Saturday, September 11, 2010

If at First You Have Never Even Tried, Fail, Fail, Again

One of the most frequent debates I get into with patients and psychotherapy trainees alike is the true meaning of the oft heard statement, "I did not try to do (such and such) because I was afraid of failure."  This statement is made by patients and people in general all the time to explain away such decisions as not going back to school to learn a more lucrative trade or refusing to enter the dating pool.

The statement sounds to me like an excuse that is used to cover up a real reason why the person did not do something potentially beneficial.  But why do I think this?  Well, first of all, I wonder why these people are just assuming that they are going to fail when they have not even tried.  Nobody can do much of anything with a guarantee of success.  If we all demanded certitude in succeeding before attempting something new, no one would ever accomplish anything.

Second, if someone is afraid of something, that usually means they will go to great lengths to avoid that something.  If you are afraid of snakes, you try your best to avoid them.  If you are afraid of failure, that should mean that you should persistently keep trying to accomplish whatever it is until you succeed - in order to avoid the failure which you supposedly fear. 

So how exactly is not accomplishing something through sheer lack of effort at all a success? 

I know it is somewhat more discouraging if you fail at something after you have attempted to do it than if you never tried at all, but in both instances, you have failed!  And as I said, why would you presume that you were going to continue to fail?  Unless they are trying to do something that is clearly totally beyond their capability, physical capacity or talent, most people can succeed at a great many things.  A given person may have to work harder that the average Joe to achieve one or another particular goal, but if they were truly afraid of failure, they would in fact work as hard as necessary.

When  people do fail at an initial effort, they can learn from their mistakes and try again.  Instead of doing that, some people beat themselves up about the initial failure.  They tell themselves the irrational thought, well known by cognitive therapists, that just because they did not succeed the first time, they are just a miserable excuse for a human being who is bound to fail from that point in time until eternity.

If you keep telling yourself that, you will undoubted continue to fail, because you will never make the required effort.

What is even more surprising is hearing people offer the "fear of failure" excuse for not doing something a second time after they already had succeeded at it or something very similar the first time!  As a therapist, I hear this as well.  The lameness of the "fear of failure" excuse starts to become more obvious in this situation. 

I think people who use the fear of failure excuse are really afraid of success.  Failure is the end result (the net effect - see my post of August 20) of not making any effort to accomplish something.  Yet failure is what these people profess to fear.  This sounds like Orwellian doublespeak. Seeking out something that one claims to be afraid of. 

Why would people be afraid of success?  I find many patients who claim to fear failure believe that  it is their success that seems to destabilize their family of origin.  The others around them try to invalidate or make light of their efforts or even their achievements in any number of ways, appear jealous and resentful, and often accuse them of trying to be better than everyone else in the family. 

"Who the hell do you think you are, Mr. smarty pants?  You think you're so great?!  We know how you'll turn out!"  Imagine if everyone you know and love is saying things like that to you with all the vitriol they can muster.  Do you think you might be a bit intimidated?

When  people say that they fear failure, they are usually not actually lying, however.  "I am afraid of failure" is not a complete sentence.  We have to ask, failure to do what?  The failure to accomplish the ostensible task of which they speak?  That cannot be the answer to the question for the reasons I've mentioned.  The failure that they may fear is the failure to keep their family stable.  If they really try to succed at the ostensible task of which they speak, they will fail at keeping the family stable, and it is that failure that they fear.

In some cases, family invalidation of successful offspring (in the more ordinary sense of the word successful) is not nearly so extensive.   Some parents in fact push and push their children towards a specific goal like, say, becoming a physician, whether the child wishes to pursue that career or not.  However, when the child graduates from medical school, the parents appear to get depressed.  Sometimes they do not even come to the medical school graduation, and make an excuse for not coming that is oh so obviously lame. 

What I believe is happening here is that the parents are pushing their child to do what the parents always wanted to do but were not able to do - because of either family rules or external circumstances - and cannot for various reasons admit that that is what they are doing.  The parent then lives vicariously through the child.  According to psychiatrist Sam Slipp, the child in this case is playing the role of the parent's savior.

When the child is too successful, however, it reminds these parents that they did not get to do whatever it is they had been pushing their child to do.  That is usually why they get depressed, but the child has no way of knowing about this.  Often, the successful children then get depressed themselves. 

Sometimes after a child becomes what the parents really wanted to be, the parents start to send off negative messages that seem to indicate to their offspring that the offspring should back off on the achievement thing.  This, after the child gave up what he or she really wanted to do in order to be what the parent wanted! 

This betrayal is called a double bind on achievement.  The adult child living out his or her parent's dream is in a damned if you do, damned if you don't position.  If they do not achieve, they are criticized, but if they do achieve, they are still criticized or made to feel bad in some other way.  Sometimes, the only way out is a bizarre compromise. Example: get the MD degree, but keep failing the licensure exam.  That way it looks to the parents like their children are doing what the parents originally wanted, but failing at it all on their own.

1 comment:

  1. Hi David - I saw your comment regarding Scientology at Kris Ullands blog Borderline Families. Good to meet you - you seem to have an interesting message that echo's my own - that family dysfunction is creating the issues that are being called and treated as "mental illness".

    I"m glad to meet you and hope we might connect somewhere along the way.