Psychology of failure

By Phyllis Hanlon
March 1st, 2014

Addressing rejection, self-esteem and fear

Just about everyone has experienced some type of setback in life, but reactions to those experiences vary from one individual to the next. A person’s belief system, temperament and environment may influence response and help determine appropriate treatment.

Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clark University and co-author of “Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids” attributes fear of failing to a person’s belief system, i.e., the perception that ability, intelligence and talent are either fixed or changeable. “The person might be a perfectionist and think ‘If I make a mistake, I’m inadequate, so I’ll never do it again,’” she says, adding that temperament and environment can contribute to that mindset.

Using sports as an example, Grolnick cites the difference between emphasis on performance, which can lead to fear of failure, versus improving skills and having fun. “The pressure we put on people plays a big role in this and often backfires. When you feel pressure, it takes away the fun. If you are trying not to lose, you won’t play well,” she says.

When setbacks in school affect a child, Grolnick suggests parents provide as much support as possible and help children reframe their thinking. “Parents don’t need to save their children from failures. But they should allow them to express their feelings. Help them problem solve and develop coping skills to tolerate failures,” she says. “We all need to feel competent in our lives as human beings. Our job as parents is to empower our children, help them solve and make sense of problems.”

Guy Winch, Ph.D., who has a private practice in Manhattan and authored “Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries,” says that all individuals “come with a basic coping mechanism.” Setbacks might evoke a range of responses including motivation to succeed, frustration or discouragement. Finding your “blind spot” can help an individual deal with failure.

For example, Winch cites the college freshman that does poorly in his first semester because he is still using high school study skills. “You have to spend time figuring out why you are failing, identify trends and patterns and figure out how to fix them. You have to watch for sabotaging behavior, catch anxieties and address them,” he explains. “Fear of failure is an unconscious dynamic. When your ego is on the line, you become aware of stress. You manage feared outcomes and set lower expectations. You are self-handicapping, such as staying out late the night before an exam. These strategies increase the possibility of failing. You need to take an optimistic view, mediate the negative outcome you anticipate.”

Rejection is similar to failure, says Winch. “We spend way too much time on finding what we did wrong, rather than looking at a situation,” he says. “It’s important to look at a situation and not take it too personally. We wouldn’t purposely make a physical injury worse. But we do it all the time with emotional injuries. We get wounded and replay in our heads the ways we are inadequate. If we viewed emotional wounds as something to be healed like physical wounds, we’d be better off.”

Athletes are taught to take a different approach to failure. Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., clinical sports psychologist and co-director of PACES Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “Who’s Game Is It Anyway?,” points out that individuals who have lost a job or a girl or boyfriend tend to be reactive. Athletes must be proactive and take responsibility for being well prepared. “There’s a certain level of discipline involved. They have to find a balance,” he notes. “The most successful athletes have been humbled by negative experiences.”

Ginsburg points out that preparation for an athletic event does not include talk about failure. “We focus on what they can do to mentally prepare. We try to put the athlete in the best possible position to bring it all together,” he says.

When an athlete does fail to win the gold, place first or suffers an injury, Ginsburg helps the individual take advantage of the adversity. “We try to make it a learning tool, something on which to build character and make them more versatile. We teach them not to over think, but to control what they can,” he says. “Failure is not giving your best, not being prepared, not having a good attitude. These are things you can control.”

Warren E. Schwartz, Psy.D., co-owner of the Center for Self Development, P.C., in Nashua, New Hampshire, reports that low self-esteem can precipitate adverse reactions; these individuals are less likely to take reasonable risk to accomplish their goals. “Empirical evidence shows that they avoid situations involving the prospect of failure,” he says. Raising self-esteem is a “self-worth process,” Schwartz explains. “People attribute [their failures] to something they did. They imagine themselves as bad.”

No matter the treatment option used, Schwartz views therapy as a “way of undoing the internalized ways of relating to self and the world.” He says, “We have to challenge the way they think about the self and, as a result of practice, discover they are not as bad as they thought.”

Schwartz cites the possibility of “skill atrophy” when isolating behaviors persist. “The more you avoid something, the more likely your avoidance is reinforcing comfort,” he points out.

Personal relationship history, both past and current, helps the clinician discover how the individual processes events and interacts with sense of self. “To understand how they got here, you have to revisit the past,” Schwartz says.

If these feelings are left untreated, depression can likely develop, according to Schwartz. “Low self esteem is very highly correlated with depression. If you stay in bed all day, you won’t have to face anything,” he says, adding that physical repercussions are also likely to develop. “Depressed people are at risk for coronary artery disease when you control for variables like smoking. They are also at risk for decreased bone mineral density as a result of biological changes.”

“A lot of skills – relationship and social – get rusty when we don’t use them,” Winch says, comparing emotional challenges to physical setbacks. “You have to get your strength back after having the flu. It’s the same thing with emotional injury. It takes time to heal.”

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