Sometimes, despite our continued efforts, we do not achieve the results we want. We may see this as failure.
“One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind.”
Mistakes happen, and any one of us can make them. When we make mistakes, or when things go wrong we can feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can allow us to find alternative ways of solving the problem, so that we can eventually achieve our goals.
Generally, people view failure as an unwanted obstacle – as something to be avoided. Fear of failure manifests in intense worry about not achieving – “what if I don’t get the grades I need to pass?”, “what if I fail the course?”, “what if I don’t get an interview/a job?”. And the likely thoughts and feelings we associate with these possible scenarios: “How embarrassing”, “What will others think of me?”, “what if I cannot do it?” and other thoughts and feelings that can bring our mood down.
Often, it is not failure in itself that worries us, but the feeling that we may disappoint those that we care about, and perhaps feeling that something is wrong with us which can lead to feeling shame and embarrassment (Tsaousides, 2015).
Whenever we do something new there is a risk of failing. The capacity to make mistakes is part of our human condition – it is how we learn and grow. It is thanks to the errors we make that we can adjust our knowledge and behaviour to make progress. Learning happens when we take the time to reflect on our actions and experiences. (Schultz, 2010).
“Failure just means that things are not going the way you expect them to go and you need to remain flexible to get back on track.” (Mlodinov, 2018)
In sports, for example, making mistakes and failure to achieve are part of the athletes’ training to improve their performance. Each time that their efforts do not work out as they hoped they review what happened, identify what they need to change, and then they practice again. Each time they make adjustments that help them improve their skills. This is deliberate practice: persevering with efforts, learning by doing, adjusting each time, practising, correcting, and practising again. This approach to training contributes to the development of skills and improving performance. The repeated practise, while monitoring progress and making adjustments to improve, allows them to develop their expertise. The same approach is used in learning to play music or any other activity that requires mastering skills.
Why making mistakes, or failing, can be so difficult?
One factor that exacerbates our difficulty in dealing with mistakes is self-criticism. This is when we ruminate about our errors and criticise ourselves for failing to meet the standards we expect of ourselves. The repeated negative thoughts can cause high levels of stress, and can lead to further frustration and low mood. It is likely to develop as a vicious circle of negative thoughts, which in turn can fuel negative feelings that can reduce our confidence and prevent us from taking action .
The way we use language when we criticise ourselves can have a very negative influence on our confidence, and our self-esteem.The continued negative self-talk can become a regular pattern that can interfere with our productivity. It can also have an impact in our body as it can stimulate an inflammatory response that can lead to developing illnesses (Davidson, 2012).
Stress is a significant factor that can affect our health, our performance and our ability to manage difficult situations. Often we need to make important decisions under pressure, and when this occurs our brain tends to focus on the negative aspects when weighing up information (Sharot, 2011).
What can you do to manage these feelings?
Develop your sense of self-efficacy:
Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to manage difficult situations, and that we can tap into our personal resources to find a way to achieve our goals. By strengthening your confidence in your ability to manage challenges you will build your capacity to respond more effectively (Bandura, 1977). This may include reaching out to others you trust for guidance and support, and who may offer a different perspective on the situation. By gathering information you can build your resource and your motivation to take action, so you can make the necessary changes to complete your task.
By increasing your confidence in your capacity to manage situations it will strengthen your resilience. The more you can trust yourself to be able to cope when mistakes happen, that you can deal with the possible negative consequences, the more you can tolerate frustration and disappointment. It is important to acknowledge our feelings so that we can understand what is important to us. Give space to your emotions, and without judgment. They indicate that something of value is at stake. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention, while being understanding of ourselves, to be able to find out what to do to improve things (Neff, 2011).
Redefine the meaning of failure:
What does the word failure mean to you? How do you define it? Perhaps as never being able to do things well? Or not trusting yourself to achieve results? Does it prevent you from taking action, or pursuing your goals? How we define failure makes a difference to how we react to events. Often it is not so much the mistake itself, but the consequences that it may lead to that we are afraid of.
In order to respond to failure in a constructive manner you can adopt a scientific approach, where experimentation through trial and error is an essential part of the process to find out about what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes are viewed as an integral part of learning. So as long as you continue to make efforts to learn, view mistakes as something that can happen as part of the learning process.
By reviewing the steps you took, and identifying where things went wrong, you can discover new information that you can use to make adjustments that will enable you to make progress with your tasks. By incorporating what you have discovered to your understanding of the task you can increase your knowledge, so that next time you can do something different to achieve your goals.
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Davidson, R. & McEwen, B. (2012) “Social influences on neuro-plasticity: stress and interventions to promote wellbeing.” Nature Neuroscience, 15.5
Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.
Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.
Neff, K. (2011) Self-Compassion. Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.
Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.
Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.
Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.
Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.