John Hain CCO Public Domain/Used with Permission
Source: John Hain CCO Public Domain/Used with Permission

By Philip J. Rosenbaum, Ph.D.

The new year brings resolutions and new possibilities for failure. This might sound pessimistic at first, but there is an upside to giving ourselves permission to try and fail. Failures are often just bumps on the road to success.

Accepting failure as part of learning can soften the negative self-talk that we are somehow “bad” for failing. Failure might mean we’ve actually tried to do something new; embraced a new venture. It might be preparation for future success.

Failure’s Bad Reputation

There can be real consequences to failing. Not succeeding is painful and disappointing. Increasingly, in our society, we only celebrate winning and success and not the struggles along the way—“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

There are also the hidden consequences of failing. These can be more damaging and crippling than the real life consequences because of how they impact our future efforts and how we feel about ourselves.

Two things happen when we fail:

  • We shut down. The shame of failing can hit us like a hammer to the head, then we are no longer open to challenges. And so, we stop learning.
  • We feel that failing is a thing to avoid at all cost. We don’t think of it as an inevitable part of learning. And so, we stop trying.

When this happens, it can be said that we have internalized the fear of failing.

Failure’s Vicious Cycle

Our fear of failure starts a vicious cycle of procrastination—we don’t want to fail so we avoid even trying.

Lisa was terrified that she would not get a job after college. Her fear of failing--not getting the “right” job--led her to delay the application process. As a result, she missed out on several jobs she wanted. She felt behind her peers who had already secured jobs.

She felt ashamed. She failed to start “on time.” This led to further procrastination. When I asked her if she had used the career center, a useful resource available to students, she replied in disbelief, “I hadn’t even thought about that.” Her fear had kept her trapped and unable to access all her resources.

When we do finally decide to try something new, our fear of getting it wrong can be crippling. It may hinder our ability to learn, to be present and to give it our best effort. Instead, preoccupied with what will happen when we fail, we wait for the perfect conditions. We set-up a self-fulfilling prophecy: our fear of failing leads us to put off practicing or getting help, thus making it more likely that we will fail. At the most extreme, we generalize and consider ourselves “failures.” We feel hopeless and even, sometimes, depressed.

The good news is that it only takes changing one thing to break failure’s vicious cycle. For Lisa, talking about her fear of failure and worry that she already failed helped her to see it was not too late to get a job, which she did with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. 

Ways We Benefit from Failure

If we can change our attitude about failure, we will see that failing has many benefits in the long run. Here are a few of them:

  • When we try something new, we learn something new. If we stick with it, failing can eventually lead to new and creative solutions to a problem. Finding new and unexpected paths can change the lens through which we view the world. This is exciting!
  • Failing can help us develop the courage to keep trying. When we don’t give in to shame, we develop the conviction that what we are doing matters. This is important!
  • Failures may lead us to question our current path. Figuring out why we have failed may lead us to realize that we are doing something for the wrong reasons. For example, we stuck with a job because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because we were interested in doing it.

When understood as part of the normal process of growing and developing, failure may become something to be accepted—even welcomed. It allows us the freedom to try new things and escape our self-imposed limitations.

Philip J. Rosenbaum, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Haverford College. He received his psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute. He is the editor of the recently published book Making Our Ideas Clear: Pragmatism and Psychoanalysis and is the co-editor of the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy. He is in private practice in Philadelphia, PA and his website is www.philiprosenbaumphd.com

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