaging to us. We have to override the defeatism we feel and find ways to assert control as that alone will help us move forward.
For many other tips on how to overcome failure check out, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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