Browsing the archives for the idea repair tag.
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Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

Handling negative emotions

“Let it out,” goes the common wisdom. “If you don’t vent your anger, it will just keep bothering you.” This kind of advice dates at least back to Freud, who believed that negative emotions build up like water behind a dam and must be released if a person wants to get relief. But psychological research in more than a century since Freud’s time has not supported this idea: instead of letting go of anger, venting may really be a way to hang onto it.

The problem with theory that venting anger helps stems from the idea that emotions build up and are retained in some kind of raw state. But emotions consist of a variety of kinds of activity throughout the brain and the rest of the body (see “How emotions work“), especially in the specific thoughts we are thinking (like “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive!” or “I look like an idiot in this shirt”) and in various chemicals released in our bodies, like testosterone, which tends to increase aggressive and arousal; adrenaline, which kicks off our fight-or-flight response; and seratonin, which helps regulate mood–to name just a few. Realizing that emotion is largely made up of fleeting thoughts and temporary chemical states, it begins to be clear that we can’t really “store” emotions in the same way that our bodies store nutrients or even in the same way we store memories. It is possible to keep anger (and other kinds of damaging emotions) going over a long time through self-talk, but this is just another form of “rumination,” the same kind of thing we’re doing when we vent anger.

Rumination, what we’re doing both when we vent anger and when we keep reminding ourselves of it, means “chewing over” an emotional experience we’ve had–re-experiencing it. Acting angry to vent an emotion is therefore a way of dwelling and obsessing on the emotion that we’re trying to get rid of. Even doing nothing is, it turns out, a more effective way to deal with anger than venting.

There’s a good body of psychological research to support this idea, much of which tries to find the benefit of venting anger and finds no evidence of it. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, for instance, you might want to the Dr. Brad J. Bushman’s paper “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding.”

So if venting doesn’t help to fix anger, what does? Focusing on someone or something you love is one approach: see “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.” Another is to become aware of your self-talk and to repair broken ideas: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”

Look for more articles on the topic of anger over coming weeks. I’ve dug up a variety of information on the subject that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I find it.

Photo by amanky


How to Believe

States of mind

Accomplishing new goals in our lives usually means changing our habits, and changing habits requires commitment to a goal. Underneath that commitment, though, there has to be faith. There’s a goodly amount of research out there to support the idea that if we don’t believe we can do something difficult, we won’t make a very good attempt at it.

Why belief is important to success
Belief’s importance makes a lot of sense: after all, accomplishing something difficult means putting in effort and attention over time, and as human beings, we tend to be very bad at putting time and effort into something when we don’t believe we’ll succeed–and rightly so! It doesn’t make much sense to expend our efforts in areas where we expect to fail.

But a problem comes up when something that we really can do feels impossible. We might want very much to do that thing and know exactly what steps we should be taking, but if we have trouble picturing success, eventually resolve tends to falter. We stop putting in effort because we have a crisis of faith, and that interruption causes our effort to fail, which reinforces the idea that what we wanted to do was impossible in the first place.

While fortunately we human beings tend to compensate for this sometimes with bull-headedness and unrealistic expectations (and I really do think that’s fortunate–otherwise we’d be like movie studios that only produce copycat movies for fear that something original will flop), more often, lack of belief leads to failure.

So sometimes, the reason you don’t believe you can earn a degree and get a better job is just that you’ve never had a better job, or the reason you can’t really believe you’ll lose weight is because you haven’t done it successfully before. Yet both of these things, for example, are achievable by almost anyone.

Building belief
So how can we help ourselves believe in our goals? Here are some ways to make that happen:

  • Talk to or research someone else who’s done it. Seeing is very close to believing.
  • Learn about how things work. For instance, learning about the relationship between building new muscle and increasing metabolism can provide more reason to be optimistic that exercise will lead to weight loss.
  • Root out broken ideas. It’s common to tell ourselves “facts” that don’t really hold up on examination. The page “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair” provides resources to learn how to repair broken ideas.
  • Track your progress. Every step toward your goal provides evidence that you can get closer. Be aware of your successes to bolster your confidence and your missteps to know where you need to be cautious. For more on this, see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation.”
  • Revisit past successes. If you’ve quit smoking for a couple of months in the past, or if you’ve been caught up with all of your correspondence at other times in your life, remind yourself of what you did and what you were able to accomplish.
  • Visualize success. Imagining a situation vividly enough helps it feel more real. Visualization is a way to get motivation from our own potential future successes.
  • Talk it out with someone supportive. Finding someone who wants to encourage you toward your goals can make a real difference (see “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us“). Sympathetic friends or family members may not have the same blind spots we often have about ourselves, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

Photo by ornellaswouldgo

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Mental Schemas #12: Subjugation

Handling negative emotions

This is the twelfth 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.

A person with a subjugation schema feels an overpowering obligation to submit to another person’s will, to be told what to do and be judged by someone else. Often such a person will believe in their heart that they need to do what another person says in order to be loved, valuable, etc., and/or will be afraid that they will be judged harshly or punished if they don’t fall in line.

Or a person may have the schema and act out because of it, accusing others of trying to be controlling when this isn’t the intention, or rebelling against other’s wishes regardless of the individual’s own feelings.

As a result, having the subjugation schema means burying or ignoring one’s own needs, desires, inclinations, judgments, and beliefs–whether this is happening due to giving in to others or to being preoccupied with rebelling against others, as in both cases the person with the subjugation schema is reacting to others’ needs, desires, and actions instead of their own.

A person with this schema may also assume other people are trying to take control or may tend to put them in positions of control even if they don’t want to be. Another common pattern with this schema is first complying with what someone else wants, then resenting “having to” do that thing. A person with this schema may have an overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

A typical way for a subjugation schema is to develop is through an overly controlling parent.

Overcoming a subjugation schema
As with other schemas, idea repair can be a key tool in overcoming a subjugation schema. Statements like “I have to do ____” or “I should do ___” are usually variations of “should statements,” which make it seem like something is necessary when it’s really only one of the available options. Thoughts about what will happen if a person doesn’t comply with what another wants are often fraught with magnification and fortune telling instead of being a true assessment of the likely results. Other kinds of broken ideas can also apply to this schema.

Communication is another a key skill for dealing with these issues. If a person wants to become more assertive without being destructive, it’s important to understand how to express one’s own thoughts and emotions without running over those of others. Two excellent books for learning how to resolve conflicts through communication are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Mindfulness is an important and powerful tool in overcoming subjugation schemas. In order to act on one’s own thoughts and emotions, it’s important to be in touch with those thoughts and emotions. This is also something that’s needed as a basis for idea repair.

Over time, the goal in overcoming a subjugation schema is to learn to recognize, value, and respond to one’s own thoughts, emotions, and needs, so any progress is becoming more aware of one’s own feelings, getting perspective, being constructive assertive, or communicating better will help.

Photo by Grufnik

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Two Years Without Coffee: How to Resist Temptation

Self-motivation examples

A little over a year ago I posted “Going a Year Without Coffee,” in which I talk about how my physiology seems to encounter a lot more trouble with caffeine than most people even though I really enjoy coffee. So while I had largely steered away from coffee for some time, it wasn’t until two years ago that I stopped drinking it at all (and stopped having chocolate, tea, and other sources of caffeine along with it).

And while I’m sure I’ll have coffee again from time to time in the future, last week marked two years without, and I thought it might be worth sharing the tactics I use to steer clear, because they’re the same kind of tactics a person can use to avoid other kinds of temptation.

Changing What We Desire
The ideal thing would be to simply not want whatever it is we’re trying to avoid. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a practical approach. Many of us are used to thinking of our desires as being out of our control, that if we’re being drawn to some french fries or to someone who’s a bad influence or to an irresponsible drink, we have the choice of fighting or giving in (or often, both). Yet there’s a different, much more powerful choice available to us: using thinking to redirect our desires.

The Wrong Kind of Attention
When I start thinking about having a cup of coffee, I’m generally thinking about one of two things: how enjoyable the coffee itself is or how I would like to feel more energy. In both cases, my conscious mental processes are directed toward things that will make the idea of having coffee more appealing. On reflection, it seems obvious that if I’m thinking about how much I like the taste of coffee or how energetic I might feel if I had some that I’d be much more likely to actually have some.

It’s easy to imagine that everything we know about a choice feeds into how we make that choice, but in reality, the things we consciously focus on play a much bigger role than everything else, which is one reason we might know exactly the same things from one day to the next but choose to work hard or eat smart the first day yet procrastinate or eat junk the second.

Thinking That Makes Good Choices More Appealing
So my usual habit when I start thinking about a cup of coffee is to jot down a few thoughts about what will happen if I do have some. One of the first things I usually think of is the grinding, day-long headache I’ll get sooner or later from the caffeine. While this isn’t my body’s only negative reaction to the stuff, and while it’s always delayed at least a couple of days, it’s a miserable time.

Not surprisingly, the more I think “coffee=terrible, day-long headache,” the less appealing that cup of coffee gets. This effect builds as I remember that while coffee gives me energy, it also makes it easier to feel jumpy or anxious. Having energy isn’t much good if I’m not in a good enough mood to use it well. As I carefully think over what the real results of my actions will be, the temptation looks progressively more shabby and unappealing.

Having a Little Time Makes All the Difference
The problem with this approach is that it takes time and attention. However, it doesn’t take a lot of time and attention, and if we have enough time and attention to be tempted by something, we probably have enough time and attention to reflect on what will happen if we let ourselves be sucked in by that temptation. It only takes a few minutes, and while it works best if you can write or talk about the things that will make you less attracted to that choice, even just careful thought can bring you there. The worst thing is to be tied up so thoroughly with something else that it’s difficult or unworkable to focus on good choices for a few minutes instead, although planning can help get us through these times (see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower“).

Ultimately, not making a bad choice is easiest if we help ourselves dislike that choice. Focusing on the reasons the choice is bad in the first place help change our perspective so that we stop wanting things we don’t really want for more than momentary pleasure (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“). To put it another way, the best way to resist temptation is to let ourselves be tempted instead by the things that will truly make us happy.

Photo by Beatriz AG

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Two Top Tools for Reducing Stress

Handling negative emotions


The ridiculously cheery song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” offers advice that may be a little hard to follow sometimes. Sometimes we’re not prepared to let go of fears and anxieties, feeling that we need them–occasionally, we may even be right. But even when we’re ready to stop worrying and be happy, letting go of stress is easier said than done.

To help reduce stress, there are many useful approaches described on this site, including meditation, mindfulness, emotional antidotes, a brief walk in a natural setting, and more. However, there are two especially effective, immediate approaches that have both been shown to greatly reduce stress, although both take some effort.

One is social time: if you’re spending most of your time alone (or perhaps with people it’s hard to be with), spending a lot more time with people you like can help enormously: see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.” E-mailing, time on the phone, and even time working with others in the course of your job can “count” toward your total. People who get in at least six hours of some kind of social time per day report being happy and relatively free of stress. See the article for more details.

The other option is idea repair: noticing and fixing thoughts of yours that encourage you to feel anxiety or frustration over time. By learning to recognize and remake these thoughts, you can make immediate, dramatic changes in your stress level. The thoughts are likely to come back again soon, but then you just repair them again, and over time they stop coming back as much until they go away completely. I recently posted an article covering the most useful idea repair articles on this site, which may be a good place to start if you’d like to take this approach.

Of course, you could work on both social time and idea repair, but people tend to be much more successful when they focus on just one thing at a time. Trying to add too much to your obligations at once can be a little overwhelming, and the last thing most of us need is something else to stress about.

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Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed

Handling negative emotions

From all my talk about how idea repair can be used to deal with negative emotions–anger, sadness, fear, etc.–you might get the sense I’m trying to say that negative emotions are always a bad thing. Yet negative emotions can serve the purpose of focusing our attention where it’s needed (see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad“). So when is a negative emotion helpful and when is it just a drag?

If the problem in front of you can be changed and acted upon, then there are some questions to ask, and I’ll talk about these in a near-future post. But if the problem can’t be fixed, then the choice is simply between a) having the problem and being miserable and b) having the problem but being happy anyway.

If you’re in a situation that is not going to change on its own, can’t be changed by you, and can’t be avoided (or is too important to avoid), then the only thing left to do is to change your feelings toward the situation. This requires surrender and being willing to find and repair broken ideas about the problem, something that’s not easy for most of us. After all, we’re generally taught that if something is broken, someone should fix it. Not many of us are raised to deal comfortably with things that can’t be fixed.

Things that will fix themselves or that can be fixed by you but that will take some time to get there also require surrender and idea repair (or the equivalent) if you don’t want to be miserable in the mean time. For example, if you’re in a very bad financial situation that won’t get any better until your house sells, then you have the choice of being miserable until your house sells or of dealing with your feelings immediately, even though the situation will go away in future. Unfortunately, temporary problems often weigh on us just as heavily as permanent ones, and call for the same strategies if we want to stop them from causing pain.

The benefits of reconciling ourselves to things we can’t change come whether the problem is large or small, fair or unfair, permanent or temporary, our fault or someone else’s fault or no one’s fault: letting go of negative emotions that can’t be acted upon creates a happier daily existence and clears the mind to focus on situations where we can make a different right now.

Photo by poritsky

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All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair


Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in the psychological literature, is a powerful tool for feeling better and for making it much easier to make good choices. We may hardly notice it, but it’s human habit to constantly comment about what’s going on around us with thoughts that help us make judgments and put things into a framework we can understand. But some of these comments are harmful to us because they’re misleading or even false. They encourage us to make bad choices, keep negative emotions going, and generally get in the way: these are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions”). Here are some of the key articles on this site that for understanding broken ideas and learning idea repair.

Broken ideas and idea repair” explains what broken ideas and idea repair are, why they’re valuable, and the basics of how to use idea repair.

How to Detect Broken Ideas” demonstrates how to notice when broken ideas are causing trouble and how to find out what kind of broken idea you’re dealing with. 

Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)” shows the categories of broken ideas and some typical broken ideas for each category.

How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step” provides a guide to repairing broken ideas.

To get some perspective on broken ideas, you might be interested in reading “What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like.”

For a better understanding of “should statements,” see ‘Good “should” and bad “should”.’

Broken ideas that we latch onto a lot early in life can become ingrained as mental schemas. To learn about these, see the resource page on mental schemas.

Idea repair is useful in a lot of different situations, and it comes up in quite a number of articles on this site. Here’s a link to all Willpower Engine articles on broken ideas.

Photo by Quod


Mental Schemas #10: Entitlement

Handling negative emotions

This is the tenth 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.

While the articles in this series so far have been about schemas that I’ve seen mainly in other people’s lives, I’m all too familiar with the subject of today’s post, entitlement. This schema is sometimes referred to as “grandiosity” or “superiority,” but the version that I have experience with fits the term “entitlement” best: it’s the sense that you’re naturally owed something. People with the entitlement schema may feel as though there are things they should be getting regardless of how practical, reasonable, possible, or equitable that is. Entitlement is the sense that somehow, the world owes you a living. For some people, this goes with a sense of being superior to most other people, or of having a special status or destiny that means that the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to you.

Entitled to act like an idiot
An example: when I was young, money was very tight around our house. Being a Vermonter, I was very familiar with maple syrup, but since it was fairly expensive, we didn’t get much of it. My entitlement schema told me that this was unfair and inappropriate, and that I especially, considering my excellent qualities, deserved to have maple syrup pretty much whenever I liked. One morning I was up earlier than anyone in the house and was getting milk from the refrigerator for my morning cereal when I spied the syrup can. Instead of having the cereal, I took out a small glass and filled it–with maple syrup. Then I drank it. Finally! The maple syrup I deserved!

A lot of things didn’t seem to matter to me as I drank my glass of maple syrup. It didn’t occur to me that if this syrup were replaced, it would increase the family grocery bill in an uncomfortable way. It didn’t occur to me that the syrup would not be available to my siblings, who after all liked maple syrup just as much as I did (except for my older sister, who bizarrely and inexplicably preferred fake syrup). It did not seem to give me pause that after the first mouthful, the huge amount of sweetness began to be a bit sickening. And at that time I didn’t know, and by all the evidence wouldn’t have cared, that the jolt of simple sugars in my body would give me a dizzying sugar high followed by a crashing sugar low, probably with a headache in the bargain. No sir, I was entitled to that syrup, gosh darn it, and I was going to drink my syrup and like it.

I drank my syrup, but I definitely did not like it. I apparently could ignore the sickening effects as I downed the glass, but I couldn’t ignore the much-too-powerful taste afterward or the awful way it made me feel. After that incident, I couldn’t stand to eat anything maple for months.

Broken ideas for the entitled
Entitlement schemas are often traced to two kinds of childhoods. One version is the truly entitled child, who is constantly indulged and/or assured of having a special status above normal people. The other is of feeling deprived (regardless of whether or not the child can really be said to be deprived), in reaction to which the child develops a belief that something is owed them–often, again, with a sense of having a special status.

People with the entitlement schema get fixated on the idea that they should be able to have or do something, or should be treated a particular way–even if the thing they think they’re entitled to does them or others harm, isn’t available to others, isn’t practical, takes more resources than they can afford, etc. This amounts to a huge use of the broken idea called a “should statement”–that is, “I should be able to have this!” Entitlement can also come out as “emotional reasoning”: “I feel as though I have a right to this, so I do have a right to it.” These attitudes only reinforce feelings of deprivation and lead to disappointment, selfish behavior, and ignoring consequences.

Breaking out of an entitlement schema
I’m glad to say that while my entitlement schema still pesters me every once in a while, over time it’s been whittled down to almost nothing as I gradually was forced to face the results of actions that, over and over again, proved that feeling entitled wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Every time I stayed up well into the night on the idea that I was owed some time and then felt exhausted the next day, every time I ate food my body didn’t need and then didn’t feel healthy and energetic, and every time I was late because I thought I was entitled to do a few more things before I went out the door, I ran smack into the reality that the idea of “deserving” things is not only untrue and useless, but dangerous and painful. Our feelings about how appropriate we think it is to have something, regardless of where they come from, do not generally have any effect on how practical, fair, kind, appropriate, or beneficial having that thing will be.

So every time an entitled person’s schema claims “You should be able to have/do this!” in a situation where “this” is something that would be best to avoid, the response that will diminish the schema and help shape a healthier vision of reality is to redo that thought, to repair the broken idea. The repaired version will often be something like “I can see that I want that thing, but that doesn’t mean I have to get it, especially since it _____” (and here you list the things that matter to you that would be harmed by following through on the desire). In the case of my glass of maple syrup, that blank might have been filled with something like “will make me sick and I’ll regret it for months” or “will take scarce resources from my family.”

Like any schema, entitlement schemas supply plenty of opportunities to act embarrassingly or in ways that hurt ourselves or other people. What’s truly joyful is being able to break out of a schema by paying attention to our thoughts and shaping a future that will actually create happiness and fulfillment rather than being dragged down by the bad ideas we may have adopted long ago.

Photo by Sighthound


6 Steps to Overcome Procrastination

Strategies and goals

Struggling with procrastination is common, and it often happens that the longer we put something off, the more awful the idea of facing it seems to feel. Here are a series of simple steps that can be used to overcome procrastination for one task at a time. If you follow them closely, you have a very good chance of finally making progress on whatever you’ve been putting off.

1. Schedule. Begin by scheduling a specific time to work on the task. Choose carefully: make sure it’s a period of time that you’ll actually have available. If distractions or alternatives show up when the time comes, say sorry, you have something to do. It’s important to consider this appointment set in stone in order to accomplish your goal.

2. Remind. Set a reminder to ensure you know when you’re supposed to start and are not busy with something else.

3. Relax. When the time comes to start, begin by sitting down and relaxing. Don’t worry about the task itself for now. Take some deep breaths. Don’t feel rushed: it’s an important thing to do, right? Then it’s worth taking a little time to get into a calm, focused mood. If you meditate, that can be a helpful tactic here.

4. Remember Your Goals. Now think for a moment about what you want to gain from completing this task. Visualize what you hope to accomplish with it, or remind yourself of things you like about it, or explicitly tell yourself why you were interested in it in the first place. If it’s something you don’t like for itself (such as, for instance, doing taxes or cleaning up someone else’s mess), think about what makes you interested in doing that, like having your financial ducks in a row or living up to your own ideals. Another benefit completion of many of these tasks offer is relief from having them hanging over us.

Don’t stop until you’ve latched onto at least one–and ideally several–things that make you want to finish this task, whether goals or positive associations. If you have no reason whatsoever to want to do it, why do you consider it important in the first place? If you really don’t need to do it, resolve not to and cross it off your list permanently. Otherwise, get in touch with your reasons.

5. List. List the first few specific, tiny tasks you’d need to do to get started. If you’re not sure, brainstorm, write, talk to yourself, or borrow someone you can depend and bounce ideas around until you have some idea.

These tiny tasks are not results: they’re really specific, straightforward things to do. For instance, if your goal is to file some insurance paperwork, then your first step probably isn’t “fill out claim forms,” but rather “Find Web site for insurance company so I can download claim forms” or “Gather all bills and documents I’ll need to fill out the claim.” You might even make it more specific than that. The point is to break down the first several steps–say, the first 15 minutes to an hour of work on the task, which for many tasks is all that’s required–into very clear, simple things you can do without a lot of thought.

6. Visualize. Picture yourself taking the first few steps. You don’t have to actually do anything just yet: just do a very good job of imagining yourself starting.

Then … begin!

How it works
Thinking about your reasons for taking the task on, making positive associations and picturing yourself doing the task should help prime your brain to make it easy to slip into starting to do the task. When you do, you’ll have specific, extremely simple steps laid out that you can tackle one after another: let them carry you through. If you run out of steps or have to reorganize, just insert a next step: “come up with more steps,” and use that step to work out the next 15 minutes to 1 hour of activity.

If you need the stronger stuff
If you find that even this process isn’t helping you get over your procrastination, it’s very likely you have broken ideas about it. Perhaps you’re telling yourself that you’re a bad person for not doing it, or that it absolutely needs to be done, or that not having done it yet is awful. These and many kinds of related thoughts can be worked out and made to stop bothering you through idea repair. Write down each negative thought you have about the task and work through the idea repair process with it. At the end you should find fewer obstacles and more motivation to move ahead.

Photo by Esther17

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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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