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I failed….$%*!

December 4th, 2023
By: Amber Labow, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist

If hearing the word “failure” immediately sends shivers down your spine… you’re not alone. Your body is basically screaming at you, letting you know that something is wrong. It is literally a visceral reaction! So, how can a word be so jarring and carry such a negative connotation?

Failure is defined by “a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation” (3). If you fail to meet a goal you set for yourself, it is common to experience shame, disappointment, sadness, frustration, and even worthlessness. Therefore, failure can have a significant impact on our self-esteem, which is closely tied to our self-worth. Meaning, our worth can be threatened when we do not achieve our performance goals or demonstrate competency (2). Our perception of ourselves – whether that be of our achievements, abilities, or characteristics – can also influence self-worth. In addition, the worth you believe you hold as a person in various areas of life (e.g. romantic relationships, friendships, work, family) can equally play a defining role in our self-esteem. With that said, if a given failure threatens our sense of self-worth, then it makes sense that our bodies would let us know – and they can do that by increasing heart rate, trembling, sweating, or muscle tension, for example.                                                                                                                                    

A single “failure” can trigger a fear of failure, which means an intense apprehension of not meeting expectations or falling short of achieving a goal (3). If we perceive the potential consequences of failure as catastrophic, dangerous even, this can lead to anxiety and avoidance or possibly alter your perception of your capabilities. Steering clear of situations or tasks that might have a high risk of failure can provide temporary short term relief (both emotional and physical). And, will certainly remove any possibility of failure. However, before you know it, the fear might increase reluctance to take on new challenges, step outside of our comfort zone, and confront risk or uncertainty, which can be limiting both personally and professionally.

Let’s dive deeper into how we perceive failure. Because, if our interpretation of failure is that it is catastrophic this can significantly guide our emotions and behaviours. Here are some examples of common cognitive biases that actually fuel the fear of failure and maintain anxiety and avoidance (1) :

  1. “Failure is shameful”: There is a strong correlation between shame and fear of failure and it is common to experience shame when we fall short of our goals (3). However, we have to keep in mind that failure is normal!
  2. “Failure is personal”: We might feel that we are the only ones experiencing failure. Almost as though, our thoughts are convincing us that others don’t share the same experience of failure. This can increase our tendency to adversely compare ourselves to others, which can prompt avoidance or isolation out of fear of possible judgment, humiliation, embarrassment or rejection.
  3. “There is no benefit to failure”: Like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, the only thing our brain can see are the negative outcomes that can be associated with failure. This belief is limiting us from considering possible solutions, positive outcomes, or the ability to reframe failure into an opportunity to learn.
  4. “If I fail, then I am a failure”: We might Internalize a single failure as a defining characteristic of who we are as a person. This can influence our perception of our self-worth and influence the goals we set for ourselves.

So how do we move away from a distorted mindset and embrace failure?

  1. Lean into failure. Let’s stop avoiding the experiences we are afraid of. If we never fail, how are we going to know how to overcome adversity? If we never fail, how do we learn from our mistakes? Can this serve as a learning experience or strengthen our character? Can you draw any positive conclusions from your experience?
  2. Consider taking a risk. Come face to face with uncertainty and the possibility of failing! What do you notice about yourself?
  3. Listen to your body. What is your body telling you? Are you experiencing any unwanted overwhelming emotions? If so, totally normal!
  4. Stick with these feelings without acting on them. Learning to tolerate failure can actually be the key to success. When I say tolerate, what I mean is learn to get comfortable with the immensely uncomfortable, daunting, and overwhelming emotions that follow failure – disappointment, worthlessness, sadness, shame, etc.
  5. Check-in with yourself. Do you hold any erroneous beliefs about failure? If so, let’s start by acknowledging and naming them. Check out this Connecte capsule – Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts – to learn more about how to start reframing your beliefs about failure.
  1. Covington, M. (2009). Self-worth theory. Handbook of Motivation at school, 141.
  2. McGregor, H. A., & Elliot, A. J. (2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 31(2), 218-231.
  3. Thompson, P. (2021). What is failure and how can we make the most of it? BetterUP. https://www.betterup.com/blog/what-is-failure#:~:text=Failure%20is%20defined%20as%20a,esteem%2C%20and%20self%2Dacceptance.
  4. Tsatiris, M.D. (2021). 5 Thought patterns that fuel the fear of failure. Psychology today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/anxiety-in-high-achievers/202102/5-thought-patterns-fuel-the-fear-failure
About the author

Amber Labow completed her doctorate in psychology at Laval University, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.