Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 2 ed.

Chapter 9. Accepting the Possibility of Failure and Disappointment

Failure and disappointment are universal human experiences. In order to achieve goals we need to dislike failure and disappointment but not be fearful of them. This chapter will help you learn how to accept failure and disappointment while remaining focused on your goals.

It is not uncommon for new businesses and ventures to fail in the first two years. The figures are surprising. Only between 15–20% last beyond the second year. Yet despite the fact that failure and disappointment happen, even more surprisingly they are not often discussed, as if mentioning failure and disappointment is unacceptable. Some schools banish competitive sports and discourage healthy competition because it is perceived that a) competitiveness is bad and b) children will fail – meaning that they will fail and then perceive themselves as failures. Children are then deprived of the opportunity to understand that they can deal with failing in a constructive way and learn something valuable that will serve them later on in adulthood. Instead, they receive the opposite message.

There is, however, a positive side to failure and disappointment. In many ways, they hold the key to your success.

In some Eastern philosophies good and bad are given equal weight. Life and death are seen as natural aspects of life. Success and failure and other opposites are not labelled as good and bad. Change, destruction and death are seen as part of the natural cycle; the problem does not lie with the forces themselves but with your reactions to them. Failure, or the challenge of failure and disappointment, can be seen as either a reason for despair or as an aid to personal development and emotional growth, learning or even spiritual development.

Any risk you undertake in life brings with it the possibility of failure or disappointment. This happens whenever you wish to make any change.

Accepting failure is about accepting your fallibility as a human being. No one is perfect. Perfection is something that does not exist. What does exist is excellence and striving for excellence. Perfection means that nothing better exists, or that you have reached a stage of knowledge where you have learned everything and no one can surpass you. If you believe that you have reached your own level of perfection, this is the opposite of catastrophizing (when you believe that nothing worse can exist). Neither of these concepts is consistent with reality. The truth is you can improve and worse things can happen.

In the traditions of the Navaho tribe, rugs and blankets are woven with a knot in them as a reminder that humankind is not perfect. By weaving a knot, they believe they are ensuring that the gods are not angered by humans thinking that they are like gods. Human fallibility, making mistakes or failing is represented by the knot, a visible reminder that shows how imperfection might be reflected upon and accepted.

Failure and Failing

There are three aspects to consider when thinking about failure. Firstly, there is failure. Secondly, there is failing. Thirdly, there is your role in the failure or the failing. The diagram below illustrates this. There are four possibilities:

1.     Failure has occurred and you are fully or partly responsible.

2.     Failure has occurred but it was not your responsibility at all.

3.     Something is failing and you are fully or partly responsible.

4.     Something is failing but it is not your responsibility.


My responsibility

Not my responsibility







Failure is tangible. You know that you have failed at something or in something. For example, you may have failed at losing weight, or in your business, exam or relationship. It is much easier to know that you have failed than to recognize that you are failing in something or at something. Even when you recognize you are failing, you may decide to keep going because you do not want to give up, for example, in your relationship or in your work performance.

How far you are prepared to persist eventually leads you to decide when to throw in the towel and accept that something is not working. There is no shame in changing your mind. It is excellent to persist but it is also important to be smart. When faced with such decisions it is always good to consider doing a cost benefit analysis as shown in Chapter 8.

Being goal-directed does not mean that the option of choosing to quit something should be out of the question. It is all a matter of balance.

Successful business people not only know how to be creative and goal-directed but they also check if their efforts are rewarded and they are smart enough to know when to stop and start something else.

How far you persist is down to you. You can of course keep at it, but recognize the costs in terms of time, money, new ventures, family and other personal circumstances. If you have been working at something for years, investing time, money and creativity, and you are still failing, reflect on it first and then conduct a thorough cost benefit analysis. It may even be worth investing in external help when making the assessment. If what you are failing at involves other people, then everyone who is involved is required to be part of the decision-making process. For example, if your relationship is failing then both you and your partner need to consider why, and to ask what you want. You can only do so much and your partner's goals are outside of your responsibility. Provided that both of you want to work on your relationship and to make improvements, there are possibilities – but if one of you has already opted out, your responsibility becomes whether you wish to persist or not.

The previous diagram will help you to consider whether failure or failing is within your responsibility or if it is someone else's responsibility. The important thing is to be honest with yourself first.

Accepting responsibility for failure and failing

Failure and failing at something is not a pleasant experience but no one is exempt from it. Failure and failing is not an indication of your worth as a person. Accepting responsibility for your failure and failing does not mean that you become a failure as a person.

Taking responsibility is an indication of emotional maturity and growth. This doesn't mean damning yourself as a failure or labelling yourself as worthless. That is totally unhealthy, illogical and unhelpful.

