A FAILURE TO LAUNCH
Finding the Reasons WHY We Avoid Failure
In my last blog post “The HURRIER I Go the BEHINDER I Get”, I touched on how we, as dog trainers, and as a culture in general, are wanting things faster and easier in order to get what we perceive as a satisfactory result. However, are we really progressing forward with our understanding and knowledge of whatever we are trying to learn, or are we afraid of making those mistakes just to remain within our comfort zone of mediocrity? That safe warm place where the likelihood of failure is zero, where there is no need to criticize yourself or have others critique or shame you? A part of what lays beneath is the inability to cope with failure or vulnerability, a lack of resilience and blaming others for your mistakes. This absolutely has a direct correlation to the way we train our dogs and how we treat others. I hope this TWO PART blog post on failure might explain how people and the environment they grew up in have influenced their behavior and how that directly influences the way we treat ourselves, others, and our dogs.
We often hear the phrase “In order to succeed one must fail” or some incarnation of that phrase. So if the path to success is through failure then why is it so often avoided? Why are we so afraid of it and why are those feelings of self-worth, confidence, shame and blame attached to it? Why do we avoid failures and instead live a life of mediocrity, trying only to obtain the feel good easy quick fixes? Why do we want to make everything so easy and successful but wonder why we do not progress any further than we do? I know that a good percentage of people reading this blog understand that failure is a necessary ingredient in the process of learning, however, we often see more attempts at trying to be successful or making NO attempts at all. Is it fear, shame or a learned helplessness or a combination of those feelings and many more? Let’s start with some of the obvious signs of fearing failure.
SIGNS OF FEARING FAILURE
When we look closer at behavior we can begin to see signs that can shed some light on why we are where we are in life and how this translates outwards. One interesting observation is that each of the signs below seem to influence the other becoming a vicious circle of self-doubt and destructive behavior:
- A reluctance to try new things or get involved in anything challenging.
- Perfectionism: A willingness to try only those things that you know you’ll finish perfectly and successfully.
- Low self-esteem or self-confidence: Using negative statements such as “I’ll never be good enough or as good as …..,” or “I’m not smart enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not thin enough, to……”
- Self sabotage: This includes procrastination, anxiety, or a failure to follow through with goals for fear of making mistakes.
- Avoiding vulnerability at all costs. Fear of exposing weaknesses and seeing it more as complete failure rather than a strength. Much of this if fueled by avoiding any action at all.
WHAT HISTORY TELLS US
Let’s see how we got to this place of fearing failure. Of course it is always HISTORY that tells us the story. It is a fascinating and eye opening education whenever you start to look back in time at how behavior has evolved. We start to find a patterns of behavior that have ultimately been reinforced or behaviors that are avoided due to negative associations.
The scientific term for fear of failure is called “atychiphobia” (a-tik-i-fo-bE-a). Most of us do not suffer from this kind of debilitating fear as this phobia suggests, however, that does not mean you are exempt from any form of fearing failure. It can and does affect some areas of your life so take a moment to answer some of the questions below as honestly as you can:
- Do you avoid pushing the bar and prefer to get by with the minimum amount of effort?
- Do you ever put off doing something because you’re “not sure how it will turn out”?
- Do you constantly find excuses NOT to do things?
- Are you often stuck and feel you have no purpose or direction in life or with a particular goal?
- Do you avoid situations where you will have to try something new?
- If you do try something new and then fail, do you GIVE UP immediately?
- Do you try to numb or avoid your feelings when you are vulnerable or when failing?
- Do you instead blame others (people, dogs) for your failures no matter how big or small the mistake may be?
The last question really hits home for me. It is undoubtedly the most destructive. The tendency is to lash out and blame others (and our dogs) instead of accepting responsibility for it, or more importantly LEARNING from it. In a nutshell, we are a culture that has, for the most part, not been “taught to fail”! Across the last several generations we have been making children, students, friends, employees etc. feel that they are “bad” for making mistakes or failing at things, instead of teaching them that a particular action or behavior was incorrect and showing them how they should correct it, TRY AGAIN and get it RIGHT.
