Why do we hate to fail?

    The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral

    The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral

    Why do we all hate to fail so much? Is it something we’ve learned? Is it our innate nature to strive for perfection? Or are we looking at failure in all the wrong ways?

    Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, says it all boils down to shame.

    “At the root of failure and the fear of failure is shame, which is a very unpleasant emotion associated with feeling like one is a bad person, or has a flawed or defective self,” she says.

    It also brings up fears of what others will think of us post-failure.

    “If I make a mistake, if I fail, how does that affect who I am and how I see myself, as well as how others see me?”

    We become our own worst critics and that chorus of critics has gotten a lot louder in recent years with the growth of social media. For example, when a public person makes a mistake, the amount of feedback they get is in high doses and it’s intense.

    “In the past, [it] might be more isolated and only a handful of people know,” she says. ” Here, people throughout the world can find out rather quickly.”

    But there are certain people who handle failure better than others. Cohen makes the distinction between guilt-prone people and shame-prone people.

    “When some people make mistakes, they tend to focus more narrowly on their behavior. ‘I made a mistake; I did a bad thing and now I’m going to think of ways to correct for this.”

    That’s an example of a guilt-prone person, which Cohen says is different than the other group of shame-prone people.

    “If you do something wrong, you might think I’m a bad person,” she says. If you think you’re a bad person, that’s a much harder thought to counteract and that might lead you to withdraw from other people.”

    So a healthier response to failure is focusing on specific behaviors rather than looking at an experience as a reflection of one’s self, because you can easily change your behavior, but it’s much harder to change who you are. Cohen says failure requires some analysis to figure out the what and why of a situation in order to learn from an experience and move forward.

    “There has to be some recognition of your own role in the failure or understanding of why it occurred,” she says. “The worst response is when the person doesn’t take any personal responsibility. Sometimes people will blame others, externalize, make excuses.”

    Cohen stresses that if you don’t recognize your own role in what happened, it’s hard to then change things in the future. In order to process failure in a healthy way, Cohen says, we have to put it in context and recognize that there’s a learning opportunity in every failure. 

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