The Gift of Failure

A necessary ingredient in growth and development, understanding why society favors success stories over failure stories requires understanding power and self-esteem.

Everyone fails at something at some point in their lives. Guaranteed. It is a natural part of life. We make mistakes many times over before getting it right. We all do it, yet many of us never talk about the painful moments where we have made mistakes or failed to reach a goal. We refuse to discuss our failures despite knowing the most valuable lessons lie within such experiences.

So what is it about failing that makes us avoid sharing our failures? Indeed, if we can see the value in the lessons learned, others may find value as well.

A powerful teacher, failure often brings up painful and uncomfortable emotions such as shame and negative self-talk. In fact, studies have demonstrated that our perception of failure can determine whether we make another attempt or avoid the task altogether.

While avoiding talking about how we fail is one way to prevent damaging our self-esteem, there are also many proactive ways. Because we lose our power when we dwell in our failures, and we gain strength when we refuse to let our failures define who we are and what we can accomplish, it is critical to become proactive. 

đź’Ą Interpersonal Power

We cannot understand why society favors stories of success over stories of failure without considering concepts of power and self-esteem. Often, we find that the word power ignites negative connotations in our society which makes sense considering its definition is literally the possession of control, authority, or influence over others. 

You can sense a negative, tyrannical undertone using over rather than of in the definition, but what if we considered power in a different light? A more positive one, to be exact. 

Power is neither positive nor negative and issues of abusing power arise from people’s behavior and actions. While there is no denying that power is interpersonal by nature, in the context of understanding failure, power is not harmful if placed in the right hands. By the right hands, I mean, in your hands. 

When we talk about our failures, we find shifts in perceived power. According to researchers Keltner, Gruenfeld, and Anderson, the effects of power are either approach or avoidance.

Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory states that a sense of power turns on our behavioral approach system. In Keltner, Gruenfeld, and Anderson’s research, they explain that when an individual feels their level of power is unstable or vulnerable, the association between perceived power and the desire to approach a desirable end state (such as the empowerment of “owning” one’s own mistakes) vanishes. 

With this understanding, we can see how enticing it is to avoid discussing our failures with others because our level of power in such a situation is vulnerable. Furthermore, we enter dangerous territory if we let others have more power during our failure discussions.

man sitting with bear in counseling

We risk losing sight of the fact that our failures do not define us and we can become susceptible to believing the opinion of others (of us) as our own. This instability of power can have a detrimental impact on our self-esteem.To maintain a healthy amount of interpersonal power, we need to consider and nurture our self-esteem. 

In psychology, self-esteem is one's overall subjective sense of personal worth or value. Considering the reality that most of us don’t live in isolation, the construction of our self-esteem depends on social interactions and our relationships in our lives.

We learn a lot about who we are and who we aren’t through our relationships and moments of shared vulnerability with others we trust. Therefore, we must consider who we share our failures with and if our self-esteem is high enough to withstand the opinion of others.

The phoenix must burn to emerge.

Janet Fitsch

Attaching Meaning to our Failures

How we show up in social situations is essential for better understanding the power dynamics present during failure discussions and how we attach meaning to events that happen to us or events that we anticipate happening shapes how we frame the event of a failure. 

Enter Attachment Theory. Developed by John Bowlby, the central premise is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant's needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. However, this secure base is not always developed. 

Through Attachment Theory, psychologist John Bowlby identified several attachment styles that children can develop and bring into adulthood. With that said, it’s important to note that attachment styles can change depending on context and recent experiences. 

Below are summarizations of the various attachment styles as they relate to relationships:

1. Secure

Comfortable with intimacy and unconcerned with rejection.

2. Avoidant

Uncomfortable with closeness and prefer independence.

3. Anxious

Desire closeness and intimacy, but insecure in relationships due to fear of loss.

4. Anxious and Avoidant

Uncomfortable with intimacy and have difficulty trusting and depending on others.

When we look at each of these attachment types in the context of perceived failure, each style will influence the language we use in the narratives we create for ourselves. 

