We all fail, but we don’t all handle it equally productively. The difference between failure that leads to self-knowledge and failure that’s paralyzing is rooted in the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened.
Stupid. How could you be so stupid? The refrain is all too familiar. And for many of us, this kind of negative self-talk is a habitual response to failure, which is too bad. In disciplines ranging from sports to education, as anyone who studies growth knows, the kind of stretching necessary to build a new skill requires a certain tolerance for failure. It’s the inevitable outcome of reaching beyond our capacities in order to expand them. To stretch, to balance on an edge, means risking a fall.
Related: The Silver Lining of Every Failure
Which is not to say that such failure is easy or fun to encounter. However, the natural pain we feel when things don’t go well is exacerbated by bad self-talk, which draws out and often exaggerates the negativity of a failure, frequently framing things in terms of blame or stable character traits (I’m dumb, I’m bad at relationships, etc.). The problem with these characterizations is that they are inherently paralyzing, proclamations that we are dumb for all time, now and forever bad with money. Instead, better self-talk allows us to assess and move on from failures, treating them as growth opportunities, however painful.
Positive self-talk matters, as indicated by research across fields. For example, researchers on endurance athletes have found that motivational self-talk significantly improves performance of cyclists who are performing to the point of exhaustion (one sensation we associate with failure). Although most of us aren’t endurance athletes, we often deal with frustration, a sense of losing ground and struggles to keep going as things get challenging. Positive self-talk can help us keep going, or, when we crash, pick ourselves up to start again.
This is the case with more intellectual performance as well, as indicated in a study of college students, failure and self-empathy. Researchers found that students who spoke more gently to themselves “are more aware that failure is part of the common human experience, and are more mindful of their negative emotions, they are more able to see failure experiences as a chance to learn and grow rather than becoming consumed with fear about what a negative performance says about their self-worth. This resilience allows for the adoption of more adaptive academic achievement goals.” Despite the bad rap that being “soft” gets, because these students didn’t see failure as a referendum on themselves as people, they stayed more engaged in coursework despite a poor grade than their peers who were more self-critical. The take away: There’s no real gain to be had in beating yourself up. Talking badly about yourself isn’t a performance booster.
So, if it matters how we talk to ourselves in the wake of failure, what are some productive self-talk practices for moving through and beyond it?
1. Have a failure mantra.
Yes, mantras and affirmations can be dorky and new-agey, but when you feel overwhelmed, the set and repetitive nature of an affirmation can be a nice way to counter the equally set and repetitive nature of negative self-talk. You don’t have to go full, Gosh darn, it everybody likes me, with yours. Something simple like mentally rehearsing the phrases, I learn through challenges, I am strengthened by this struggle, or even the pithy, No pain, no gain, might work for you. Make up your own, post it by your computer, and turn to that dorky little mantra to bust up the negative thought patterns when they rear their ugly head.
2. Practice reframing your self-talk out loud with a friend.
Negative self-talk is often full of grandiose statements like “I always” or “I never.” Go on a walk or grab a tea with a trusted conversational partner and ask them to help you by letting you air what’s going on and asking the neutral question, “Is that really true?” and “Is that only sometimes true?” Followed by the countering question, “What’s not true about that?” Ideally this exercise will help you practice, with the help of a patient friend, the habit of interrupting and questioning the validity of harmful negative talk. Eventually, you should be able to perform this kind of questioning on your own.
3. Apply the “Five Ws” to your situation.
If negative self-talk involves spinning a deeply subjective negative story about yourself, try to distance yourself from it while still learning by applying the more neutral journalistic questions of “who, what, where, when and why” to get a clearer view of the situation. Take a moment to try to tell yourself the tale of what has happened as neutrally as possible.
4. Verbs, not adjectives!
Once you’ve assessed, think about future-oriented action steps. What happened, what actions led to it happening, and what are you going to do? This puts you in charge of a story, granting you a feeling of greater self-efficacy rather than framing you as the passive recipient of shaming self-talk language.
5. Catastrophize and question.
If you can’t turn of that nasty little voice, why not indulge her for a moment by asking, What’s the worst that will happen? Then ask yourself the follow-up question, And then what will I do? For example, in response to the first question, you might say, My boss won’t trust me anymore. Then, you might strategize by saying, I will have to apologize and then work hard to regain that faith by taking on extra tasks, being very transparent in communications and nixing office gossip.
With practice, techniques for reframing failures through self-talk are an important part of anyone’s toolkit for approaching life goals. Our lives are, in many ways, constituted by the stories we tell ourselves. Through positive self-talk around failure, we can become the agents of our story as we move from problem to solution.
Photo by @criene via Twenty20