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Overcoming the Stigma of Failure

Published on 9/29/2021 10:15:03 AM
By Sydnie Harrell, Office of Undergraduate Studies at Texas A&M University


Recognizing the Stigma
Failure. It’s something everyone experiences but no one likes to experience. From failed assignments in school to failed goals and failed relationships, the unfortunate action manages to find a way to infiltrate every aspect of life at some point or another.
 
The act of failure is often associated with thoughts like “I can’t succeed now that I’ve failed,” “This is the end of the world,” and “I’m a failure"; it is stigmatized to be a negative and feared experience. To help others overcome the stigma of failure, Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Studies Dr. Valerie Balester and Academic Coach Tyler Laughlin explain how it is an essential quality in the process of achieving success and what steps to take after coming across it.
 
“[Failure] is inevitable,” Balester said. “An inherent part of the process of becoming successful is learning to accept and handle failure.”
 
Balester and Laughlin turn to their own experience when talking about the subject of defeat and failure. Along with this, they also have researched the topic and attended workshops about motivation, setting goals, and grit.
 
“When it comes to failure, a lot of times, all I have to do is look at my own undergraduate career,” Laughlin said. “I’ve done research into failure as part of my job, so looking at people, like Angela Duckworth, who have done a lot about grit and failure.”
 
The Scale of Failure
When analyzing failure and how it affects students, Laughlin says he looks at failure as a scale. Located on one side, “bad failure” encompasses the stigma and negative feelings, like shame and defeat, associated with failure. An example of “bad failure” could be when a student receives a bad grade and lets emotions like anger and frustration build up inside of them without addressing the problem.
 
“If you focus on how the failure was bad, how it was wrong, how it makes you feel bad, and you get stuck in that loop, then it’s really difficult to get out of,” Laughlin said. “It can affect students negatively because if that’s the only thing you think about, then, typically, you lose motivation, that edge to keep going.”
 
On the opposite end of “bad failure,” “good failure” focuses on the mindset of viewing defeat as an opportunity to grow and do better. This can be thought of in situations where a scientist fails in an experiment to find a cure for a disease and reflects on the testing to try again. While it can be challenging to get into the thought process of learning from mistakes, this is how failure can be viewed as a positive process.
 
“[Failure affects students negatively] when [they] let the shame get to them, feel defeated, and give up,” Balester said. “They spiral into more and more failure because they’re not taking proactive steps to address what caused the failure in the first place or [how] to take a different direction.”
 
Not discussed as often is the relationship between motivation and knowledge which lies in the middle of the scale. Here, someone finds themselves combining aspects from “good” and “bad” failure: knowing what to do and how to do it (“good”) but lacking the ambition to follow through (“bad”). This middle area is closely related to procrastination and burnout.
 
“When it comes to academics, in particular, a lot of times, students are in the middle,” Laughlin said. “They know what they should be doing. They know that they need to study and focus more on things, but the drive isn’t there.”
 
Steps to Take After Failure
Both Balester and Laughlin explained that there are a few crucial steps that should be taken after experiencing failure. First, the person who failed needs to let themselves feel their emotions. Whether those are feelings of anger, frustration, or sadness, it’s important to do this initially instead of letting them build up.
 
“The first thing they should do is go through the process of being mad and upset,” Laughlin said. “You have to. It’s a normal human process.”
 
After reacting to their failure, the next step is acceptance. This is another aspect of failure that can be challenging to achieve. Balester said some people work through accepting failure by writing down their experiences and talking to others.
 
“When someone says something that you feel like you failed, just acknowledge it like ‘Yeah. I failed. But I learned something from it,’” Balester said “[Whether] it’s the voice in your head or the voice of another person, answer those negative points. Acknowledge it and recognize its value.”
 
The next step is analysis; this is where questions like “Why did that happen?” and “What caused that?” can come into play. During the analysis period, the individual should retrace their steps and figure out where things went wrong.
 
“[You have to figure] out why that particular thing failed and adjust your behaviors or your strategies and sometimes take an entirely new direction,” Balester said. “Sometimes you fail at something because it’s something that you’re not motivated or able to do.”
 
Lastly comes the decision-making step. Through making a choice, one who experiences failure will be able to use it as an opportunity for growth. This decision could be moving on from the event, trying again with different tactics, or asking for help.

“The stigma of failure couples closely with being willing to ask for help or being willing to get help if you need it, whether personal, academic, or whatever it may be,” Laughlin said. “[They have to think] ‘If I know what went wrong this time, what can I do to ensure it doesn’t happen again; what steps I can take learn from it?’”
 
Overcoming the Stigma
Following these steps can help one learn from and move on from their failure. Additionally, there are workshops provided by the Academic Success Center (ASC) that students can attend to work through struggles with motivation, drive, and grit: “Commit to Success”, “Motivation Matters”, and “True GRIT: Gaining Resilience, Inspiration, and Tenacity.” Laughlin, the creator and presenter of the “True GRIT” workshop, explained how he uses relatability to help destigmatize failure.
 
“The best thing I think I do with students is making myself as relatable as possible to empathize with failure,” Laughlin said. “[I] tell them about my own struggles with things [like] things where I wasn’t as successful as I hoped or flat out didn’t do well.”
 
Along with emphasizing the importance of relating to others, Laughlin says that it’s important to talk about the topic openly and recognize that it’s an inherent part of the process of becoming successful; he gave an example of this by describing how everyone failed at things as a child, like walking and more.
 
“It’s a universal human trait; we all breathe, we all eat, we all fail,” Laughlin said. “Nobody wants to admit it’s important, but it provides experience, growth, and value that you can share with others. [When] we talk about it as a normal process, I think that helps destigmatize it.”
 
By reframing failure as an everyday topic through relating to others and understanding that failure is an event and not a person, the stigma that failure will prevent success will inevitably subside. Instead of being associated with negative thoughts, failure can be connected to thoughts like “The most successful people fail,” “This is an opportunity to learn,” and “Failure doesn’t define me.”
 
“Failure is a thing that happens,” Laughlin said. “It is not a defining measure of who a person is.”
 
Students can learn more about workshops provided by the ASC by visiting https://asc.tamu.edu/Courses-Presentations/Courses-Workshops. Additionally, students can make an appointment with Academic Coaches (for academic guidance) or Counseling & Psychological Services (for personal counseling).
 

 
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Media Contact: Anna Transue, transuea@tamu.edu