Coping with failure

Failure isn't pleasant, but it is a normal part of life that is integral for success.

Coping with failure

Failure can be an unpleasant and unwanted experience. It can come in different forms - not achieving the academic grades you hoped for, being unsuccessful in a job application, a relationship breakdown, or a general setback.

While undesirable, failure is also a normal and necessary part of life. Yet, many people will go to significant lengths to avoid failing because the emotions we can feel as a result can be so painful. Nonetheless, a fear of failure can hold us back from taking up the opportunities we might need to succeed - so, a more helpful approach is not to avoid situations that might lead to potential failure, but to change the way we perceive it.

Top tips for coping with failure

Give yourself permission to feel

When we fail, we can experience a range of uncomfortable emotions such as shame, disappointment, sadness, worry, anger, and embarrassment, amongst others. These emotions hurt, and our instincts are often to escape from them by suppressing or avoiding them. While this can bring a short-term sense of relief, it does not resolve the issue which will usually show up again, or can get in the way of healthy processing of our emotions. Rather than struggling with our feelings, it can be more helpful to allow them to be. First, try to identify and label the emotion. Then, allow yourself time to experience it, remembering that failure is a part of everyone's life experience, and actually, crucial to success.

Practise self-compassion

Self-compassion is an important step in taking care of yourself when you're coping with failure. Once you have acknowledged that you are experiencing something painful, extend the same compassion you would often give to others, to yourself. Self-compassion involves being warm, caring, and understanding towards yourself, instead of judging and criticising.

This approach is far more effective as humans are innately flawed, and will inevitably make mistakes from time to time. By practising self-compassion, you are accepting your humanity and the reality that things do not often go the way we would like. This allows self-compassionate people to be more resilient to try again when they don't meet their goals.

Examples of ways to practice self-compassion include asking yourself how you would treat a friend if they were in a similar situation, beginning a self-compassion journal, or taking a self-compassion break.

Reflect on the experience and adopt a growth mindset

Although painful, we can learn and grow from our past failures. Asking yourself, 'What can I learn from this experience?', or 'What useful information can I gain from this experience to take forward?' may prepare you better for the next challenge, and foster resilience in the face of stress and hardship.

When reflecting on failure, it can also be helpful to perceive it from a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is when you believe that your qualities and skills are fixed, and therefore, cannot change no matter what you do (e.g., "What's the point in trying if I'm going to fail?"). In contrast, a growth mindset is when you believe that your qualities and skills can develop and improve with time and experience (e.g., "It's always good to try, failure is a learning curve.").

Experiencing a failure doesn't mean you're not good enough, it might be you just haven't quite figured it out yet.

Revisit your goals and create a plan for the future

Dwelling on past failures for longer than necessary will keep you stuck. Once you have given yourself sufficient time to feel the emotions associated with the failure, shown yourself kindness and care in the midst of it, and reflected on the learnings from the experience and identified areas for improvement - it is time to review your goals and create a plan for the future.

At this stage, it is important to consider if your goal is realistic and achievable. Developing SMART goals as well as utilising planning tools are a good place to start. Importantly, keep in mind that goal setting and planning is more likely to be successful if the goal is important to you and aligns with your values.

What can I do next?

  • Watch these videos on the research behind concepts that might help you cope with failure. These include understanding concepts such as grit, your study mindset, and the power of believing you can improve.
  • Explore resources on developing your study skills at Academic Skills. You can also attend workshops or make an appointment with an Academic Skills Adviser.
  • Speaking to a CAPS counsellor can help you further understand and process your experience of failure, and develop skills to cope with setbacks in a healthy way. We also offer various workshops that may help you better cope with difficult emotions and enhance your learning experience.

If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.

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