The first thing is to acknowledge the failure and failing without making excuses or shifting the responsibility onto someone else. Accepting responsibility provides you with the opportunity to see what you can do and as a consequence take more control of your life. It gives you an opportunity to learn and move on so that you can make better choices in the future.

Accepting responsibility for failure and failing may trigger intense but natural emotions. You may experience mixed emotions. You can identify your feelings and then set to work on the belief you hold that is causing them. It is not the failure or the failing but your response to it that matters. You can change your emotional response as it is provoked by your beliefs, and they are within your control.

You can learn and become more experienced but you will never eliminate failure or failing from your life. However, you can learn not to be disturbed when this happens.

Accepting failure and failing when they are out of your control

Sometimes, and despite your excellent efforts and healthy attitude, failure and failing still occur. This happens because there are factors outside your control.

In such circumstances, accepting the things that are out of your control is as important as taking responsibility for what you can control. Once again, your response to failures and failing is within your control. You can either respond healthily or unhealthily.

Remember there is usually something to learn even in the projects that have failed due to factors that were outside your control. Perhaps you learned how to write a better report or a business plan, network more successfully, or apply for funding. This becomes more obvious once you have untangled your emotional knots about the failure or failing.

Not accepting failure and failing

There are always people who say that not accepting failure was the solution to their success, or that failure was not an option for them and that is why they managed to overcome an illness or some other obstacle. Using a combination of resiliency and effort they continued to strive for their goal. Often they simply rejected the suggestion that they were a failure.

For example, a child living in an extremely difficult environ ment may be told that he won't amount to much or that he is stupid. Incredibly, some of these children grow up to be great sportsmen and women and become high achievers. The reality is often that they did not accept the negative suggestions. Some say, ‘it made me more determined to prove them wrong’. What they all have in common is that they worked very hard to learn and improve their situation.

Learning and improving is all about recognizing that perfection does not exist and that you are fallible. It is about not seeing failure or fallibility as a catastrophe. It means possibly making wrong choices and mistakes and then realizing that there are other things you can do despite initial limitations or hardships.

There is a difference between having a fighting spirit and not accepting failure. A fighting spirit helps you stay focused on your goal. Not accepting failure leads to anxiety and disturbance: two very different outcomes.

What happens when you fail?

Failure can trigger many different emotions in you.

You can have a healthy negative emotional response or an unhealthy negative emotional response. The unhealthy emotional response will be provoked by your unhealthy beliefs that will trigger you to feel as if you are stuck and unable to move forward. The healthy negative emotional response will feel painful and stressful, but you will then move forward and be able to reflect on the failure with an objective mind. If your emotional response was unhealthy you may experience the following:

1. Not accepting the reality of failure

This is usually experienced as numbness or shock and at first you may be in denial, saying, ‘I can't believe it happened’. You may not yet feel any emotions. You haven't yet accepted the reality of what has happened. This can last a few days or even longer. If this stage persists for a long time and you are still in shock about what has happened, you may need professional help. Not feeling anything when you have failed at something that was very significant is unhealthy. Sooner or later you would need to deal with what is being blocked or avoided. In the long term the pain of facing the reality will be worth it.

If, however, you get over the initial shock, then you will feel negative emotions.

2. Feeling the negative emotions

Experiencing negative emotions is natural, so allow yourself to experience them. You will not know at this point whether they are the product of a healthy or an unhealthy belief. The best thing to do is to allow your feelings and talk to friends and family and people who can support you. It is natural to be vulnerable and out of sync at this stage.

3. Time Limited Irrationality

When you experience failure (and depending on how signifi cant the consequence was to you) you may experience what is known as Time Limited Irrationality. This means that you can experience neurosis and irrationality for a short period of time and it is quite normal, hence the time limited aspect of it. During this limited period you may talk, behave and think as if you have really unhealthy beliefs. You may find yourself catastrophizing, saying you can't bear it and how the experience means that you are useless. As long as it's for a short period of time, usually a few hours or a day, then this is a natural part of the acceptance and healing process.

If, however, the negative emotions do not change after weeks and if you find yourself thinking about the failure, feeling that you are stuck in a rut, or experiencing anger, anxiety, shame, depression, guilt or hurt, then you may now and with some confidence say that you have an unhealthy belief that requires your attention. If you feel stuck, start by applying the CBT process. Start with identifying what you are feeling and then identify the unhealthy beliefs provoking the emotion or emotions.

