I wrote an article published on the Yahoo website Associated Content.
How to Overcome the Feeling of Failure
An Interview with Therapist John Bogardus, LCSW
“I am a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. I have offices located in San Francisco and Sonoma, California. I enjoy helping people get back to feeling better about themselves.”What type of impact can a feeling of failure have on someone’s overall life?
“Many times in life people experience failure. Often, to acknowledge a failure and to see the part we play in it is crucial for our future success. It is difficult to take corrective action, if a person is unaware that a problem exists or if he or she can not accurately assess where their responsibility lies. On the other hand problems can emerge when our sense of failure is disproportional to a given situation. If the failure we feel is excessive or unwarranted, we suffer in ways we best figure how to get beyond.At its worst feelings of failure can give rise to a crippling sense of doom. People can feel worthless and trapped. Some people become depressed because they believe they will never be fully functional. Exposure to failure can leave people vulnerable to blaming themselves irrationally for outcomes over which they have little control.To diminish the impact of failure, people bolster themselves by emphasizing their accomplishments. If people focus on their successes for defensive reasons, for example because they can not tolerate criticism, they can be walled off from valuable feedback.
At other times a person interacts with his environment in ways that create failure by engaging in self sabotage or ways that guarantee a negative outcome. How one copes is determined by many factors.
Beliefs, feelings, and ideas about failure become most problematic when they go beyond the notion that one is having a bad day regarding a particular difficulty. When people personalize a sense of failure, even making it a defining aspect of their identity, they are at the highest risk for serious problems with their self esteem.
It is common for experiences of failure to feel contagious. In such instances people may become convinced they are incapable of getting ahead. People often feel that they are secretly defective. Many people exposed to such distress, will try to dull their feelings with alcohol or drugs. Or they may seek distraction through gambling, sex, or other thrill seeking behavior.
Some people can not tolerate the notion that they feel like losers. Instead they deny or bury their feelings by almost always blaming others for their problems. It is not an exaggeration to say that if left unchecked or untreated, feelings of failure have the potential to ruin the possibility of life feeling meaningful or joyous. Milder versions of being a failure leave people feeling emotionally deflated, like they are riding a bicycle with the tires half full of air.”
Where does the feeling of failure stem from?
“All people have tasted the bitterness of failure at some point in their lives. Whether it is an internalized vulnerability that gets triggered by events, a feeling that we have let down a person or group important to us, or just too much reality, some people have serious reactions when exposed to failure while others take it in stride like it were any other aspect of their day.
No doubt if someone has led a hard life, the chances of getting bogged down from a sense of failure multiply. For many people growing up in a blaming family or with parents who were insensitive, or even traumatizing, is at the root of their difficulty with experiences of failure. For others genetic components can predominate. For example, there is an inherited aspect to personality resiliency. In addition, some people have predispositions to certain types of depression and anxiety that will impact how they negotiate adversity and stress.
For some people there is a key factor that can predict how they will relate to failure in adulthood. Whether people believe they can overcome life’s challenges, rather than succumb to them, often can be traced to the feelings they developed as children about their own competencies as learned in relationship to their parents.
Bear in mind that life gives many opportunities to rework early family influences on our personality. Therapy allows for targeted examination of these influences.”
How can someone overcome their feeling of failure?
“A person’s ongoing difficulties with failure can be inborn, come out of lived experience, or be a combination. In either case psychotherapy can be beneficial. Some people may also need a medication consultation with a psychiatrist.
The main thing people should do in therapy to deal with feelings of failure is to start talking about them. Many people feel ashamed that they suffer from this type of issue, so just opening up to a therapist can be a big relief. The therapist may validate feelings and observations made by the client and so give him support to deal with his fears. The therapist may present new ideas to consider about dealing with feelings of failure. Perhaps a client has been too compliant with accepting the negative ways others characterize his behavior. Perhaps a woman in therapy comes to realize she has exaggerated her ability to hurt another person by standing up for herself. Perhaps a man needs to understand how to modify his “inner critic” that emerges when he feels he has been less than perfect. Often having the courage to test out new behavior and, thus, acquire new experiences, is what gives hope that change is possible.
The following vignette shows how therapy can work for a client with fear of failure issues. Keep in mind that therapy is as varied as a client’s needs are. No two therapies are exactly alike.
Ryan came to therapy because, although quite bright, he was very timid at work. Frequently passed over for promotion by coworkers less knowledgeable than he, Ryan felt he was wasting away. He was feeling increasingly hopeless that he could get properly noticed despite his excellent skills. He was contemplating taking a job at another company in which case he would receive a significant pay cut. Coming into therapy, Ryan knew he was held back by a sense that he wasn’t good enough. Also, he felt that if he confronted his boss regarding a promotion, he would be fired. What he didn’t fully realize but learned after several months of therapy, was that his boss acted superior and condescended to him just like his father did when Ryan was growing up. His father had a need to always be right. Ryan didn’t recognize that he actually viewed his father’s need to be infallible as a sign of weakness. Ryan had learned to avoid conflict by not challenging his father when he disagreed with him. Ryan learned that he was afraid that if he stood up to his father, his father would be hurt and retaliate by becoming more domineering. The therapist explored how Ryan’s situation with his boss was similar to his relationship to his father. The therapist then helped Ryan stand up for himself with his boss by accentuating his strong work skills. By finding a reasonable way to not accept his boss’s dismissiveness, Ryan actually gained his boss’s respect and was soon promoted.”
What type of professional help is available for someone who feels like a failure?
“Many competent professional psychotherapists have training and experience to help people with this common problem. When contacting a therapist, feel free to explain what kind of help you are seeking. It makes sense to ask the therapist about his or her experience in working with issues such as the fear of failure or poor self esteem. Having a session with more than one therapist can provide additional information about with whom it would feel best to work.”
Thank you John for doing the interview on how someone can overcome their fears of failure. For more information on John Bogardus or his work you can check out his website on www.johnbogardus.com