Failure is inevitable in life. By learning to focus on valuing who you are, not what you do, you can let go of negativity and approach yourself in a more positive way.
Failure is a common experience that affects all age groups, from childhood through to old age. The rise of social media, celebrity culture, family expectations, as well as the drive to win and other pressures, are making it difficult for people to manage the increasing demands of modern life.
“We could run the risk of suffering from depression and anxiety as a result of the continued pressure to succeed,” says Tony de Gouveia, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic Alberton. “When we fail in a particular project or event, this invariably affects our sense of self-esteem. As a result, we tend to perceive ourselves – our person – as failures, rather than limiting the feeling of failure to a specific disappointment in our lives. Over time this can develop into depression and anxiety.”
The main issue in experiencing feelings of failure is the sense that we have not met or lived up to expectations – our own and those of others – which then bothers us to the point of disturbing our mental state and our sense of balance. This is particularly the case, de Gouveia says, with perfectionists and people with high expectations of themselves.
“The feelings of inadequacy that we experience as a result of repeated failure can cripple us psychologically to the extent that we experience a sense of “learned helplessness”. Research shows that when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their fate, and could fall into a clinical or major depression state over time.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is a common illness worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected. When long-lasting, and with moderate or severe intensity, depression may become a serious health condition. It can cause the affected person to suffer greatly and function poorly at work, at school and in the family. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. WHO research shows that close to 800 000 people die due to suicide as a result of depression every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Peer pressure can exacerbate feelings of failure via what is known as social comparison, where we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in terms of attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, success and other factors. “The problem is that we invariably compare apples with pears and perceive ourselves to be falling short, even when we don’t have all the information needed to do the comparison accurately or realistically,” says de Gouveia.
This can happen at various life stages and is affected by events such as career milestones, unemployment, marriage and parenthood, all of which can create scenarios where people may see themselves as failures because they haven’t succeeded in meeting the socially accepted criteria for success at each of these life stages, de Gouveia advises.
An example is seeing yourself as a failure because you have not reached a particular rung on the career ladder. Job loss and unemployment are also contributors to the feeling of failure. These feelings can affect even the most capable and talented colleagues, friends and family, he adds.
How to overcome self-limiting beliefs
The first step is to acknowledge that beliefs are changeable. “We can start by changing the way we view failure,” says de Gouveia. “Viewing it not as a ‘bad’ occurrence in life but as part and parcel of the learning process – and seeing it as an integral step on the road to success – is a far more positive and productive approach.”
Thomas Edison, who was initially unsuccessful in his numerous experiments to improve the light bulb, said it best: “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
There’s also a Japanese proverb that says, “fall down seven times, stand up eight,” which means getting back up every time you get knocked down or fall down – essentially, never quitting.
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Essentially the key coping mechanism we need to learn, de Gouveia advises, is perseverance, which is a key characteristic of resilience – the ability to bounce back. It means finding the strength and courage to push past the setbacks in daily life until we finally succeed. It’s about learning to value yourself.
Seeking professional help
People who have gone through adverse life events are more likely to develop depression. The decision to seek professional help is typically not an easy one.
However, says de Gouveia, if you experience a sense of learned helplessness, where you have given up and have fallen into clinical or major depression as a result of a repeated sense of failure, you need to seek help from a trained mental health care professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is important because depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen your life situation and the depression itself.
“There are effective psychological treatments for depression, and there is no need for anyone to feel alone. The first step towards recovery is to seek help”, he concludes.
[Adapted from Akeso Clinic press release]