The success culture
When we think of the word failure, we do not think of well-being but the opposite. We live in a world where we worship success and achievement. We are conditioned to strive to constantly be better, thinner, more beautiful, richer, more successful, more perfect. Somehow, even if we think we don’t buy into this, we do have a model in our minds eye of what “success” looks like. Hand in hand with this model is our inevitable comparison of how we measure up. No one can be the best at everything so we all fall short in some ways, we all fail. This is part of the human condition.
The plus side of failure
Our ability to evaluate our current situation and envisage a desired different outcome allows us the chance to change. The striving to be different that comes from perceived failure provides the motivation to change. Being able to imagine what success looks like allows us to set goals for improvement. Research shows us that setting goals means we are more likely to be successful especially if we are able to break these goals down into small achievable steps. However, change is rarely a smooth road. The failures or setbacks we experience along the way and how we understand and respond to these are an important stepping stone to progress. Seeing failure as learning “another way that doesn’t work” is helpful and more likely to lead to an ultimate positive outcome. Using setbacks as a trigger to revisit our expectancies and strategies employed is healthy. Our ability to reflect on what went well and what didn’t and how things might be done differently, is a strength that allows us to grow. Accepting failure and reframing it positively as a growth experience that allows us to progress fuels hope and builds resilience. If we never fail, we will never learn to take responsibility for our actions and understand the relationship between what we do today and the outcomes of tomorrow. We will deny ourselves the chance to grow.
Failing to fail
However, negotiating failure is a delicate balance. The fear of failure may lead us to disengage from things that we perceive to be too hard thus limiting growth. Lack of experience with failure might encourage us to do this. Often, as parents our instinct is to protect our children from failure or to rescue them when things go wrong. This can prevent them from learning the valuable lessons that coping with failure has to teach and undermine their resilience. Children who reach late adolescence without having learnt to fail may be devastated when they reach the world of early adulthood and encounter an inevitably increased level of competition as they have not developed the skills to accept, reframe and move on from setbacks in a nurturing home environment. Lack of engagement associated with fear of failure may lead to disaffection due to being insufficiently challenged which can result in a number of poor outcomes such as underachievement, low self-esteem, poor relationships and low mood.
The downside of failure
The experience of failure can, of course, be damaging in an unhelpful environment. Highly critical environments which reward achievement independent of effort may promote malignant perfectionism and result in internalised high self criticism. High levels of self criticism have been found to be associated with poor well-being outcomes. Whilst many perfectionists believe they need their inner critic to spur them to achieve success, research in fact demonstrates that the ability to accept and be kind to yourself in the face of failure is associated with better outcomes.
Dwelling on failure or constantly feeling one has failed can lead to a sense of helplessness and depression, whilst persistently fearing being judged as failing can lead to stress and anxiety. In a culture where our young people are constantly evaluated in school and persistently exposed to social media images of perfection out of school, whilst being culturally pushed to always strive for success, is it any wonder that adolescent mental health services are at breaking point?
Self-esteem Vs Self-compassion
Promotion of good self esteem has traditionally been seen as a means of addressing these issues. However, self-esteem, although often associated with good mental health, is rooted in our comparative society, it necessitates a judgement of how you are doing relative to others. Alternatively, self-compassion promotes mindfulness of our reality with acceptance of our failings and the suffering this brings and kindness towards ourselves and our needs in this situation. This is not to necessarily make ourselves feel better (although often it does) but because we feel bad. Failing does feel bad, but it is an essential part of humanity, or common humanity to use the self-compassion terminology. Being able to acknowledge and accept that is the first step to using the experience for learning and growth.
Be careful what you wish for
It’s OK to fail, it’s inevitable that we do. We need to allow ourselves to do so, to feel the consequences, to learn to cope with the emotions, to evaluate and transform the experience, to allow us to move forward develop resilience and grow, thus promoting our well-being. On a cautionary note, we need to be careful about the ideals we strive for. Our failures can pave the way to achieving our goals. Most of us have goals that we think are going to make us happy. But will they? That is another question.
About the author: Sarah Monk