The Power — and Danger — of Failure

We behave, do things, and most of our actions have consequences. Some of those outcomes are mild, but others can be very intense. Some are positive and some are negative. The positives bring us varying degrees of pleasure and reassurance. We like consequences that make us feel good, so we have a strong tendency to repeat actions that bring about those positive effects. But, whether mild or strong, it is the negative consequences – our failures, disappointments, letdowns, mistakes – that are the great teachers in life. Athletic coaches certainly know this fact. Even following a win, they say things like, “We need to study our mistakes so we can get better.” They know that improvement results from focusing mostly on faults, not strengths.

Psychologists also recognize the value of failure when coping with stress. That is, life is full of negative experiences that cause you stress, and the best way to deal with that stress is to confront and examine your failures, and make necessary adjustments to improve your future actions. The spotlight is on actions that bring you anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions, not so much on effective coping behaviors. Those actions that work for you take care of themselves; it’s those actions that get you into trouble that require examination.

Unfortunately, some people “fuse” to their failures. When they act and experience a negative outcome, they direct those negative thoughts and feelings inward, at themselves. Following a bad outcome, they use terms like frustrated, fearful, incompetent, and worthless to describe themselves. Is this you? If so, you must remember that following failure, when you “fuse” to your negative thoughts and feelings – meaning you absorb your sense of self into the failure – you alter your sense of identity. You define yourself in a negative framework, and come to think of yourself as if you are your negative experiences. Obviously, getting caught in this pattern of negative thinking, and identifying your self-concept with failure, creates an identity that puts you in a whirlpool of inescapable stress. You quickly fashion a downward spiral of avoidance, depression, self-debasement, and self-destructive actions.

At this point you are especially vulnerable to stressors in your life. One way to deal with the stress is to reach out to supportive people in your life who will remind you of your positive gifts that can help you confront your negativity and change course. Family bonds can help here. Unfortunately, if constructive, supportive others are not available – or if you rebuff them – you may turn to those who willingly accept you into their sympathetic and understanding group, but who truly have only their own interests, not yours, in mind. This is how cults and other outlier extreme groups operate. They foster and encourage antisocial behavior, but give members a crutch – usually adoration of the leader, or hatred of some outside enemy – to prevent the downward spiral of self-hatred. Members of these groups can act hatefully and negatively toward others, but they do not fuse their actions with their identity as long as they have that crutch for support. Thus, to avoid the anxiety of fusing to their hateful actions and seeing themselves as evil, cult members must adore the leader, or hate the “enemy,” at all costs. The dynamics work for a while, but eventually reality will catch up and the crutch will fall – be it irrational adoration of the leader or hatred. At best, this state of affairs eventually generates dislike of self that permeates everything and leads to self-destructive behavior – aka, “drinking the kool aid.”

OK, you say, but how do I make myself less likely to fuse to my negative experiences without relying on some inappropriate model to help me? First, remember that failures can be great teachers and help you improve. Second, remember that negative reactions to failure and criticism – reactions like frustration, disappointment, anger, and questioning your competence – are natural and expected responses, and do not define your core self-concept. Third, accept that you are accountable for how you react to failure. Fourth, remember that family and trusted friends can sometimes help you meet that responsibility in an independent and autonomous way. Fifth, when confronting failure, look for solutions that are task-based – “Next time, I need to prepare and practice before facing this challenge.” – not emotion-based – “My report would have been right on the money if my lousy boss had given me more time.”  A task-based strategy will not encourage you to be unrealistic and seek continued success; rather, it will encourage you to do everything you can – within your circle of personal control – to minimize the odds of failure in the future.

Finally, remember that most life problems have no perfect solution. Your best option is often to accept life, yourself, and others even when these things can be unpleasant. This type of acceptance does not mean giving up or quitting; it means taking a realistic orientation to life that is focused on what you can directly control: your thoughts and behavior.

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