The Psychology of Failure


On using a model on the cycle of failure and identifying causes and effects of failure

Well on a positive note people usually start with a psychology of success but since I’m doing this alphabetically I would begin with a slightly pessimistic psychology of failure which will provide significant insights on the psychology of success as success and failure are two sides of the same coin.

The main reason for failure would be fear and even people with knowledge, abilities, resources could face failure if they have unconscious fear. Failure is a part of everyone’s life at some point of time. The psychology of failure would see both the causes and effects of failure from a psychological perspective. It could be explained with a sort of unconscious wish fulfilment theory through fear and we fail when we want to fail and in many cases we are directly responsible for our failures. Let us consider failure in relationships. The failure to have long term meaningful relationships especially romantic relationships could be explained with an unconscious fear of long term commitment and the restrictions that this potentially brings. So if you see yourself as a failure in matters of personal relationships, this may be due to your way of behaving with your partners and the relationship fear that you project on them to potentially disturb the dynamics of the relationship that brings it to an abrupt or gradual end.

Failure in professional relationships could again be guided by fear and the fear of underachievement when you naturally want to excel. Fear in this case is turned inwards and internalized and I have explained this sort of fear in the Psychology of Fear so I will not elaborate here. But this is unconscious and the individual may not be aware of this sort of fear that is the underlying cause of failure. Fear of underachievement and whether one can keep up with responsibilities and expectations could actually even be the basis of fear of commitment in personal relationships. In fact failure in professional and personal relationships are guided by an unconscious fear of responsibilities, commitment or it may be a fear that arises from expectations.

Apart from failure in personal and professional life, there could be failure in social life. Failure has its personal interpretations and it means that we perceive our achievements and success or failure with our own personal yardsticks. For instance even if a writer has been awarded several prizes, he might still see himself as a failure if he fails to secure the Nobel Prize. A doctor who has saved the life of several critical patients could be seen as a success by others but he may see himself as a failure if he fails to save the life of his own son. Frustrations from failure are again dependent on what we want to achieve in life and how we want to achieve or reach our goals. But is failure always a result of fear of expectations or an internalized undefined anxiety? It is possible that fear is the basic human emotion or feeling that begins the Cycle of Failure and fear or anxiety could lead to overblown expectations and overconfidence (as a defense to overcome this fear) or complete loss of confidence. The first part of the cycle of failure is given as follows:

Unconscious fear Þ Wish Fulfilment or Desire to Fail (in some cases) Þ Overconfidence or Lack of Confidence Þ Perception of Failure

Generally the cause of failure would be fear and I use the term fear instead of anxiety as in this case the fear is directed towards not fulfilling expectations so the cause of the fear is identified. Failure is thus a direct result of fear of underachievement or could also be associated with low self esteem as this in turn would bring loss of confidence. The reasons for failure are complex and despite the fact that in many cases failure could be almost wished, fear remains the primary factor in failure. This is however applicable in case of psychological reasons of failure. If failure in an endeavor is due to lack of resources, accidents or due to technical issues or financial constraints, these could still bring about fear of failure and would in any case complete the cycle that shows a gradual progression from fear to failure. Thus lack of resources, accidents and other factors could cause fear but not in all cases. In case of accidents when say a sportsman breaks his leg and is unable to complete a race, the failure is definitely due to an external factor and not due to fear. When external factors do not have a direct impact on the failure, the indirect impact is the fear of failure and this causes failure if the problems are perceived as insurmountable, individuals will even unconsciously wish to fail.

From the causes of failure it is necessary to identify the effects of failure and what happens psychologically after we fail. Failure could bring about depression and as fear has been identified as the primary cause of failure, depression, grief or sorrow has been identified as the primary effect of failure. When we fail we are first angry with ourselves and then this anger is turned inwards for a deep sorrow, pain or prolonged depression. The Cycle of Failure from fear to anger and further to depression and loss of confidence is completed as follows:

Unconscious fear Þ Wish Fulfilment or Desire to Fail (in some cases) Þ Overconfidence or Lack of Confidence Þ Perception of Failure Þ (Failure) Þ Anger with oneself and others Þ Sorrow, grief, depression Þ (Lack of Resources in some cases) Þ Loss of Confidence/ Motivation Þ Unconscious fear

Prolonged periods of sorrow or depression could bring about loss of confidence and with a lack of motivation as well, individuals will be prone to unconscious fear that leads to a further cycle of failure. This means failure would naturally lead to subsequent failures and one event of failure could trigger others as the cycle shows above. As mentioned in case of the causes of failure, just like there are many causes of failure possible with a primary cause being fear, the primary effect of failure is depression and anxiety although there could be potentially many effects of failure which could range from financial losses to loss of social status or loss of bodily functions or even death.

A comprehensive psychology of failure considers this Cycle of Failure in different circumstances and identifies the full range of causes and effects of failure.

Saberi Roy