We like to mark the progress of our lives by our successes: learning to walk, beginning or graduating from school, earning an award, making a discovery, starting a business, getting married, having a child, beating an illness, winning a game, earning a promotion or a good review or an admired person’s approval. The list goes on.

Our successes are important to us for deep psychological reasons. From the vantage point of the unconscious mind, they stand for more than mere outside achievements. They stand as evidence of our potency, competency, and capability. They serve as reassurances that we have The Right Stuff—the psychological resources to make it in this world. They tell us that we are safe, that we can survive.

Deeper still—from a psychoanalytic view—our successes are linked to an essential belief in our own goodness. To the unconscious mind, being successful means being good. And being good means being worthy—worthy to exist, worthy to keep on living, worthy to be kept around. At the deepest level, still, being good means that we are worthy of being loved. And being loved ultimately is what matters to us most.

Just as a cigar is more than just a cigar, our successes are more than just successes. So it is with our failures.

For the truth is that we could mark the progress of our lives equally well by our failures as our successes. We all acutely remember the life-shaping experiences of failure. Falling off the bicycle, failing the exam, not making the team. Failing to make the right choice or get the interview, the date, the job, the good score, the book deal, or the lasting happy relationship. These experiences of failure shape us as much as any successes we ever have.

Like success, failure stands for something deeper; it is more than just a setback or a disappointment or a lost opportunity. Underneath these conscious painful feelings, failure unconsciously gets linked to some very troubling beliefs about ourselves. Put simply, failure reinforces our underlying belief that we are no good. It makes us feel helpless, ashamed, and bad. Failure is inextricably linked to a belief that we don’t have what it takes to make it in the world, that what we do will always fall short of or poison or ruin the good.

Just as failure damages our good feelings about ourselves, it also can tarnish our belief that there is good in others and in the world out there. It can make us look at our world through a cynical, resentful, harsh lens. It can turn our view of the world into a cruel, dangerous, icy, and persecuting place. In moments of failure, we may feel that there is no good to be found, inside or out.

We are greatly helped in life when we have a relative balance of success and failure, for then they work in tandem in a potentially helpful way. Success can strengthen our feelings of competence which, ironically, can make us feel that we actually can deal better with failure when it comes. So, too, failure offsets success, keeping us humble and reminding us that we are just human.   We are so much better off when we can take the good with the bad.

Experiences of failure—when not too dominant or overwhelming—can have a particularly special place in psychological growth. While we don’t welcome them or encourage them, they do have something good to offer us, if we let them. They uniquely challenge us to examine ourselves more closely. They compel us to ask ourselves, “How did I contribute to this outcome?” If, in the end, we are not too harsh in our self-review, then we can answer this question honestly and grow ourselves through our difficult experiences.

In addition, failure gives us an opportunity to examine the world around us and ask, “How did other factors contribute to this outcome?” If we can get beyond the blame game, we may learn something incredibly important here, too. You see, we humans have a tendency to think (mistakenly) that we are the center of the universe. But when we really think about our experiences in detail—the good, the bad, and the ugly—we may begin to see that there are factors beyond us, too—factors that don’t have much to do with us at all. That is a valuable perspective, indeed.

Through this self-analysis, we may mature in our thinking to get a better view of reality. We have a chance to evolve beyond the built-in misconceptions that people succeed because they are good or fail because they are bad. Life is much more complicated than that. By reflectively working through our experiences of both success and failure, we can emerge on the other side with a new, more realistic understanding of ourselves and of our world.

Like it or not, there’s no other way to grow. All we can do is to do our best to let both our successes and our failures work for us.

Copyright 2013 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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