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4 Proven Ways to Bounce Back From Failure

It starts with learning some important things about yourself.

Key points

  • Recovery from failure depends on how well you manage the negative emotions that accompany failure. 
  • Approach-oriented folks prepare for failure but move towards the goal. Avoidant people focus on not failing as opposed to getting what they want.
  • Scientifically vetted techniques for managing failure include reframing the setback and finding the positive.
Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

It is impossible to get through life without experiencing a setback, large or small; inevitably, every one of us will wake up feeling like a total bust. Failures come in all sizes and shapes—from losing a tennis game, to getting passed over for a promotion, to losing someone very important to your life—and the truth is that the ability to weather the emotional storms isn’t meted out equally. Some of us are better at picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and, yes, starting all over again.

While we may like to think of recovering from failure as an inborn character trait, it’s really about how well (or badly) you’re able to manage the negative emotions that accompany failure. Some of this is learned behavior but some has to do with personality.

Psychologists distinguish between individuals who are approach-oriented and those who are largely motivated by avoidance. Read the following descriptions and decide which group you fall into, or whether you’re somewhere in between:

  • An individual motivated by approach sees the mountain and decides to climb it, knowing that pitfalls may be part of the terrain. He or she prepares for that possibility—being temporarily stymied, having to find new solutions, or even failing utterly in the attempt. If and when the worst happens, this person takes it in stride. It’s not that failure doesn’t matter to the approach-oriented—of course, it does—but the recovery is aided by the approach mindset as is the ability to take on this challenge again or to decide that it’s time to quit and set his or her sights elsewhere.
  • In contrast, the avoidant person looks at the mountain and sees a possible single moment of glory surrounded by many moments of feeling terrible about setbacks and ultimate failure, and that’s exactly what he or she wants to avoid. His or her strategies end up more focused on avoiding pitfalls than actually climbing the mountain—which, of course, inevitably lowers his or her chances of success. Additionally, should the would-be climber fail at any point, he or she is much more likely to go down for the count than someone motivated by approach.

Substitute any personal goal you have for the metaphor of the mountain and ask yourself what motivates you: Are you more intent on trying to get what you want or are you focused on not failing? The answer is an important piece of self-knowledge.

If you feel like either a small-time or super-sized failure, here are four things to consider as you recover and learn from the experience, all vetted by science. Remember: This is all about managing your negative emotions, so the popular wisdom of sticking up smiley faces everywhere and telling yourself that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t going to help. Neither is telling yourself to make lemonade out of those lemons:

1. Reframe the setback.

This does not mean reliving it because running that loop over and over in your head isn’t going to do anything but keep you stuck in place. The bottom line? The more difficulty you have managing negative emotion, the more likely you are to ruminate, revisiting every detail. It also does not mean pretending that you didn’t fail or giving it the positive thinking spin.

Research by Ethan Kross and his colleagues suggests that adopting a consciously distanced stance—recalling the situation and focusing on why you felt as you did, rather than what you felt—helps to manage emotions and facilitates understanding of your reactions. Try thinking about the situation as if it happened to someone else to make sure you don’t get swept back into the heat of the moment.

What’s called counterfactual thinking can also be a useful strategy. What is it exactly? It’s thinking about what might have happened in a structured way that separates it from pipe dreams and “if only” thinking; it takes a good dose of realism and some objectivity to pull it off but, if you can, it’s well worth it. Let’s assume you’ve been fired and instead of focusing emotionally—thinking about what a jerk the boss is, how totally unfair and unwarranted this is—you actually think about what you might have done differently. What if you’d stepped up your game when he or she criticized your actions? Counterfactual thinking includes thinking “If I had done X, then Y would have happened.” The good news about this kind of thinking is that it motivates you to take action the next time and take responsibility, instead of playing the blame game. This is true in every area of life, including love and work.

2. Focus on what you missed.

Figuring out what caused you to fail will not only help you feel better about what happened but will allow you to address whatever you contributed to the end result. Were there details or cues you missed that had you thinking you were on the right track when you weren’t? Were you so focused on positive cues—the good things your boss was telling you, the temporary lulls in the arguments you and your partner were having—that you managed to miss the importance of the critiques about your work ethic or the way your partner seemed to withdraw or distance him or herself from you?

