Failure is a word that mental health practitioners hear often. It can be a catchall for anxiety, depression, frustration, and disappointment at not meeting the expectations one has for themselves or that are derived from their family and friends. More concretely, failure can be framed in connection with an inability or lack of desire to register success where performance can be measured analytically–for example in school or at work.
There is, perhaps, no realm where relativism takes center stage more than failure. A performance by an elite athlete that they believe is a failure would be a brilliant success for a normal person. Creating unreasonably high goals or expectations facilitates failure for most people. In the fitness world, the notion of absolutism–that working out everyday for hours is essential–is commonly thought to suppress people’s desire to be fit, in turn leading to a sense of failure.
A cycle of failure in academic circles can impact more than just an individual. The research team of Steinberg, et. al., found that academic problems can undermine the general mission of schools. Failure defined as low achievement can contribute to a reliance on external resources and can quickly come to be considered normal. In the political arena, the label of failure is used as a weapon against opponents; it is easy to see that in a political context the word “failure” can mean nothing more than simply disagreeing with a politician.
Failure Should be Placed in Context
While mental health practitioners have a need to create labels in order to assess and treat people, these labels can reinforce negative self-perception. Believing that one is a “failure” is obviously a function of self-perception, and the critical issue is how to change that perception. The University of Michigan Psychologist Richard Nisbett notes that people tend to fixate on what they believe to be stable character traits and overlook the influence of context on personality. Said another way, this simply means that the way a person behaves in one situation may be totally different if the circumstances were different.
As it relates to a sense of failure, this is crucial, since no one is perpetually a failure, merely–like everyone–subject to impediments and obstacles that might not yield the intended results. Indeed, other research suggests that it is more natural for people to process their thoughts in positive terms and that having an overly positive self-evaluation and unrealistic optimism is characteristic of normal human thought.
The Need to Escape From One’s Own Head
There is a growing body of work from practitioners and researchers who are focused on how the mind processes thought and ways to shift people away from a self-defeating pattern of negative thought and emotion. Writing in a recent issue of Psychology Today, the Psychologist Nancy Colier notes that “living can be intensely agitating and distracting,” and that a person’s own internal narrative can get in the way of experiencing life.
In effect, one’s “mind” and one’s “life” are two distinct things. Through the practice of new habits that can increase self-awareness, it is possible to stop listening to an inner voice calling out failure and refocus on positive thoughts. One recommended modification is to shift one’s focus from the head to the body when a negative thought or group of thought occurs. It is also constructive to reframe a negative internal narrative. Instead of looking at other fit people at the gym and thinking that there is no point to working out, it would be better to note that even a moderate amount of exercise will be beneficial and in turn lead to more positive thoughts and actions.
If you suspect that you or a loved one may be mired in a persistent cycle of negative thoughts relating to a sense of failure, it can be helpful to seek out qualified medical help.