How to deal with failure effectively: Should you punish or forgive yourself?

The Problem: When we fail, we often punish ourselves for our slacking. But is this effective?
What Science Says: Actually, forgiving ourselves might be the strategy that leads into better results in the future.
Take-Home Message: The 3 key elements for dealing effectively with failure.

When we fail at something, the natural reaction for most of us is to punish ourselves for our slacking. When we drink too many beers, when we smoke that cigar we shouldn’t have smoked, when we eat that greasy pizza or fail to meet that deadline, we get angry at ourselves: You lazy slacker, again you failed! You will never succeed at anything! These accusations fill our minds, and often we start designing some punishments for ourselves, in order to learn a lesson.

The question to ask: Is this really an effective way to deal with failure? Does punishing ourselves contribute to us not making the same mistake in the future?

Ask professor Michael Wohl from Carleton University, and he can tell you that forgiving might actually be a more successful strategy to deal with many self-regulation failures.

For example, procrastinating before the exam – followed by last night’s cramming – is an all too common phenomenon among college students. But let’s say that you procrastinated before the mid-term exam and you are not happy with the results. The final exam is in a few months: How to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen there?

The research team led by Wohl got into contact with students in this situation and found out that some students were more forgiving towards themselves for slacking, while others were more strict and punishing. A few months went by and it was time for the final exam. Guess which group got better results, self-forgiving or self-punishing students?

It turned out that the self-punishing group procrastinated as much in the final exam as they did in the mid-term, and this was reflected in their final results. Critical self-punishing thus failed as a method for improving their future performance. However, self-forgiving students were not only more studious before the exam, they also got better grades. So unlike common wisdom has it, self-forgiving might be a more effective strategy than self-criticism for making sure that in the future you win your willpower battles.

However, don’t take this as a license to forgive yourself for everything. Too much forgiving is not good, either. Especially when it comes to chronic harmful behavior, like smoking or gambling addictions, being too permissive toward oneself might actually lead oneself to be less prone to solve the problem. Smokers trying to quit might use self-forgiveness to justify their smoking, in order to be able to smoke one more cigar – again.

More important than forgiving or punishing might be that one accepts responsibility for what has happened. Self-accusation often puts one in a defensive and negative mood, where one is unable to reflect on the situation and thus fails to learn from it. This is probably the reason why self-critical students made the same mistake in the final exam that they did in the mid-term. By focusing on the punishment, they forgot to have a general look at what were the factors that actually contributed to procrastination happening in the first place. On the other hand, a chronic smoker might use forgiveness to allow oneself not to think about what happened and why, and thus forgiveness might contribute to the continuation of the problem.

So when you face a self-control failure, the most important thing is to accept responsibility for what happened, and have a realistic look at the situation that caused it. What situational factors were at play? What could I have done differently? It is this reflection and a commitment to change that are the real drivers of change for the better. By focusing on self-punishment, you easily fail to have this essential reflection. But self-forgiveness alone is not enough, either. However, when
(1) forgiveness is combined with
(2) a commitment to change and
(3) a plan for change,
this trio might work magic in making you less prone to repeat your mistake.

This post was originally published in Fulfillment Daily.


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