When You Fail, Are You a Failure at a Task? Or as a Person?

When you fail, are you a failure at a task? Or as a person?

Failure isn’t fun. There’s just no two ways about that. But what does that failure mean> I think that, particularly when mental illness is involved, it’s easy to leap from “I failed at [X]” to “I’m a failure.” But taking a step back, they’re not really the same thing.

Fear of failure

Fear of failure is common, but the reality is that it’s inevitable that we will fail sometimes.  Whether we fail to complete a certain task or fail to meet a certain goal, we’d never get anywhere without failing along the way. The fact that you’re walking now – how many failures do you think that took when you were a munchkin?

I suspect that even if we think that we shouldn’t fail, we’re quite willing to tolerate failure in others, as long as the person isn’t being an ass about it. I would also guess that we massively underestimate the frequency of others’ failures.  When others fail, we may not even notice. When we fail, a spotlight appears out of nowhere.

Experiencing failure

Failure is generally hardest when we’re failing at something that’s personally meaningful or relevant, like things that are steps along the way to other goals that we have. I think it also depends on how much we perceive we have control over a situation. Failing to win the lottery is out of our hands, so not likely to trigger a strong response.

If you do fail at something, what’s the internal dialogue that starts going through your head? What are the feelings that go along with that? There might be guilt at having let others down. There may be embarrassment or self-criticism, or even shame or self-loathing.

After the initial thinks and feels, what sticks around? Do you get stuck in the broken record of rumination? Or maybe you could do a post-mortem, figure out what went wrong, and use that knowledge to get moving again. An effective post-fail analysis is probably going to be focused on decisions, actions, and the role of external factors.

Failure as a person

Self-flagellation may feel well-deserved, but it’s not going to do much to serve you. Coming to the conclusion that you’re a terrible person, you always have been, and always will be, will just keep you stuck exactly where you are. Things like personality traits aren’t going to change no matter how many times you kick yourself, so that energy is better spent looking for a workaround, or changing your situation to make it less of an issue.

The idea of failure as a person seems like it’s particularly common in anxiety disorders.  But failing as a person is a pretty broad statement. What would failing as a person look like? Dying? Crawling into a hole and doing nothing until you die? Being tossed in jail and having the key thrown away? Is there anyone in particular that you could think of that has failed as a person? Personally, I don’t think failure as a person exists in any sort of objective sense.

The role of mental illness

I’m not good with failure when it comes to things that are important to me or have significant practical consequences in my life. Other more minor failures I’m fine with. I don’t tend to generalize failures into overall failure as a person. I think the best way to describe my response is along the lines of fork theory – important failures feel like getting poked by forks. The bigger the fork(s), the more they hurt and the more energy they suck out of me. I conceptualize it more along the lines of an external attack rather than me as a person.

How I’m doing with my illness makes a difference in how much I can and am willing to tolerate. If I’m not doing well, I’m not going to submit writing to a competitive publication because I don’t have the internal resources to withstand the fork poke that’s always a reality no matter how good one’s writing is.

How I learned it’s okay to mess up

My maternal grandma was the major influence in my early life that modelled that it was okay to mess up. My family went up to her place for the weekend about once a month throughout my childhood, so she was a major figure in my life.

Grandma has always had a great sense of humour. She considers herself to be goofy, and has never taken anything too seriously. Quirky/weird was interesting in her world, not bad. She was the anti-perfectionist; she was imperfect and she embraced that. She also embraced it in my brother and me. She consistently demonstrated the value in being able to laugh at yourself.

She definitely didn’t have an easy life, but she got through with humour and was always able to see the ridiculous side of things. While I don’t think of her as having the same influence in shaping my development as my parents had, the ability to laugh at myself when I mess up is definitely something that came from her rather than from my parents.

Facing fear of failure

An article from Choosing Therapy suggests these 5 tips for facing the fear of failure:

  • Clarify what’s going on with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours
  • Reframe failure as something that can help you grow
  • Give yourself permission to fail
  • Take control by chunking big tasks into smaller ones
  • Be mindful in the present moment rather than jumping ahead to the future

I think that framing failure as something that happens as a person rather than at a task is a mental construct that has the potential to do a lot of damage and really feed into mental illness, so it’s probably an important area to work on.

How do you tend to respond to failure?

A few quotes

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.

J.K. Rowling

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

Michael Jordan

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison

A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.

B.F. Skinner

45 thoughts on “When You Fail, Are You a Failure at a Task? Or as a Person?”

  1. I’m pretty bad at this. I fear failure a lot and tend to internalise it as being a failure as a person. I’m trying not to do this, but it’s hard.

  2. For me this post brings up forgiveness. It is infinitely easier for me to forgive another person for their mistakes or failures than it is for me to forgive myself for mine. It is something I try to work on all the time.