Common unhealthy emotions experienced when failure occurs

1. Anxiety

As explained earlier, anxiety is the unhealthy emotional response to threat and danger. You may be anticipating another failure or worry about other potential failures. Its healthy version is concern. Both anxiety and concern are essentially fear-based emotions. One is unhealthy and immobilizing and the other is balanced and realistic.

Here are some examples of what you may become anxious about following a failure:

·        Finding another job if your employment was terminated for whatever reason.

·        Paying your mortgage or bills.

·        Finding another relationship if the current one has ended.

·        Taking another exam if you failed a recent one.

Essentially you become anxious about failing again or about the consequences of the failure.

If you are feeling anxiety and not concern, you will probably be over-exaggerating the negative aspects of future failures and consequences. You may be thinking that you won't be able to cope if it happens again. When you are anxious you will tend to see the glass as half empty and your thinking will not be constructive or progressive. You will also feel like running away from the idea of starting again, and may notice that you are drinking more or numbing your emotions in other ways.

You can tackle your anxiety by facing what you are anxious about and then applying the CBT process to identify and change your anxiety-causing beliefs first.

2. Depression

Depression is the unhealthy psychological response to loss or to failure. Its healthy version is sadness.

When a goal is not achieved or when failure about other aspects of the goal occur, you may become depressed. You will recognize depression because you feel stuck in negativity about the failure. You will see the future as hopeless and believe that you are a failure too. Your thinking may be affected in that it becomes slower and you may feel lethargic and unmotivated. You will also be thinking about past failures which potentially reinforce your unhealthy beliefs.

Usually, anxiety and depression are experienced together. It is also possible that you become anxious about being depressed.

Sadness, on the other hand, is the healthy response to failure or to loss. The most obvious indicator of sadness is that you still feel hopeful about the future and you will not believe that you are a failure because you failed.

There are many different types of depression other than a specific reaction to failure. It is important that you seek professional and medical help in the first instance and then follow the CBT process of identifying and changing your depression-provoking beliefs.

3. Unhealthy anger

Anger is another common emotion experienced following a failure. You can experience unhealthy anger or healthy anger (annoyance) about your failure. Both are about rule-breaking. For example, you may think that you have broken a personal rule which then led to the failure or that someone else did. You might also feel angry towards life or the world because an unfairly perceived event occurred.

You can recognize unhealthy anger because you may be calling yourself, another, or the world, every name under the sun. This means that you may be making global negative judgements. You may also be thinking or behaving aggressively and unreasonably. You may perceive malice in other people's actions and believe that their bad actions were deliberate and personal. You may feel like avenging yourself.

Healthy anger is balanced. You tend to judge the action or the performance as opposed to judging yourself or someone else. You become assertive and objective about your disappointment. Healthy anger enables you to sit with your emotion rather than immediately expressing it by shouting or arguing. You give yourself time to think about the most constructive way of dealing with the problem.

4. Shame/embarrassment

Shame and embarrassment are also common emotional respon ses to failure when something becomes public knowledge, or if you see yourself or something that you have done in a certain way. The healthy version is regret.

If, for example, the failure and the circumstances around it became public, you might feel ashamed because of the risk of people thinking badly of you. You would link your worth to other people's negative judgement and begin to see yourself as unworthy.

If you tend to be anxious about negative judgement, you might feel ashamed or depressed or angry if negative judgement occurs after the failure. Anxiety is about what could happen in the future.

You would deal with your feeling of shame by using the CBT process to identify the shame-causing beliefs and then change them to regret-causing beliefs.

Other unhealthy emotions, like envy, hurt, jealousy and guilt, are also common in the event of failure. In the same way, the CBT process can be used to identify and change the unhealthy beliefs provoking these emotions. As always, the process of change is more significant than your specific emotional state when you are working on changing beliefs.

Why do you fail?

There is no universal answer to this question to fit every situation. Like everyone, you are fallible and not everything is within your control.

If you are fearful or anxious about failure you will tend to adopt unrealistic goals about yourself or your skills. Consequently, you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy where you expect to fail. This state of anxiety leads to avoidance and negative thinking and thus increases the chances of failing. High achievers, on the other hand, do not fear failure and they do not see it as an indication of low self-worth. If you are a high achiever you will dislike, but not feel anxious about, failure.

Anxiety about failure can start in childhood. You may have grown up in a family where high standards were expected. In such families, parents often demand that, for example, children succeed academically. Children then internalize demands such as, ‘you must do better’, ‘you must try harder’, ‘you must succeed’. This leads to an unhealthy ‘need’ for success and not failing, which in turn causes unhealthy fear.

