- Failure schema begins early in childhood as the child learns how to do things, including talking, bodily dexterity, coordination, and tasks.
- By getting love and support and cheering on when they fail, children learn that failure isn’t “bad” or a reason to feel rejected.
- Practice failing. You have to accept failures to reach success. With this in mind, allow yourself to make small efforts with trial and error.
This post is one part of the Schemas: An Introduction series of 18 posts, covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by Jeffrey Young. Based on my clinical experience and style, I’m presenting my take on these concepts in addition to Young’s original definitions. You can check out this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the” DNA” of your personality. This series describes what it’s like to have each schema, how to notice it, and how to manage it.
Failure schema is the core of imposter syndrome.
Media discussions of imposter syndrome often describe the problem without getting to what causes it, which is the key to ending it. You’ll hear about how you feel like you’re an imposter at your job, don’t know what you’re doing, or work harder than necessary to hide how bad you are, etc. And while these are definitely symptoms of imposter syndrome, the schema therapy approach helps get at the root of the problem: failure schema.
Failure schema begins early in childhood as the child learns how to do things in the world, including talking, bodily dexterity, coordination, self-control, and tasks. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for caregivers to be insensitive (or worse) regarding a developing child’s need for unconditional love and support as they go through a core learning experience: trying and failing and trying again. By getting love and support and cheering on when they fail, children learn that failure isn’t “bad” or a reason to feel rejected.
If the child doesn’t receive this support, they can irrationally believe that they are somehow flawed by definition, incapable of being competent, and always behind. This is a failure schema.
Some common childhood problems that lead to failure schema:
- A general tone of impatience, frustration, and disappointment in the house.
- You were humiliated for failing or treated with cruelty, contempt, or mockery.
- Caregivers put impossible demands on you, which convinced you that you couldn’t ever succeed.
- Neurodivergence conditions, such as dyslexia and ADHD, can mean children have different ways of achieving, which go unrecognized, leaving them feeling they fail.
- Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of social hate and prejudice can undermine achievement while “blaming the victim.”
As you made your way through school and made friends, the failure schema settled into your self-concept and your behavior in the form of avoidance. You learned to avoid situations where you may have to show people what you can do. You procrastinated and found ways around challenges. The tragedy here is that you may even have to compensate by being better than others to make it, but all in the service of your mistaken belief. Psychotherapy is advisable because this can lead to shame, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
Six Signs of Failure Schema
- You believe you will fail at what you try, so avoid situations where your performance is reviewed: no work performance reviews, no doing your work in front of others, and no tests. You may even leave jobs to avoid “being found out.”
- You sell yourself short, avoid promotions, and limit your ambition.
- You procrastinate, which reinforces your feelings of failure, and sometimes causes you to fail.
- You do poor work because you get so anxious about being judged.
- Even if you succeed or become successful, you believe you will be “found out” or somehow cheated to get where you are.
- Talents or achievements are “flukes” or “one-offs” but not proof of your talent, no matter how many you rack up. This is why you can’t link success to your achievements.
How to Start Letting Go of Failure Schema
It’s possible to end failure schema and your imposter syndrome by working at the level of your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Try to look at childhood through an objective lens–as any little kid–rather than through the lens of your memories. If any kid had the experiences you did, can you see why this kid would develop a failure schema? List the things you went through as a child that likely contributed to the failure schema. Now, again looking through the objective lens, write a brief journal entry about what experiences you deserved as a child and how that would have helped your self-esteem.
- Now, in the present day, list the ways you believe you’re a failure. Just like the exercise above, imagine a friend or colleague in the scenario you’re facing and how you would talk to them about it- would you be as harsh? Return to the list and update it by being “reasonable” this time—Journal about how you deserve to be treated by you.
- Understand that a schema is an emotional trigger and that you don’t have to believe the emotion is true just because you feel it. Once you recognize it, remind yourself to let it go with a statement you say out loud to yourself: “Self (your first name here), you know you are better and deserve better than how this schema is making you feel right now.”
- Over time, people often confuse feeling bad about themselves with being productive or having high standards. You don’t have to feel bad to succeed.
- Practice failing. You have to accept failures to reach success. With this in mind, allow yourself to make small efforts with trial and error, working your way up to more ambitious projects.
Use the above steps to take more risks and stop avoiding challenges where failure is possible. This is how you learn to stop taking failure personally.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.