One problem with focus—whether it’s fueled by approach or avoidance—is that it can make us miss the very obvious signals in a situation. It’s called inattentional blindness and it was demonstrated by a famous experiment that had participants watch a video of people passing and dribbling a basketball; their task was to count the number of passes or dribbles. During the video—for a total of 9 seconds out of roughly 60—a girl wearing a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the players, thumped her chest facing the camera, and then exited. The astounding result? One-half of the participants missed the gorilla because they were so focused on the counting task. Other experiments using other scenarios confirmed the same finding. You’re probably reassuring yourself as you read this that you would notice the gorilla, but what makes you so sure?

The larger point is that a narrow focus might not always be a good thing. Keeping your eye on the prize—as the common wisdom has it—may have you miss the forest for the trees. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Keep in mind that, generally speaking, humans are overly optimistic and content to pay much more attention to wins—the things that are going right—than losses or misses. Additionally, humans are even inclined to see a clear miss or loss as a near-win which is a dandy motivator if the activity is physical—if you’re shooting a bow and arrow or putting, for example—but tends to lead you down the path of wishful thinking in every other domain.

Just remember the invisible gorilla…

3. Consider whether fear of failure helped to guarantee it.

Sometimes, we fail because we just don’t have the skillset to accomplish the goal we’ve set for ourselves and we fail to recognize it. Other times, because failing is too awful to contemplate and the culture keeps telling us that “quitters never win,” we put our faith in grit and perseverance because we don’t see an alternative. That’s especially true for those people motivated by avoidance, as found in a study by Heather G. Lench and Linda J. Levine.

First, participants self-identified their motivations (approach or avoidance) and then they were given three sets of seven anagrams to solve in a timed test in which they had to either solve or quit one set before proceeding to the next. Unbeknownst to the participants, the first set of anagrams was unsolvable. The approach-oriented participants smelled the daisies, quit the first set, and moved on. Not so the avoidants, who kept hammering away at that first set—and, of course, ended up failing utterly.

A second experiment made it all a bit more explicit because, rather than relying on self-report, this time the experimenters set the bar for the participants, using the same scenario with the unsolvable set appearing first, with all the same rules and time restrictions. One group was told to attain success and that the test was one of verbal intelligence; the other was told to avoid failure and that the exercise measured weaknesses in verbal intelligence. Everyone was disappointed by that first set of anagrams that couldn’t be solved, but the ones primed for the avoidance of failure didn’t just get more riled and angrier; they hung in longer. The researchers noted the irony of their findings: The more people focused on not failing, the more likely they were to fail. Some kind of inflexibility kicks in that basically dooms the enterprise.

Does this ever happen to you?

4. Find the positive (without putting on rose-colored glasses).

Locate your “flow,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it. Get over failure by spending time thinking about and experiencing what really makes you happy. Do something that fully engages you on every level, that puts you in flow. Do something that heightens your feelings of involvement, satisfaction, and joy. The activity should be something that makes you happy, not what makes everyone you know happy. Not what will make your parents happy. Not what will make your spouse, lover, or partner happy. Not what makes your children happy. It should be for you. This is not a call to become a narcissist, selfish, or estranged from the world. It is simply a reminder that, after a big failure, you need to get in touch with yourself. Again.

Finally, failure isn’t a necessary step on the road to success. It’s a popular and soothing thought—but that doesn’t make it true. Learning what you can about yourself in the wake of failure is certainly a step in the right direction. Understanding what you contributed to the failure helps, too. But the best takeaway is improving your ability to manage negative emotions. That, more than anything, will clear the road ahead.

Copyright 2015 Peg Streep


Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions, “Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.

Kross, Ethan and Ozlem Ayduk,” Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing,” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2011), vol. 27, no.3, 187-191.

Epstude, Kai and Neal J. Roese, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Theory,” Personality and Social Psychology Review (May, 2008)12, no.2,168-192.

Simons, Daniel J. and Christopher Chabris,”Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness,” Perception (1999), 1059-1074.

Lench, Heather C. and Linda J. Levine, “Goals and Responses to Failures: Knowing When to Hold Them and When to Fold Them, “Motivation and Emotion (2008), 32, 127-140.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.