So, why is failure considered so bad? Obviously failing doesn’t feel good – no one wants to fail intentionally, however, failure can offer many learning lessons. So, let’s looks at some of the possible reasons why the fear of failure has become such a “norm” for many people:
Avoiding or fearing failure can be linked to a variety of causes which can affect our behavior and how we treat others. Here are just a few possible causes:
- Critical or unsupportive parents, teachers, or peers who have undermined or humiliated you in childhood or as an adult.
- Traumatic events like bullying, ridicule and large scale failures that can affect behavior and our psyche.
- Sociological events: Society sees failure as an event that must NOT happen or to be avoided at all costs,
especially in school system where grades are a pivotal gauge of performance. This is further perpetuated when those very children grow up to be adults in the workforce and face the same cost of failure. Many of those children become employers themselves who are quick to blame, shame and FIRE people at will, often for transgressions that people could learn from if given the chance. Unfortunately, too many people do not want to focus on working through failure and finding solutions because it is often equated to weakness. This cannot be any further from the truth.
- Perfectionism: Shame, perfectionism and procrastination are oddly synonymous with each other. Perfectionism is borne from a lifetime of shaming where individuals strive for an unattainable perfection and consequently remain stagnant in their average world. What often happens is that they never reach their goals or follow their passions for fear of shame and failure and it is further fueled when significant others remind them how “they never finish what they started” or “they are lazy or wishful”. It seems that all these events are intertwined.
- Shaming is probably the most insidious and less acknowledged of all these possible causes. I believe it is one of the major reasons we give up trying, feel ashamed or blame others for how we feel. Most live a life of fearing to step out of our comfort zone. From what I see it begins at home with parents shaming their children for transgressions – being bad, naughty or silly/stupid. It is further fueled at school where one can see the reaction of teachers or parents when grades are not reached or achieved or when bullied and shamed by other students. These are probably the most devastating to a child’s psyche.
The effects of shaming are far reaching. For example, when locking your keys in the car as an adult it is not unusual to hear someone say: “I’m so stupid! I’m so stupid!”. These were probably the exact words a parent had used at one point in their lives. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we probably lived, and still do, in a quasi state of fear with regard to our parents, peers, teachers, instructors and employers’ judgment, and we learn to shame ourselves in the same way that we were once shamed. Another byproduct of shame is that we often convert it to blame. Blaming others diverts the shame from ourselves to someone else. The damage inflicted by shaming can and does affect self-esteem and confidence but ALSO can create self-destructive behavior.
Shame is a discreet punisher and one that has gone unnoticed as a lynch pin in destructive behavior in the psyche of many adults. “Shame does not diminish behavior it diminishes SELF” according to Good Children – At What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame by Robin Grille and Beth McGregor, numerous studies link shame with the desire to punish others. Many individuals that have grown up experiencing shame can often exhibit aggressive and self-destructive behavior. It affects people by withdrawing from relationships, compensating for deep feelings of shame with attitudes of superiority, bullying, self-depreciation or obsessive perfectionism. I think we have all experienced some form of shaming at one point in our lives with either a particular teacher, peers or people of influence. One becomes successful at being mediocre because that is a safe place where people will not ridicule, shame or criticize you. You protect your vulnerability at all costs – you stay in your “safe zone”.
It makes me understand how this all translates to why we treat other people the way we do, either in person or on social media. And of course how we treat our dogs!!! Are we looking for that perfection? Are we holding ourselves back from looking weak and vulnerable to our friends and instructors? Are we staying MEDIOCRE because it is safe and within our comfort zone? Are we turning that self-deprecation into anger and blame onto our dogs and the people around us? I think these are some really important questions to ask ourselves if we want to understand why we do things things we do and to then ultimately and hopefully CHANGE OUR BEHAVIOR going forward.
In my next blog post I am going to address how we can learn to push ourselves to fail, learn from it, and finally realize some of the success we DO want to see. Meanwhile, I am going to leave you with a video of J.K. Rowling speech at Harvard. Listen closely to the words of wisdom she gives those graduates.
“…However, every successful person alive has experienced the very same fear. They are not successful because they have avoided fear. They are successful because they have overcome it. Through perseverance they have found a way to endure. They have found a way for failure to make them stronger…”
J k Rowling ps Harvard speech