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20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem--page 15
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

Step 15. Accept Failure.


Many people with low self-esteem view failure as catastrophic. As such, they feel the need to avoid failure at all costs. Unfortunately, attempts to avoid failure often prevent success because avoiding failure frequently means not attempting something that is challenging. Usually, this catastrophic view of failure is due to several reasons: over-identifying failure, globalizing failure and personalizing failure.

failure success

1) Over-identifying failure. Those with a fear of failure tend to think in terms of failure. They divide their world up into categories of success and failure. They feel good when they succeed and bad when they fail. As a result, their self-esteem is based on an external factor—the outcome of their actions. Since outcomes aren't always completely controllable, basing the self-concept on the outcome causes the self-esteem to fluctuate depending upon the circumstances. A stable self-esteem tends to influence outcome rather than outcome influencing the self-esteem.

It's not that successful people don't fail, it's that they don't identify it as failure. The concept of failure isn't constant in their thoughts. When something doesn't work out as they planned, they evaluate the problem and they develop a new plan. Therefore, their self-esteem remains stable and tends to impact outcomes in a positive way.

2) Globalizing failure. The words we use impact how we feel about ourselves. When you say “I'm a failure” or “I can't do anything right” you are taking a single instance and making it into an overall belief (referred to as “globalizing”). Such a belief makes it more difficult to try again. Instead of using global words and concepts, notice how it feels to say “Well, that didn't work out” or “That attempt failed.” Both of these examples focus on the single attempt and instead of attributing the outcome to the person it places the attention on the plan itself. By viewing your efforts in this way, you are more likely to examine the causes of the outcome and develop other plans rather than to give up.

3) Personalizing failure. People with low self-esteem often attribute mistakes and failed attempts to a personal flaw: “I tried to talk to that person and she didn't respond. People just don't like me!” One reason they believe they must be flawed is they compare themselves to the outward success of others without being aware of the many failed attempts others made to achieve the observed success. Such a comparison is often inaccurate and leads to lower self-esteem.

What Can You Do?

The more you develop an acceptance of mistakes and failed attempts as another step on the way to success, the less you will think in terms of failure. Instead of failure being your primary thought when pursuing any goal in life—from making friends to projects at work—your thoughts can be about how to achieve your goal.

Choose to view failure as a sign you are trying. As long as you are making the attempt, it is not a failure—it just didn't work out as you planned. The most successful people fail more than others (although they don't view it that way) because they try more. But they also end up succeeding more because they pursue opportunities and don't give up. Successful people tend to focus more on the importance of the attempt and see the positive: “I tried to do something that is difficult for me—good job!”

To change your self-esteem and positively influence the outcome of your efforts, focus on what you DO, not the outcome. Give yourself credit for the effort and the willingness to learn from each failed attempt.


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