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.
I wrote a sentence in my last post that started to haunt me. The sentence was: ’Most of the dreams we are really committed to work for are actually achievable.’ Do I really believe it to be true? Isn’t that something that all those cheap happy-happy-self-help-gurus proclaim with their false smiles? On the other hand, there is a grain of truth in it. In the end, it is good to believe in it – but only under certain conditions.
First reason to believe in the power of your dreams is that the clearer goals you have the more possibilities you see. When you have a clear idea of what you want then you are able to see how your actions in different contexts can advance that dream. An optimist who believes that the dream can come true is much more prone to achieve that dream. This is mainly because he or she is always on the lookout for opportunities to take steps towards its fulfillment.
Similarly, when you believe in your dream you have more energy and courage to work towards it. When you see a weak possibility you jump at it and see where it takes you. The one who tries knows whether something leads to success or not. The pessimist will not even try – and thus never will find out whether there would have been a path of possibilities available. This is the logic behind the saying of Henry Ford according to which: ”Whether you believe you can or believe you cannot, you are probably right.” There might be a possibility or there might not be. As a pessimist you will never find out.
Thirdly, the world tends to help those who believe in their dreams. When you get enthusiastic about your dream then you most probably share it with those around you. And they might be able to give you invaluable advice, resources or contacts thus greatly increasing your change of success. Additionally, engagement is highly contagious and the kind of disease that people really want to get infected with. So when you are really engaged in a project it usually is easy to find other people who want to go with you in the same direction. Transforming your dream into a clear and communicable form activates not only the resources of yourself but also those around you.
Finally, the bigger and clearer the dream is for you, the more you are willing to sacrifice for it. Our time and other resources are limited and if you want to achieve something extraordinary you usually need to focus quite a large portion of them towards this one thing. Having a clear goal makes clear that you don’t get sidetracked but really work towards that dream of yours.
There are thus a number of good reasons to believe that all dreams are achievable. The more you believe in it, the bigger chance you have to actually achieve your dream. But there is – as always – another side of the story.
Life doesn’t always go according to the plans. It isn’t a coincidence that happening and happiness have the same first four letters – it reflects the ancient idea that happiness is what happens to us rather than something we can control. A surprisingly big part of our success or failure is due to external factors. In Silicon Valley they have recognized this. Therefore someone who has few bankruptcies behind him- or herself is not seen as a failure but as an experienced entrepreneur.
Believing that everyone can always achieve their dreams if they just try hard enough is totally untenable believe in the real world where a hurricane or a global economic crisis can undo everything you have worked for in a single sweep of fate. More specifically, this attitude leads to three detrimental consequences:
Firstly, you are too harsh on yourself. When you don’t achieve something you blame yourself. You see that it was your own fault that you failed. You become depressed thinking that you are a-good-for-nothing. You loose your ability to try again because you are sure that it will only reconfirm the fact that you are not able to make it. You doom yourself into cynical and embittered passivity in the face of life.
Secondly, you are too harsh on others. If you see people who are worse off than yourself you believe that it is their own fault. This attitude of superiority is one of the plagues of our modern times. There are far too many arrogant hotshots who don’t know anything about life but who are sure that their success is totally their own merit and that they deserve every kind of privilege that puts them above the others who have only themselves to blame. A person’s success or failure in life is quite much dependent on the economic, social and educational capital they have at their disposal. When you read those from-rags-to-riches stories you realize that almost always there was somebody who helped the protagonist on the way and provided the necessary means to make the journey to a new world. How many potential achievers are out there that didn’t have that necessary mentor at the right moment? And the statistics show that at least in America those stories are becoming more and more rare. American dream seems to be most achievable in countries where free education and other welfare policies make it possible for those starting at the bottom to reach their full potential.
Thirdly, by concentrating too blindly on your target you miss everything else that is worthwhile in life. It is always heartbreaking to read those stories about highly successful men who realize in their 60s how they missed out on the whole family thing and how they then try to compensate by spoiling their grandchildren. Be careful about what you dream because by choosing what you dream about you also choose away those things that are not part of your dream.
So what to do? In some situations, the believe in dreams coming true seems to be very fruitful. In others it leads to a dismal worldview. Which to choose?
Luckily we don’t have to choose and blindly follow only one of the beliefs. Instead we can be flexible and look at the world through the one that better suits any particular situation. As long as things work out as they should you can follow the success framework – it gives you energy to reach even further. But when life hits you with a hard hand straight in your face you should have the agility to change framework and not blame yourself or others but accept the situation that lady Fortuna has prepared for you. And then go on to find a dream more suitable for your new situation.