You’re Both a Success and a Failure: How You Can Begin to Unlearn Self-Blame and Abuse

Life is often viewed as a series of attempts and successes and failures, which we allow to define us throughout its course. When we succeed, we feel proud and worthy; and feel like failures when we don’t. We view ourselves in comparison to others on a treadmill that seldom grants us the room to breathe.

In behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization is the process of overcoming a phobia, or fear, through a series of steps. So, if I were afraid of spiders, I would first envision a spider until no longer as frightened, then look at a photo of one until my anxiety dissipates, and, finally, encounter one in person. The lengthy process is meant to indicate my courage and mitigate my fear. But, why don’t we choose to apply that sort of reasoning to our daily lives? If I can motivate myself to be near a spider by reminding myself that I was courageous in envisioning one without running away, why can’t I, also, motivate myself by feeling proud of myself for placing second in a race or a tournament, or for even having approached a girl that I like without actually asking her out?

Our successes and failures tend to be perceived through a black and white lens, where we either complete a task or we don’t. What about partially completing it? Why can’t I feel some semblance of pride for my small victory? In a culture where the dominant ideology is one of rugged-individualism, life is taken to be a grand competition of winners or losers; the in-between, whatever that is, doesn’t seem to exist. And, that results in us hiding away most of our failures, fearing exposure of the apparently disqualifying aspects of our lives. The image presented is one of perfection.

However, in terms of humanistic psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy, the individual is represented in a much more nuanced way, conceived of as a whole where failures are failures and, also, successes. Imagine this: Going back to the example of approaching a woman you like. Say your overarching goal is to ask her on a date. But, it incorporates a series of lesser goals. The first goal is to approach her and be near her. The second is to speak with her and spark her interest. And, the third, and final, one is to ask for her number. Let’s say you completed the first two steps and failed to finish the last one. Are you, then, a failure? Did you just fail? Viewed simplistically, the individual in that scenario failed to complete his overarching goal. Yet, he succeeded in some of his several lessor ones. Thus, he is both a failure and a success.

Next time, if he responds with pride for having summoned up enough courage to approach and speak with a stranger, he’ll increase the likelihood that he’ll ask one for her number. The memory of acting courageously, combined with a reminder of the positive outcome (perhaps she was friendly), reinforces the behavior of approaching an unknown, attractive person. However, his interpretation is key. If he perceives his last attempt as a failure, he might feel too demoralized to try again, unless he has something to prove to someone else, which, sometimes, helps. But, positive self-praise is associated with a healthier drive than external validation, which may engender obsessiveness and/or anxiety, ruining his chances to engage effectively.

The point is that we’re so hard on ourselves that we miss our marks of success. Being successful isn’t always about reaching a more global goal; it’s, sometimes, about appreciating the journey and how far we’ve come. I know; it’s a cliché. Ultimately, the decision to not beat yourself up is your own; you get to decide how to move forward. Praise tends to work much better than blame, as research on parenting shows. (Think about how anxious you’d be if you tried to approach another woman, if you haven’t given up altogether, and if that level of anxiety would sabotage the conversation.) And, praise doesn’t have to be self-deceptive. You should praise yourself only for that which you’ve achieved while accepting your failures.

Nuance tells us that we’re more than whom we take ourselves to be. It challenges the labels, the putdowns, and our abusive thoughts. Consider it in this way: Do you think resilience is more likely to occur after self-praise or after telling yourself that you’re a failure who will never be happy? The answer seems obvious.

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