Accepting you might fail won’t make you a failure

Nobody likes to fail. All of us, in one area of our lives or another, wants to succeed and do well. Whether it’s at university, work, in our relationship or on the sports field, there’s normally somewhere we want to do well.

This is perfectly natural and to be applauded and encouraged. After all, it’s our determination and desire to achieve our goals that helps us live fulfilled and happy lives. But what happens when ‘wanting to succeed’ turns into ‘I must succeed’, or ‘I must not fail’?

The fear of failure can be very strong. After all, if we fail in the areas that matter to us, we could have no qualifications, no job, no partner and no gold medals to be proud of. And for some people, to put it in the language of Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy (REBT), that demand to succeed not being met would be awful, unbearable and prove they were a failure.

The REBT view of failure

As an REBT therapist, I encourage my clients with such rigid beliefs to move from demands to preferences: I’d prefer to succeed, but accept I might not. This would be bad, but not awful, uncomfortable but bearable and it would simply mean I am a fallible human being.

This is a much healthier and useful belief to hold. But often, at this point, the ambitious client might ask whether accepting failure means giving up their drive, their goals and the striving for improvement that is such a big part of their lives. Surely if failure is OK, then why should I bother, they ask.

We’ve spoken before about acceptance not being the same as approval (see this blog post), and I always spend time discussing this with clients who raise this concern. I can accept climate change is real, for example, without approving of it. Without accepting its reality, I could never do anything about it.

So equally, we must accept that failure is a very real option in our lives. By accepting that possibility, we can be inspired to work hard and plan for success, exactly the same as before. Except now, because we simply really want to succeed, rather than absolutely have to, we free ourselves of unnecessary pressure and anxiety that comes from believing failure is truly not an option and would be awful and unbearable if it happens.

Who is going to be better able to pick themselves up and try again after failing, as surely they must one day? The person who believes themselves an absolute failure, caught up in depression about what’s just happened and anxious about what might happen next? Or the person who is still very disappointed with failing, but who understands that even though it may seem bad and uncomfortable, it does not mean they are a complete failure, simply fallible?

I know who I’d put my money on…

Nick Jones
REBT Therapist

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