The Gift of Failure


At some point in their lives, everyone fails at something. Guaranteed. It is an unavoidable part of life. We make a lot of mistakes before we get it right. We all do it, but many of us never discuss the painful moments when we make mistakes or fail to meet a goal. 

We refuse to talk about our failures, despite the fact that they contain the most valuable lessons.

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

Failure is a powerful teacher because it elicits painful and uncomfortable emotions such as shame and negative self-talk. In fact, studies have shown that our perception of failure can influence whether we attempt the task again or avoid it entirely.

While avoiding discussing how we fail is one way to protect our self-esteem, there are also many proactive measures we can take. It is critical to become proactive because we lose power when we dwell on our failures and gain strength when we refuse to let our failures define who we are and what we can accomplish.

💥 Interpersonal Power

We can't understand why society prefers success stories over failure stories unless we consider concepts like power and self-esteem. The word "power" frequently conjures up negative connotations in our society, which makes sense given that its definition is literally the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.

The use of over rather than of in the definition suggests a negative, tyrannical undertone, but what if we looked at power in a different light? To be more specific, a more positive one.

Power is neither positive nor negative, and issues of power abuse arise as a result of people's behaviors and actions. While there is no denying that power is interpersonal in nature, power is not harmful if it is placed in the right hands in the context of understanding failure. In the right hands, that is, in your hands.

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

When an individual perceives their level of power to be 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) disappears.

With this understanding, we can see how appealing it is to avoid discussing our failures with others because our level of power is vulnerable in such a situation. Furthermore, granting others more power during failure discussions puts us in perilous territory.

man sitting with bear in counseling

We risk losing sight of the fact that our failures do not define us, and we risk accepting the opinions of others (of ourselves) as our own. This power insecurity can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. We must consider and nurture our self-esteem in order to maintain a healthy level of interpersonal power.

Self-esteem is defined in psychology as one's overall subjective sense of personal worth or value. Given that most of us do not live in isolation, the development of our self-esteem is dependent on social interactions and 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. As a result, we must consider who we share our failures with and whether our self-esteem is strong enough to withstand the judgment of others.

The phoenix must burn to emerge.

Janet Fitsch

Attaching Meaning to our Failures

Understanding the power dynamics present during failure discussions requires a better understanding of how we present ourselves in social situations. How we assign meaning to events that happen to us or events that we anticipate happening shapes how we frame the failure event.

Then there's Attachment Theory. The central premise, developed by John Bowlby, 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 recognizes that the caregiver is trustworthy, which provides a safe foundation for the child to explore the world. This secure foundation, however, is not always developed.

Attachment Theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, identified a variety of attachment styles that children can develop and carry into adulthood. Having said that, it's important to remember that attachment styles can shift depending on context and recent experiences.

Below are summaries 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 prefers independence.

3. Anxious

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

4. Anxious and Avoidant

Uncomfortable with intimacy and difficulty trusting and depending on others.

When we examine each of these attachment styles in the context of perceived failure, we can see how each style influences the language we use in the narratives we create for ourselves.

For example, researchers discovered that people who identify as anxious can quickly access memories of being hurt by others, causing hypervigilance toward possible rejection. This fear of rejection can easily become a fear of intimacy and healthy relationships, which is counterintuitive and can occur in real life.

It's important to consider how attachment styles manifest themselves in our behaviors because they can reveal a lot about how we connect with others and how much of our self-esteem is dependent on acceptance. When we are confident in who we are, we gain interpersonal power and more control over how we separate ourselves from our failures.

In normative samples, insecurely attached people account for approximately 65 percent of the population, while 35 percent are insecurely attached; however, in chronic pain patients, these percentages appear to be reversed.

The good news is that we can all develop a secure attachment style. It is not the complete absence of fear of rejection that is important, but rather the recognition of the fear and action in the face of it.

It's about accepting that failure is a necessary part of the process of achieving a goal, and accepting responsibility for our failures. The opinions of others, which can cause rejection anxiety, begin to fade in importance.

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

John Bowlby

Reframing Failure

Success stories and the glory that comes with them are frequently highlighted in America. We are frequently exposed to the glory of someone else's victory without the burden of their trial and tribulation, whether through media or social media.

