Failure is always a demoralizing and upsetting experience. You cannot always control whether difficult things happen to you in life but you can control, to a large extent, how you react to them. Failure makes your mind trick you into believing things that aren't true. Unless you learn to respond to failures in psychologically adaptive ways, they will paralyze you, demotivate you, and limit your likelihood of success going forward.
Psychologically speaking, the most important thing to do after a failure is to understand its impact, how it affects your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Here are ten surprising facts about failure that will help you turn a difficult and painful experience into a potentially constructive and useful one.
1. Failure makes the same goal seem less attainable. In one study, people kicked an American football over a goalpost in an unmarked field and then estimated how far and high the goalpost was. People who failed estimated the goalpost as being further away and higher than those who had succeeded. In other words, failure automatically distorts your perceptions of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable. Note the word distort—your goals are just as attainable as they were before you failed; it is only your perceptions that changed. You can choose to ignore these new perceptions, and you should. Indeed, changing how you view your goals is not the only way in which failure distorts your perceptions...
2. Failure also distorts 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...
3. Failure makes you believe you’re helpless. One of the most common and strongest feelings people have after failing is helplessness. Failure causes an emotional wound. Your mind responds to this wound by trying to get you to give up so it doesn’t get wounded again—and its best way of getting you to give up is to make you feel helpless. By making you feel as if there is nothing you can do to succeed, your mind might avoid future failures but you will be robbed of successes as well—which is why you shouldn’t always listen to your feelings. But that is not the only way your mind can work against you:
4. A single failure experience can create an unconscious "fear of failure." Some people are convinced they have a "fear of success." They don’t—they have a fear of failure. The problem with most fears of failure is they are unconscious, which means you’re not actually dealing with whether the fear is real, reasonable, or likely. Which then means you’re also not addressing how to increase your likelihood of success; you’re just trying to avoid feeling bad if you fail. This unconscious focus on avoiding future failure rather than securing future success leads people to act out:
5. Fear of failure often leads to unconscious self-sabotaging. One of the most common ways people try to buffer themselves against the pain of future failure is by self-handicapping—creating excuses and situations that can justify why they failed, like going to a party the night before an exam and claiming they were tired or hung over; developing psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches that made it hard to concentrate; or magnifying a small "crisis," such as the need to spend two hours on the phone with an upset friend, to justify why they were unable to prepare for a job interview. These kinds of behaviors often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure. Another reason you need to recognize such unconscious fears is that...
6. Fear of failure can be transmitted from parents to children. Studies show that parents who have a fear of failure can unwittingly transmit it to their children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children fail—thus conveying to them, often unconsciously, that failure is unacceptable. This, of course, raises the stakes for their children and makes them more likely to develop a fear of failure of their own. Another impact this has:
7. The pressure to succeed increases performance anxiety and causes choking. When a golfer misses a crucial easy putt, a bowler gutters the last ball, or a trained singer totally misses the power note at the end of an audition song, it is because performance pressure caused them to choke. Choking happens when the pressure to succeed makes you overthink something your brain already knows how to do. As a result, you add an unnecessary "correction" that throws your brain off and screws everything up. Choking is embarrassing and incredibly frustrating but it is also avoidable because it involves overthinking, and so...
8. A great way to overcome choking is to whistle or mutter. By whistling or muttering quietly while you’re taking a shot, bowling, pitching, singing—whatever it is—and focusing on the task itself, you’re stealing just enough attentional resources from your brain to prevent it from overthinking and correcting something that doesn’t require correction. While choking refers to automatic tasks like those involved in sports or performance, another common factor that causes failure is lapses in will power—and those typically occur not because the person lacks will power but because you need to understand how will power operates:
9. Willpower is like a muscle—it needs rest and glucose to function best. Much like muscles can become fatigued when they are overused, when your willpower fails you it is because it is over-worked and under-nourished. Our brains require glucose to operate and when they don’t have enough of it, our cognitive resources (attention, concentration); our executive functioning (planning, decision making); and our willpower all begin to drop or fail. That is why crash diets often end in binging—they deplete the person’s willpower so severely that they lose their self-control all at once and eat everything in sight. Therefore, be aware of how much effort and willpower you’re exerting during the day and make sure to rest, eat a little, and be ready to be more vigilant and to revisit your motivations when you begin to feel your willpower fading. By taking control of your willpower you are doing the one thing that is crucial to overcoming failure:
10. The psychologically healthiest response to failure is to focus on variables in your control. Failure can make you feel demoralized, helpless, hopeless, and anxious (both consciously and unconsciously) but you can fight back. Break down the task or goal in question to those aspects that are in your control and those that are not. Then go through the list of aspects that are not in your control and figure out how to take control of them—by improving your skill-set, planning, relationships, knowledge, preparation, etc. Now focus solely on those aspects that are in your control. Feeling in control is a literal antidote to feelings of helplessness and demoralization that will motivate you to try again, minimize your chances of another failure, and increase your likelihood of success.
To learn more about failure and when you should and should not trust your mind and your feelings, watch my TED Talk on emotional health.
For a more comprehensive look at the emotional wounds failure inflicts and how to overcome them, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
Copyright 2015 Guy Winch
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