How to Win Despite Failing

Because it is hard to learn the hard way

Key points:

  • We are told, and tend to tell others, that we have to make mistakes in order to learn.
  • But research shows that emotionally we resist failing and don’t learn the lessons that it offers.
  • There are some simple ways, however, that we can overcome the resistance.

Most parents probably say it at some time to children disheartened by getting something wrong. “You can’t learn without making mistakes.” Or “failure breeds success”. (There is even a book of that name.1) Or “failure is essential for achieving a goal”.

We may even remind our miserable youngsters that they wouldn’t be walking on two legs now if they hadn’t persisted through failure when they first tried to take steps and tipped over.

It sounds encouraging and may be just the thing to enable young people (or anyone else, for that matter) to ‘pick themselves up’ and try again.

As a therapist, however, I am aware that it doesn’t always work that way at all and that many people will go to lengths to protect themselves from facing apparent failure. There was Lizzie, who was so convinced that she was less attractive or less witty or less interesting than her female friends that, when she was with them in mixed company, she would deliberately say something disparaging to any male they were talking to, so that she could feel she had rejected him rather than the other way around.

And there was Mikhail, who, after being turned down by a girl he had asked out, remained in his student flat playing video games when his friends were at pubs and parties. He didn’t consider the gamut of other reasons that she might have said no besides her not fancying him (perhaps she had a partner; perhaps she was shy; perhaps she had just come out of a punishing relationship) or that is okay not to be chosen by everyone; he just concluded that he was unattractive.

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