Failure Schema

“I f***ed it up again”. Jeff* was frustrated. He had left his preparation for his job interview to the last minute and it had felt like a disaster. They asked me some pretty basic questions about my past work history, and I sounded like an idiot – such a loser. In reality, Jeff was a competent and highly regarded in his previous electrician role. However, he was also sensitive to criticism and couldn’t take compliments. He also couldn’t see his successes. “It feels like my life has been one long failure”.

Children are not good enough. Not good enough to survive in world alone at least. All of us (adults) have undergone many years of indoctrination to be able to shape up in this world. Many painful years for some of us. Painful because, for some, school and education feel like a constantly losing game. Imagine, turning up, day after day, to a place where you are loser, and that you believe you will never win. Imagine still, that even at home, your refuge, you are blamed for this incapacity to learn. You have high achieving siblings or parents and your own efforts seem never enough.

The failure schema is the expectation that you will fail because you feel you are a failure. It is the sensitivity to any signs that you might be a failure. It is feeling you are an imposter. It is avoidance of anything difficult or daunting because surely this will prove you are a failure. Anger at small losses, and toward the witnesses to our failures – our loved ones, family and friends. A powerful inner critic that relentlessly torments you.

It is common for people with this schema to overcompensate. To develop a powerful, hardworking, status-seeking mode – unrelenting standards. As if trying to say to the world “who’s the failure now”. But this over-compensator persona is brittle. It lacks the humble confidence of those who are truly secure in their achievements and self-worth. The moment a setback comes, and they always do, the façade falls.

Very common for people with this schema to check out of the game. To inhabit the failure role, apparently with relish. To over-engage in alcohol, drugs, the party lifestyle. To be anti-authority. To develop a dismissive air toward others who are living conventional lifestyles. These “Peter Pans” are able to hold on to their dignity for a while, but they eventually start to feel lost and left behind.

In school you were pitted against your peers. And someone had to lose. And that someone was you. But you are not a loser. Life is not school. In life you are more than a grade, than a score, than a number. There are many ways to succeed in life, there is only one way to succeed in school. Life is not a competition with your peers, but rather it is a series of time trials against yourself. You can always do better, but that doesn’t make you a failure.

Recognising that life is not school is one way to dismantle the failure schema. Recognising one’s own values, rather than school-imposed values is important. Reframing mistakes as learning experiences. Seeing oneself as a fallible human, rather than a failure is the ultimate aim. Stepping out of the shadows. No longer freezing when tested. No longer overcompensating. No longer avoiding or pretending that you don’t care.

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