  3. I’ve done pretty well in life failing 9 out of 10 times. Failure is statistically the standard if you’re living life to the fullest. It’s what makes the eventual success that much sweeter. I mean, you’re a Hall of Fame baseball player if you only fail 7 out of 10 times. If you’re succeeding at everything, you’re not really living.

  4. We’d get 95% on school work as a kid and run to tell Violent Parent, who would say, “Why didn’t you get 96?” So we’d get 100%! And Violent Parent would say, “Why didn’t you get 101%?”

    That is a story it will benefit us to put down. The inside machinations are fear of embarrassment, humiliation—which we equate with mistakes and which lead to deep shame. We failed to sleep and leave our parents alone. We failed to stay safe from sexual predators and violence. We have now failed to let it go, says Birthing Parent.

    Time to turn the page, close the book. Get into our now.

  5. One thing that stands out for me about fear of failure is the following. I consider a failure a mistake it is just much healthier sounding. If I am able to learn something from the mistake then it is positive experience,

  6. This is a great topic. My instinct is to internalize failures, but I have been working on this for the past year or so. I agree that there is no such thing as being a failure as a person – I will try to keep this in the back of my mind 🙂

  7. I’m usually hard on myself and when I fail or make a mistake at something, I try to keep in mind that I am not perfect. For that matter, no one is. Everyone makes mistakes or have failed at something in their life. As long as you don’t give up with your attempts to keep trying, that is all that matters.
    I really like the Thomas Edison quote!

  8. I am SO very hard on myself. Almost every job I’ve ever had I ended up crying from frustration during the training process because I expected perfection of myself and always fell short. Who walks into a place and knows how to do everything perfectly? Yet, I always seemed to expect I would somehow have that magic. I think that is why I always tended to give up easily on things too, because I feared failure. It is something I am working on.

  9. I’m a “Get Back Up & Try It Again Until I Succeed” Kind of Guy. Failure doesn’t scare me. I’m good at it. Done it enough times. I just don’t like or accept failure. With mental health, my anxiety especially, it’s mostly hindered me from making long term progress. I need to account for contingencies as part of any strategy to succeed.

  10. This is really eyeopening – if someone else fails at a task I don’t think any less of them, and you’re right, sometimes it probably goes unnoticed! But if I fail at a task I can’t stop thinking about it and I assume everyone else is thinking about it too.

  11. I read from a book by Oliver Burkeman called “The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” about a place called The Museum of Failed Products, which I found interesting. The author argued that we live in a success-focused culture that is so ingrained with achieving success and positivity that we rather avoided confronting the fact of failure. I find it an interesting book. I recently borrowed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided and found out that you have reviewed this book too (I haven’t read it but will be looking forward after reading your review). If you like that, you might also enjoy Burkeman’s. I think we put too much emphasis on success and we measure ourselves according to standards that are more likely to set us up for failure. The media and book shelves are lined up with motivational stories of people celebrating their achievements, and success stories of people who failed then succeed, but I would rather hear more stories of people who keep on trying regardless of the outcome, which I suspect is the stories of ordinary folks.

  12. I’m pretty bad at failure. My therapy homework is to stop avoiding things because I’m afraid to fail — basically playing a videogame where this fear of failure really manifests!

      1. I hope so. I know I give up easily, so I told my therapist I’ll stick it out for at least 30 hours despite mistakes or dying in the game or whatever. 😂

        Game chosen by my partner happens to be an “open world” “first person shooter” set in a post apocalyptic environment hahaha. Our first attempt was 3 hours (so 10% down!) and wow it was tiring mentally. Because alongside playing, I have to keep noticing my brain chatter when frustrated, and actively make choices to NOT give up. She even had a nice ACT acronym: Bold. (breathe, observe, live by values, do it!)

  13. I definitely do not see myself as a failure these days. I have in my younger years. I have a mental illness that makes it hard for me to do so many things I used to take for granted. But it does not mean I am a failure. In fact I believe it is because I have been so successful at getting on with my life, and coping having had depression and anxiety (diagnosed anxiety) most of my life.

  14. I’m really afraid of failure because I know I will be so hard on myself. I was even scared to read this post but I did manage just after a few days 🙂 I’m going to read on self-compassion as I feel I need that now. Thank you for bringing this subject to the forefront <3

  15. I really relate to this as failure is something I always struggle with. My mindset is very much if I fail at something, then I’m a failure, and especially if someone else succeeds at something I’ve failed at, then I’m a HUGE failure, It’s such an unhealthy way to see yourself but such a difficult mindset to break free from. On days when my mental health is feeling pretty good I try to see past this and take the bigger picture, but in some cases that’s much easier said than done and I end up fixating on the bad stuff. It’s something I’m working on, but like everything in this area, it takes a hell of a lot of time. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: