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Mental Schemas #9: Failure

Handling negative emotions

This is the ninth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.


“Now Linus, I want you to take a good look at Charlie Brown’s face. Would you please hold still a minute, Charlie Brown? I want Linus to study your face. Now, this is what you call a Failure Face, Linus. Notice how it has failure written all over it. Study it carefully, Linus. You rarely see such a good example. Notice the deep lines, the dull, vacant look in the eyes. Yes, I would say this is one of the finest examples of a Failure Face that you’re liable to see for a long while.”

— Lucy Van Pelt in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

There are a good number of articles on The Willpower Engine about failure: what to do when it happens, why certain kinds of tactics generally fail, and how to deal with the worry that failure will happen. Some people feel as though they’re basically incompetent, with no good skills or resources (for more on this, read “Mental Schemas #6: Incompetence“). Others, when they’re successful, assume that it was by mistake or only achieved because they’ve fooled everyone into thinking they’re good enough (for more on this, read “Impostor Syndrome“).

What failure schemas look like
People with the failure schema may or may not feel incompetent, and may or may not feel like impostors, but regardless they believe that they are failures, that successes don’t happen to them. Often such people were brought up in environments where the people important to them would tell them over and over that they were failures, or where this idea was always pushed on them in some other way. Sue of Healthy Within Journey describes just such a childhood in this post:

“Then I remembered that every time I brought home a sewing project (from home ec class), my mom would criticize my work, rip out my stitches and resew the project. She also critized how I practiced the piano and would often ‘show me’ how to play a piece correctly. She discounted my academic success by telling me that I may be good at school but I didn’t have any common sense so I would never succeed in life. No matter how much I succeeded she reminded me that my cousin and/or brother were successful in other, more important areas. Even years later whenever I had difficulty with any project, I could hear her criticizing me and telling me I would never succeed at anything important. I feared even a tiny ‘failure’ would mean she was right, that I would never succeed.”

Some people with failure schemas make themselves fail through their beliefs: they assume they can never succeed and therefore never try hard when it’s most needed. Others work away desperately out of fear of failure, but none of their successes convince them: they continue to feel in their hearts that they are essentially failures, even when the evidence says otherwise.

Overcoming a failure schema
As with many negative ideas, overcoming a failure schema requires both facing the fear of failure and refuting the idea that failure is inevitable. This takes work over time to change deeply-ingrained thoughts. Facing the fear means some form of recognition that sometimes we fail, and that this is just a normal part of life and is not catastrophic. Refuting the idea that failure is inevitable means really understanding on a gut level that it is possible to succeed in some things at some times, regardless of what other people may say.

On a day to day basis, feelings of being doomed to failure can be handled as broken ideas: in other words, it’s necessary first to recognize when a thought has come by that is contributing to this unrealistic idea of failure, and then to take the falsehood out of the thought and rephrase it in a fully truthful way, as described in the article How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step.

Some examples of broken ideas about failure:

  • “I’m a failure.” (labeling)
  • “This is going to be a catastrophe.” (fortune telling)
  • “Nobody believes I can do it.” (mind reading)
  • “The only reason they picked my submission is because everybody felt sorry for me.” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “See how badly that went? I fail at everything.” (overgeneralization)

Photo by Behrooz Nobakht

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