Failure is a necessary component of life, a circumstance that can only be avoided when humans remain stagnant. Since life is constantly changing and we are constantly evolving, everyone encounters failure. It happens when we struggle, when we cannot understand, when we exhibit weak performance. Failure, in many senses, is healthy, as we grow and learn from it. The negative feelings that stem from failure are imperative in motivating us to continue seeking progress.
What happens, however, when an individual continuously fails? When he or she has the right tools and awareness in knowing how to succeed, yet disregards them time and time again? We coin this action as sabotage, and we see it frequently in all walks of human behavior. Sabotage is what dieters do when they keep eating extra helpings of dessert, despite knowing the importance of exercise and proper nutrition. Sabotage is what students who decide to party the week during final exams do instead of study.
The self-fulfilling prophecy theorizes that one’s actions tend to correspond with their beliefs. What does that mean? Let’s say, after a bitter divorce, a newly-single woman experiences an unsuccessful dating streak. Disappointed with the quality of her suitors, she concludes men are selfish assholes. What happens, then, when she goes out on her next date? The woman’s guard will be strong, her suspicions high, and her faith? Well, naturally, that will be at an all-time low. This new man hardly stands a chance against her powerful opinion, seeing as she is already expecting him to disappoint her. Therefore, in order to avoid another letdown, she will likely fit and adapt her criteria to confirm her beliefs. In reality, the woman may be blaming external variables for her dating struggles (low self-esteem, meeting men in the wrong places, an inability to commit, pining over an ex, etc.).
Still, the question remains: why do we fail at the very things we try to avoid failing the most?
Surely, it cannot just be attributed to a mere absence of willpower. Ask anyone who fails at an important task, and he or she will often delve into a lengthy explanation about how hard they are trying and how much they seek success.
What’s more likely? We fail because we fear the absence of failure.
How does that make sense? When we set goals and fail to achieve them, we become habituated to the adverse emotion. The failure keeps us contained, keeps us square in place. And many times, we cannot actually visualize what the success will feel like. Moreover, we mistake what the success will feel like. For instance, take someone who has sunk into the dark abyss of financial debt. Despite a strong desire to save money, he spends his paychecks frivolously, draining his bank accounts and racking up insurmountable credit card bills. Why?
Reason #1: Behavioral addiction model (in a very simple manner)
Debt (creates anxiety)–> which causes heightened feelings of stress and more anxiety –> which leads to a need to relieve the anxiety and feel better (spend money) –> which leads to heightened feelings of guilt, shame, anger
Addiction is a vicious, complicated cycle, and this is just a simplified theory of its manifestation.. With addiction, the things that make us the unhappiest are consequently the same things that make us the happiest. Thus, the cycle repeats, and eventually, the habituated behavior may filter into other aspects of life (relationships, work, family).
2. Avoidance: The debt (or any other evidence of “failure”) is actually masking a much larger issue. In this case, finance trouble can indicate an insatiable need to fit in with others, career dissatisfaction, or underlying depression. The surface problem (debt) shields the more painful, rooted issues. This theory is popular, because it is so applicable. For instance, those who struggle with weight problems may blame their body size for appearance dissatisfaction or loneliness. They may falsely conclude that if they just shed the extra weight, these “other problems” would diminish. Yet, these problems are much more complex (self-esteem issues, shyness, difficulty in making relationships, etc.). These individuals may subconsciously sabotage their diets as a means of avoiding the real problems at hand. Therefore, they can blame these issues on their weights, rather than on their core personalities.
3. Mistaken priorities: Yes, repeated failure can stem from a lack of motivation, but in doing so, the person often does not even recognize this. Often seen in high-pressure situations, such as academic or athletic performance, people may subconsciously “mess up.” This is usually an unconscious mechanism, but it is most likely to happen when the individual knows he or she is expected to succeed at a given task. This expectation stems from societal and internal internal cues. For example, while nobody wants to fail an exam, a person may subconsciously pair success with greater pressure to study harder, spend more time focusing on school, or take more advanced courses in that subject. While the individual knows failure is not desirable, it may actually be more so than those other options.
4. Unachievable goals: Failure, of course, can happen when the expectations are too high. For instance, someone who has never held a job is unlikely to find a full-time career in a week, just as a longtime couch potato should not be disappointed when he cannot sculpt six-pack abs after one workout. Yet, we humans naturally seek short-term gratification, hence our uncanny ability to seek out the most convenient shortcut available. We want instant results and we stubbornly hold out on the belief that “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities will come our way and bring us success. This, of course, is an open invitation for continuous failure. A rushed, all-or-nothing mantra tends to result in higher levels of quitting, frustration, and endless restarting. Therefore, an individual will probably take much longer to succeed compared to someone who approaches their goals in a gradual but reasonable fashion.