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The Essential Guide for Recovering From Failure

The psychological wounds failure inflicts and how to treat them.

Failure is painful, disappointing, and demoralizing. But in addition to these obvious emotional bruises, failure can impact us on an unconscious level as well, and leave wounds that are far more psychologically devastating. Recognizing the various psychological injuries we sustain when we fail and learning how to treat them will help you recover more rapidly and more fully, both psychologically and emotionally, and increase your chances of success in the future.

Recognizing the Wounds Failure Inflicts

1. Failure makes our goals seem tougher. Scientists asked people to kick an American football over a goalpost 10 times, after which they asked them to assess the distance and height of the goal post. People who failed at the task assessed the goalpost as being significantly further away and higher than people who succeeded. Failure impacts our unconscious perceptions such that our goals seem further and more out of reach. This causes another unconscious distortion:

2. Failure makes our abilities seem weaker. Once we fail we not only see our goals as harder to reach, we perceive ourselves as less capable of reaching them. Again, these are not accurate assessments but natural distortions that occur on an unconscious level. These two distortions have an additional impact:

3. Failure damages our motivation. Numerous studies have demonstrated that whether we believe we will succeed or fail has a direct impact on how much effort we invest in reaching our goal. When we fear we are unlikely to succeed, we unconsciously invest less effort in pursuing our goal, and consequently, we are indeed less likely to attain it. All of which introduces another unconscious dynamic:

4. Failure makes us risk-averse. The less confident we are and the more worried we are about failing, the less likely we are to take risks, emotional or otherwise. Ironically, once we fail at a more conventional approach, finding a ‘riskier’ solution might be the best and most important avenue for us to pursue. But once we’re hesitant to take risks, we are less likely to even consider them, because:

5. Failure limits our ability to think outside the box. Once failure makes us more risk-averse, it impacts our ability to think more creatively and to find solutions that are "outside the box" because by definition, such solutions entail less certainty and more risk. But since these dynamics are largely unconscious, we often don’t recognize how our thinking has been impacted and instead believe we’ve simply run out of new approaches and ideas to pursue. Which is why:

6. Failure makes us feel helpless. Over 50 years ago, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier gave participants a test and told them it was indicative of intelligence—it was not. In fact, the test was rigged such that it was impossible to complete. They found that once participants failed at the (rigged) test, they acted helpless, so much so that when they were given a similar test, one that was well within their capacities, they failed at it—because they felt too helpless to give it a real try. Failure often makes us feel helpless even though we are not, because:

7. Failure leads us to make incorrect and damaging generalizations. When we fail we often generalize the experience in sweeping and self-punitive ways, and draw incorrect and unnecessary conclusions about our general intelligence, abilities, capacities, and even about our ‘luck in life’ or what was or wasn’t "meant to be." The only thing we can conclude for sure after a failure is that we were unsuccessful at that particular task/goal, in that particular time, in those particular circumstances.

How to Treat the Wounds Failure Inflicts

1. Fight the distortions: Recognize that failure distorts your perceptions about the task itself and about your capacities. Don’t ‘buy’ that you are incapable. Adopt a mindset of persistence and optimism and refuse to give up.

2. Revive your self-worth. Try to ignore your recent failure for a moment and make a list of the qualities and capacities you possess that should (at least on paper) make it possible for you to succeed. If you have trouble coming up with a list, ask a friend or someone who knows you well to remind you of your strengths. Read your list and reconnect to your potential.

3. Remind yourself of what success would mean to you. Recharge your motivation by reconnecting to the reasons you began pursuing your goal in the first place. Consider how you would feel if you succeeded, especially after having already failed at a previous attempt.

4. Take calculated risks. Recognize that it is natural to feel anxious when considering less conventional options, but that it might be essential to do so. Create a list of all the various approaches you can think of, rank them according to the risks they entail, and make informed and calm choices about which to pursue first.

5. Reengage your creativity. Brainstorm new approaches by following these two steps: In the first, list every approach you can think of while completely ignoring whether it is realistic or possible. Do not censure your ideas at all in this stage. Only once you have a complete and ‘crazy’ list should you go through it and think through what is or isn’t viable.

6. Focus on factors in your control: Most failures are related to inadequate planning, poor preparation, and insufficient effort. Figure out what was lacking in your planning, how you can be better prepared in the future, and how and where you can invest more effort.

7. Reframe the failure as a single incident. Make a list of the specifics of the situation that might be different when you approach the task next time. Include items such as circumstances, factors related to the other people involved, your mood, your spouse’s mood, the weather, your general frame of mind, how you slept, and as many others as you can. Then check off the many factors that might be different when you try again.

To learn more, watch my short (and very personal) TED talk here.

For more detailed treatments for failure including dramatic and illustrative case examples, check out my book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch.

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