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I visited a daycare center run by a friend of mine. As I sat observing a group of four tiny kids playing in one corner of the room, I got to reflect on how we respond to failures in our life and the impact it has on our emotional well-being.
Here is what I saw.
The four were playing with identical Teddy-in-the-box toys. To open the box and release the cute teddy bear inside, they must slide a large button on the box’s side to the left. They somehow seemed to figure out that the button is where the action is, but sliding is a difficult skill to master.
I saw Kid #1 depress the button. It was immobile. She pressed the button firmly. The box starts rolling away from her. She tries reaching out with her hand, but it is still out of reach. She turns away and begins to twiddle her thumb and play with her diaper.
Kid #2 fiddles with the button for a few moments before giving up. He sits back and stares at the box, his lower lip trembling, but he doesn’t open it. Tears welled up in his eyes.
Kid #3 tries to force open the top of the box. She then presses the button. Undaunted, she continues to experiment until ten minutes later—success! Teddy squeaks out as she slides the button, and the top springs open. She squeals with delight, replaces Teddy in the box, and tries again.
Kid #4 notices the third child opening her box. He flushes, smacks his own box with his fist, and bursts into tears.
When we fail as adults, we tend to react in very similar ways (albeit few of us resort to playing with our diapers). Failure can make us believe that our goals are out of reach, leading us to give up too soon (as did kid #1, whose box rolled away).
Some of us are so demoralized by failure that we freeze, become passive, and helpless (like kid #2, who quit).
Some of us fail but persevere until we succeed (like kid #3), while others become so stressed and self-conscious that we can’t think straight (like kid #4, who burst into tears).
How we deal with failure is critical to our overall happiness and well-being as well as our success in life. While some of us handle failure well, many of us do not. Failure always hurts and disappoints, but it can also be an educational, informative, and growth experience if we take it in stride, figure out what we need to do differently the next time, and persevere in pursuing our goals. However, as with many psychological wounds we sustain in daily life, ignoring the injuries failure inflicts can exacerbate a bad situation, and in some cases, make it far worse.
None of us reaches adulthood without encountering failure thousands of times, and many more such encounters await us in life. Failure is such a common human experience that what distinguishes us is not that we fail, but how we respond when we do. Such distinctions are especially noticeable when observing those who fail more frequently and frequently than anyone else’s children.
One of the most common ways for children to learn is to try, fail, and try again. Fortunately, children are generally persistent and determined (otherwise, we’d never learn to walk, talk, or do much of anything), but they can also react to failure in dramatically different ways.
Although our various ways of coping with failure are established early in life, we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our childhood. Even those who respond to failures in the most ineffective and damaging ways can learn to use more favorable and psychologically healthy coping strategies.
However, in order to do so, we must first understand the impact failure has on us, the psychological wounds it causes, and the emotional challenges we face.
Failures are the emotional equivalent of chest colds in that everyone gets them, and everyone feels terrible when they do. We usually recover from chest colds because we change our activities when we get them—we rest, drink warm fluids, and dress warmly. If we ignore a cold, it will most likely worsen and, in some cases, progress to pneumonia.
When we fail, we face similar threats to our mental health, but few of us are aware of the need to employ the psychological equivalents of resting, drinking warm fluids, and dressing warmly. As a result, many of our failures cause unneeded psychological harm, the consequences of which can harm our emotional well-being far beyond the impact of the failure itself.
How would you respond?