Be open and honest

In order to be able to identify these goal-sabotaging beliefs, you will need to be honest and open with yourself about the failure. If you blame it on someone else or ignore it, this will only reinforce your unhealthy beliefs. It may feel painful at first, but admitting to the failure is the first step to healing. If you do not declare the failure you will be blind to the solution, or to what you can learn from the situation.

Being open and honest about the failure with your family, close friends and those who matter to you provides you with the support and care you may need. It also helps as a reminder that the world has not ended and that you are still a valuable person. It helps you understand that you can, in fact, deal and cope with the failure.

Feel the pain and get up again

Allow yourself time to feel the pain and disappointment. Feeling pain and discomfort is natural and human. Do not kid yourself by pretending that you are immune to pain. It's OK and appropriate to have negative feelings. It is important that you do not catastrophize the failure. Tell yourself that it's hard and bad but that you will cope and deal with the difficulty and that the world has not ended. You will then keep a sense of proportion and see that hope and opportunities for learning still exist.

Once you have given yourself time to lick your wounds, you can then review what happened and develop a plan of action.

Learn from your failure and mistakes

You can now review your previous plans and identify where and when you deviated from them. You can take another look at the entire project and assess why the failure and mistakes happened. Remember that no one is perfect, so be prepared to accept responsibility but remain strong and learn from the failure and mistakes.

Work out what you have learned and how you would do things differently next time. What you learn should not be about paying someone back or about making unrealistic demands. Be constructive about what you have learned.

You failed – you are not a failure

One of the most significant things you can do is to see the failure as a failure, and yourself as fallible and worthwhile regardless. Remember that you failed but that you are not a failure as a person. Keep your worth detached from your performance. If you put yourself down and believe that you are now worthless and a failure you will end up depressing yourself about the failure and making yourself anxious about future failures.

Have a plan

Develop a plan of what to do and how to respond to the failure. This is not about giving up but about thinking and developing a plan of action. You may decide that you need additional skills so consider taking a course, for example, if that is what you need to do. If you work with others, you can agree a plan of action based on shared values and experiences.

Learn when to give up

There is no shame in knowing when to quit. It is far better to realize when a venture is not yielding results and knowing when to throw in the towel than continuing to invest time and effort in something that is clearly not working. In thinking about when to give up you can learn good business sense. Include this in your plans and contingencies.

Accepting disappointment

‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’

Martin Luther King, Jr

Dealing with disappointment is an important part of living. Life can be seen as a game of learning how to become stronger and more effective in the face of failure and disappointment. How you deal with both determines how much you succeed.

You experience disappointment when your goals are not achieved or when you fail. The goals you set for yourself, for others and the world around you can trigger feelings of disappointment when they are not realized.

Disappointment goes along with most of the negative emotions you feel. It can be expressed as depression, sadness, anger, annoyance, anxiety or concern.

You have learned that emotions can be healthily or unhealthily negative. When you experience a feeling of disappointment, the first thing to do is acknowledge it and then work out what it actually is that you are feeling, for example hurt or anxiety. Accept it, and know that as long as you have a goal, desire, preference, want, like, dislike, need or demand, you will experience the negative emotion of disappointment.

Accepting disappointment means acknowledging that you will experience the pain of negative emotions when your goals are not achieved. Feeling bad or disappointed is natural and should not be avoided by alcohol, drugs, food or other tranquilizers.

Not all negative feelings of disappointment are unhealthy. It is possible that you may view all negative feelings as bad and therefore attempt to block them or tranquilize them, but doing that only makes matters worse. The only way to heal your feelings of disappointment, healthy or unhealthy, is to accept the pain you are experiencing. Accept it and take ownership of it.

All painful feelings of disappointment are finite. This means they don't last forever, particularly if they are provoked by healthy beliefs. Unhealthy beliefs can trigger these painful feelings for much longer, but even then they won't last forever. Adopting a healthy attitude to negative emotions means developing acceptance and hope, with an eye on the future.

No matter how many courses on positive thinking you take, no matter how much you visualize success, you will not rid yourself of disappointment completely. It is part of life.

Celebrate and enjoy success and accept feelings of disappointment.

Accept the challenges of life

It is true that sometimes you will experience more disappoint ments in life than others will. It is true that sometimes your choices will be limited. Accept the hand you are dealt as a first step. This does not mean telling yourself ‘this is how my life will be’, but ‘this is how it is now but I will learn to move on from it’. This way you will remain open to future opportunities because your attitude is constructive and helpful.

Take action now

At some point you will need to take action and act in accordance with your healthy belief. Use your imagination to set yourself up for taking real action. You will experience tension and discomfort, but this is natural and you should not see it as inappropriate or something to be avoided. This way you will stretch your comfort zone and learn to be more effective and tolerant of change.