For instance, researchers have found that individuals who identify as Anxious can rapidly access memories of being hurt by others, thereby creating hypervigilance toward possible rejection. This fear of rejection can easily translate to a fear of intimacy and maintaining healthy relationships, which becomes counterintuitive and can manifest into reality.

It’s important to reflect on how attachment styles present themselves through our behaviors because they can tell us a lot about how we connect with others and how much of our self-esteem depends on being accepted. When we are secure in who we are, we gain interpersonal power and possess more control over how to separate ourselves from our failures.

It has been proved that about 65 percent of people in normative samples are securely attached, whereas 35 percent are insecurely attached; whereas, in chronic pain patients, these percentages seem to be reversed. 

The great news is that we can each acquire a secure attachment style. It’s not the complete absence of fear of rejection that matters, but rather, recognizing the fear and doing it anyway. 

It’s about understanding that failure is a part of the journey towards reaching a goal, and we take ownership over our failures, the opinions of others, which can create a fear of rejection, begin to lose importance.

Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.

John Bowlby

Reframing Failure

In America, success stories and the glory that comes with them are often highlighted. Whether it be via media or social media, we are often exposed to the glory of someone else’s win without the burden of their trial and tribulation. 

For instance, we find real inspiration from our favorite movie characters fighting through their hardships only to come out on top, the underdog winning against the vetted champ. But when we only focus on success, we lose perspective on what it took to get it. When success is portrayed as easy, it is misleading because success and hard work go hand in hand. This means there will be many setbacks and challenges, and often people lack the coping strategies to get through the first setback.

Bestselling books, such as the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, perpetuate the social rejection of being vulnerable and discussing our failures. By claiming that one achieves power via making success appear easy and never appearing too perfect, Greene insinuates faking failure instead of learning from it. 

These books are only relevant within a society where talking about our failures is considered a weakness rather than a strength. 

Research has found that the fear of failure can be handed down from parents to children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children fail—thus conveying to them, often unconsciously, that failure is unacceptable. When we ignore the lessons found in our failures, we actually miss the opportunity to seize the power we gain from introspection. 

The Ostrich Effect, coined by psychologist Thomas Webb and colleagues, refers to the way we can continually avoid ongoing or future failure. For example, when we ignore important unanswered emails and let them pile up because we fear how behind we already are, it is just procrastination stemming from a fear of finding the truth about something we already know or a narrative we have of ourselves that may not be true (or it may be). 

Ostrich Effect Cartoon

This procrastination forces us into inaction and might confirm the negative ways we think of ourselves, whether it be we’re not smart enough, not fast enough, or not talented enough. The list goes on.

While there are lessons in our failures, our emotions after failing at something can be heavy and require self-reflection, and when we don’t address these negative emotions, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from our failures. In general, without reflection, we miss the lesson and attempt the same thing without knowing what was in our control and what was not.

This lack of introspection ultimately affects any future outcomes. If we fail again, in the same way, we can form neural pathways that prevent us from disassociating a belief that we are a “failure” rather than a person who has failed, and if our approach doesn’t change and the outcome stays the same, our brains start to believe the track record.

The good news is that with awareness and self-reflection, we can begin to reframe how we view our failures. With that said, there’s a vital difference between reflection and dwelling. When we dwell or ruminate on a failure, we risk feeling shame for too long, which can permanently damage our self-esteem.

To remedy this, psychologist Joy Francisco suggests exercises used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) such as Emotional Accounting and Cognitive Reframing. By applying Emotional Accounting, one aims to transform negative thoughts into more positive or neutral ones.

With Cognitive Reframing, one creates a constructive interpretation about what happened and creates a plan for next time.

Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Conclusion

Here's the deal. By giving ourselves the necessary time to process failure and learn from it, we can begin to talk about it with others educationally. Shame and embarrassment become growth and pride and transform into a lesson that can help others.

When we embody our interpersonal power, we take control of the narrative around our failure and maintain positive self-esteem despite challenging experiences. The next time you fail at something, which you inevitably will, try not to rush past it, but instead sit with it long enough to learn the lesson prior to moving forward, knowing you’ll fail better in the future.

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