Why Do People Continue to Fail?

By Tino Makonise


Why is it easier to talk about your successes than your failings? Why do some athletes sabotage their own success through developing fear of failure mentalities? Why do some people have a personality type that reacts inappropriately to failure?


It all boils down to emotions. Unfortunately, there is still no unanimous agreement amongst theorists of how emotions should be classified or what basic emotions are. Verywell Mind states that ‘no emotion is an island’, and suggests they are complex and work together to determine your overall human experience (e.g. how you cope under pressure, enjoy your free time and interact with others). It’s a scary realisation - discovering your life is governed by such a powerful yet indistinct source - especially as humans are burdened with experiencing failure over and over again during the course of their lives. Maybe that is why some people go out of their way to avoid failure and lose all composure when they inevitably encounter it.


I certainly did a few weeks ago. Let me begin by noting that as a law student, I have high expectations of myself and the work I produce related to my studies. It was not until I produced an essay which fell short of my perceived capabilities that I realised I had a fear of failure. I reacted impulsively. I panicked and even convinced myself that I would be expelled from university because of this one ‘bad’ essay. The fact I was googling things like ‘I have been kicked out of university for writing a bad essay’ and indulging in online discussion forums of people who had reportedly experienced exactly that only aggravated my situation. No amount of reassurance from those around me could calm me down. So why did I react this way?


The high expectations I had of myself had led me to vicious self-beating that spiralled out of my control. To be able to handle failure, one should allow oneself to feel the pain of failure for a short while before accepting the situation. This is a crucial step because responding immediately only leaves you at risk of acting in a regrettable way. Believe me, after all was said and done, I was left feeling embarrassed by my irrationality.


The truth is, failure does not last forever. Acceptance allows you to plan your next steps and, most importantly, move on and learn from your mistakes. It may also help to talk to someone about your setback because discussion will allow you to release inner pressure and recount the events that could have led to your failing. Another person’s perspective can offer comfort as they may identify areas for improvement and reassure you of the severity of the situation. It was not until I spoke to my personal tutor that I realised I had completely overlooked the fact I would be given feedback and a chance to re-submit said essay if necessary. It’s simply a matter of being realistic.


Failure allows you to grow and embrace new strategies for your next attempt. The key is to persist and reflect on the past experience instead of repeating the same mistake and hoping for a different outcome.


In the athletic world, it is said that ‘there’s nothing worse than finishing fourth’, and yet someone must take such a position. Therefore, athletes are called to undergo self-compassion training. This involves training them to recognise their emotional difficulty and to help themselves overcome it. Advised activities include introspection, guided meditation, and writing; acquiring such skills is proven to help manage setbacks even before they occur. Despite studies showing the effectiveness of a self-compassionate approach, sadly some female athletes are reluctant to adopt it as they do not want to appear passive. Similarly, male athletes feel it would threaten their masculinity. In the True Athlete Project, former Olympian Laurence Halsted comments on athletes feeling the need to be their worst critics in order to fuel their hunger for success. They cannot afford to rationalise their emotions as that would suggest they did not care enough to perform well. However, he also acknowledges that such negativity is damaging to the wellbeing and performance of athletes and limits sport from reaching its true potential.


There you have it. Not failing hinders people’s ability to reach their full potential. So, it is important to remember that when you experience failure or setback, although there are things you aren’t in control of, you can control the emotional experiences and outcomes of the vicissitudes of life. Failure is normal and a great teacher which only pushes you to achieve greater things if you do not quit and dwell on its pain. My failure has only prepared me for the next time it may happen and how to remain in control of my emotions - this is a powerful tool to have.


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