Honey, I shrunk myself!

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Top batters in the game of cricket have long claimed that when they’re in form the ball literally seems bigger to them (and therefore easier to hit). Not surprisingly, when their form deserts them and they are in a slump they report that the cricket ball appears smaller and more difficult to hit.  They seem to mishit more often than connect.

I decided to test this phenomenon of how the chatter in our brain especially after a failure impacts our performance and shrinks our self-confidence and self-esteem.

I asked a group of participants to kick a  football through a makeshift goal from a ten-yard distance. Each participant was asked to take ten kicks. Before starting, all the participant’s estimates of the width and height of the goal were very similar.

I observed after all had completed their attempts at the goal, those who failed at the task by scoring fewer goals were estimating the goal of being far narrower than those who succeeded.  The participants who succeeded were estimating the goal to be wider and the distance for taking the shot as shorter.

It seems that “failure” can make our goal seem literally more difficult and more imposing than it appears before you begin your attempt. Failure not only makes our goal appear larger, but it would also makes us feel “smaller”.

Failing can induce thoughts that make us feel less capable, less skillful, less competent, less intelligent, or even less attractive.  Such thoughts seem to have a huge negative impact on our self-confidence and on future efforts and outcomes.

I’ve come across many college students who after failing a midterm test, might view themselves as less capable and view the class as more difficult, making them more worried and less confident about doing well in the final exam. While some students may work harder as a consequence, others may be so intimidated that they begin questioning their ability to pass the class ever in the future.

But what if that failed midterm also happened to be their first college exam? What if they perceive not just the class but college as a greater challenge than they are capable of meeting? Because they are unaware that failing the midterm has distorted their perceptions (making the class and college appear more difficult than they are), they may make hasty and inappropriate decisions as a result. Indeed, many students drop out during their first year for this very reason – similar to kid #1 in my earlier post on failure.

Failure has a greater negative impact on our self-esteem. Many of us react to failures by drawing damaging conclusions about our character and abilities that seem extremely compelling at the time, even if they have no merit. Many of us react to failure by thinking or saying things like, “I’m such a loser,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I’m just not smart enough,” “I’m such an idiot,” “I deserve to lose,” “People like me never get anywhere,” and “Why would anyone want to hire me?” or similar assassinations of characters.

Few would argue that such depressing and ineffective thoughts have any redeeming qualities. Yet, all too often, we allow ourselves to indulge in them, utter them aloud, and validate them. If our six-year-old failed a spelling test and declared, “I’m a stupid loser who can’t do anything right,” most of us would rush in to refute every word and forbid him from ever saying such horrible things about himself again.

Such negative thoughts would, without a doubt, make him feel worse in the moment and make it more difficult for him to succeed in the future. Yet, far too often, we fail to apply the same logic and wisdom to our own situations.

Negative generalizations are not only inaccurate, but they do more harm to our general self-worth and future performance than the initial failure that spawned them. Criticizing our qualities so broadly makes us hypersensitive to future failures, can lead to deep feelings of shame, and can jeopardize our overall well-being.

Furthermore, doing so prevents us from accurately assessing the causes of our failure and avoiding similar errors in the future. For example, blaming our inability to achieve personal improvement goals on character flaws makes it unlikely that we will identify and correct critical errors in planning and strategic goal setting that is far more likely to be to blame for our failure.

When faced with failure, which one of these according to you is more likely to occur?

  1. Internalizing – self-doubt
  2. Externalizing – Blame outside forces
  3. Withdrawal – quitting
  4. Other – mention in comments

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