For example, we find real inspiration in our favorite movie characters overcoming adversity to triumph, the underdog triumphing over the vetted champ. However, when we only focus on success, we lose sight of what it took to achieve it. It is deceptive to portray success as easy because success and hard work go hand in hand. 

This means there will be many setbacks and challenges, and many people will lack the coping strategies needed to overcome the first setback.

Bestsellers like Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power perpetuate the social stigma of being vulnerable and discussing our failures. Greene implies faking failure rather than learning from it by claiming that power is gained by making success appear easy and never appearing too perfect.

These books are only relevant in a society where discussing one's failures is regarded as a weakness rather than a strength.

According to research, parents can pass on their fear of failure to their children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children fail, thereby conveying to them, often unconsciously, that failure is unacceptable. When we ignore the lessons found in our failures, we miss out on the opportunity to harness the power that comes from introspection.

The Ostrich Effect, coined by psychologist Thomas Webb and colleagues, refers to our ability to avoid ongoing or future failure. For example, when we ignore important unanswered emails and let them pile up because we are afraid of discovering the truth about something we already know or a narrative we have of ourselves that may not be true, we are simply procrastinating (or it may be).

Ostrich Effect Cartoon

This procrastination keeps us from acting and may confirm our negative self-perceptions, such as that we're not smart enough, fast enough, or talented enough. The list goes on and on.

While our failures teach us lessons, our emotions after failing at something can be heavy and require self-reflection; if we do not address these negative emotions, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from our failures. In general, we miss the lesson and repeat the same actions without knowing what was under our control and what was not.

This lack of introspection eventually has an impact on any future outcomes. If we fail in the same way again, 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 does not change and the outcome remains the same, our brains begin to believe the track record.

The good news is that by raising our awareness and engaging in self-reflection, we can begin to reframe our perceptions of failure. That being said, there is a critical distinction to be made between reflection and dwelling. When we dwell or ruminate on a failure, we run the risk of feeling shame for an extended period of time, which can permanently harm our self-esteem.

To address this, psychologist Joy Francisco suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) exercises such as emotional accounting and cognitive reframing. The goal of Emotional Accounting is to change negative thoughts into more positive or neutral ones.

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

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Conclusion

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 are transformed into growth and pride, and then into a lesson that can help others.

When we embody our interpersonal power, we take control of our failure narrative and maintain positive self-esteem in the face of adversity. When you fail at something, which you will, try not to rush past it, but instead sit with it long enough to learn the lesson before moving on, knowing you'll fail better in the future.

References

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I wouldn’t necessarily say that we hear a lot of stories about success and not failures I think that the reason the stories are so successful/popular is because of maybe the extreme odds of being against the person and them coming out on top. Because nobody wants to read a story about somebody who’s a millionaire and then they opened up a successful bookstore because they were already a millionaire they didn’t have struggles and nobody would really care. But if you have somebody who was very poor and work their whole life I think it’s kind of the motivation for people to know that they can put their mind to it and they can come out on top. a famous story of perseverance is Thomas Edison And how many times he failed making the lightbulb. This motivates people and inspires them. They don’t forget the failure but know great things don’t come easily sometimes.

We anticipate an interesting and rewarding experience in the form of a work-related project; however, when we realize that we cannot meet our expected goal or deadline with our limited resources, we become frustrated with ourselves and struggle to reconfigure how we frame this event (failure). While this may not be such a big deal in many contexts, the problem begins when we automatically attribute our failure to being someone else’s fault through a process known as emotional reasoning.

I think so many of us are afraid to share the little "struggle story" online and only share their almost exagerated success! I love it when people are raw and open up with how they fell down over and over until they finally made it. It makes us feel a lot better about our struggle knowing that we arent the only ones. I respect when someone can share how they failed. It is never easy but it is honest.

What a great lesson! Something that needs to be taught to children at a young age. On social media, you see a lot of wildly successful entrepreneurs with books/youtube/podcasts that give advice for success. A lot of times they’ll throw in a small tidbit or two of their struggle, but for the most part is a narrative of success with little obstacles. If someone is trying to emulate that success, and has initial failures, they might believe it because they aren’t smart, or business savvy and quit. In reality, you need those failures to find out what works, and what doesn’t to find success. It’s not enough stories on failure, because failure does bring feelings of shame. People generally don’t like to advertise shameful feelings, but if failure is reframed like mentioned, failure can be viewed as a positive. Failures are lessons on the way to success.