Why Your Biggest Failures Make You Suffer Too Much

Everybody can handle a small failure. If I lose a boss fight one too many times in a video game, my controller is likely to take a violent and irrational beating, but the loss will not cause me enduring emotional trauma or paralyze my ability to function afterward. The reason “small” failures are small though is that they come with minor and unambiguous consequences. The biggest failures we face in life come with a wide spectrum of negative consequences that all strike simultaneously, which in the process exacerbate each other so that the total anguish we feel actually becomes disproportionately high relative to the act of failure itself. This amplified anguish born from the intersections of separate types of negative consequences cannot be easily extinguished, specifically because of its ephemeral, comes-and-goes nature. What must be done instead then is to identify the individual threads of suffering that are created from major failures, so that when these threads intersect, we can rationalize the anguish we are feeling and ultimately overcome it.

Your Expectations Were Wrong

Let us consider two particularly familiar examples of big failure for this discussion: the termination of a long-term (non-abusive) romantic relationship, and the closing of a business. In either instance, the start of a relationship or a business is bound to have begun with excitement and hopeful expectations. A guy sufficiently enamored with his new lady is likely going to want to tell his friends and family about her, discuss her myriad good qualities, and explain why they make such a solid couple. Likewise, a woman starting a business will surely announce it to as many people as possible and passionately describe why her business will satisfy a role or niche for target customers that has not existed until now. In both scenarios, ostensibly sound logic is being used to articulate why everything is expected to work out. The problem–and thus the thread of suffering we uncover–is when our expectations turn out to be wrong.

Suffering of this variety has to do with the faulty logic used to build hopeful expectations. Our logic can fail us in one of two ways. On one hand, it is simply possible the logic used was full of errors. For instance, perhaps the woman’s conviction that her town needed her Italian restaurant had been baseless, as a preexisting local Italian restaurant already enjoyed renown for its variety and rich flavors. On the other hand, sometimes logic can be accurate but incomplete. In this case, perhaps the guy did successfully identify several ways in which he and his girlfriend’s personalities had complemented each other, but additional factors he had not considered ultimately outweighed those complements so as to make the relationship unsustainable. Regardless of how the logic of hopeful expectations fails, the result is the same–embarrassment.

The friends, family, or colleagues to whom we expressed our lofty expectations are now the active witnesses of our ineptitude. The degree to which we expressed our enthusiasm before is now plainly the degree of how much we were wrong. To have people whom we value see us in this defeated state could create the worry that their opinions of us have become adversely affected by our big failure. Frankly, there are instances where such worry would not be unfounded. It might be reasonable for certain people to think of us as more overzealous or naive, for instance, as a result of our failures. We might even feel like we have betrayed these people by having tried to ever create the impression that we were going to succeed. In these ways, faulty logic breeds embarrassment, which in turn becomes a source of suffering in our lives when we have failed dramatically.

The only solution to absolving ourselves of embarrassment and rectifying these people’s opinions of us is to build new successes in our lives. Enough new successes ideally suggest self-growth on our part, such that past failure (i.e., the current failure in question) can be reliably attributed to inexperience rather than a continuing character flaw. This is an important differentiation to make, since to recognize a truly long-term character flaw in ourselves would be to acknowledge that people can raise a legitimate criticism toward us as human beings, as opposed to merely toward our isolated act of failure. Regardless of whether inexperience or a long-term character flaw (or a combination of both) is really to blame, we must demonstrate clear improvement in the area of that error proceeding into the future if we are to ultimately overcome our suffering that stems from faulty logic and embarrassment.

There Are Injured Parties

In the wake of big failure, the repercussions inevitably inconvenience more than just ourselves; other people become collateral damage. The type and severity of inconvenience dealt to other people will depend on the situation. In the case of the woman’s failed business, the consequences to others might be straightforward but especially dire. All of her employees who depended on this business for their livelihoods are now out of work. Investors who had helped the woman start the business will never see a return on those investments. The faithful customers who did frequent her business can no longer enjoy its offerings. By comparison, a guy’s failed relationship may or may not be as financially injurious to others–depending on factors such as if the couple is living together–and it is likely to directly affect fewer people. It will definitely affect the other person in the terminated relationship though, regardless of who ended the relationship. If the guy ended the relationship, he inflicts loneliness and potentially questions of self-doubt upon the lady. If the lady ended the relationship, she still bears the burden of guilt of having inflicted perhaps the same loneliness and self-doubt upon the guy; she might even feel like a “villain” for it. Granted, one might argue the guy is absolved of responsibility for her suffering if the lady terminated the relationship, which is a fair point, and so will be addressed in the third section.

At any rate, the above examples demonstrate that repercussions can be myriad, and we carry the constant weight of knowing our failure has caused them all. Likewise, we are forced to acknowledge that all of these people whom we have inconvenienced have now surely soured in their opinions of us to various extents. The combination of knowing we have inconvenienced people and that they have degraded their opinions of us as a result is another thread of suffering incurred after a dramatic failure. We are even more likely this time to feel like we have betrayed people, particularly since people directly placed their trust in us that we would succeed, and that trust was ultimately misplaced.

Unlike the suffering that comes with faulty logic and embarrassment, which can only truly be overcome in the long term, there are steps we can take immediately to alleviate at least some of the suffering that comes with directly inconveniencing people. Chiefly, we can empathize with the inconvenienced parties to the best of our ability, directly acknowledging to them with earnest sorrow the inconvenience we have caused them. This does not utterly excuse our failure, but it does at least cauterize any negative opinions these people have about us; at worst, it stops their negative feelings for us from becoming much severer, and at best, it genuinely removes some of their animosity toward us.

Of course, empathizing with inconvenienced parties might make these people feel better about us (and thus allow us to feel better about ourselves), but it does nothing to rectify the physical inconvenience we have inflicted upon their lives. People are still out of work, and a lady is still without a boyfriend. If the failed businesswoman is exceedingly kind, she might make efforts to help people find other work, even if there is still nothing she can do for her investors. But there are limits to how much help can be given. If the guy has dumped the lady, likely too much emotion is already baked into the situation that the guy could hope to help the lady find a new boyfriend. This illustrates that there comes a point where we must cut our losses and decide there is a natural end to how much help we can give anyone, no matter how much we hope to improve the situation for both their sake and ours. It is rare that anyone swept up in a large failure can come out completely unscathed, whether or not he or she is an innocent party. We must simply accept these scars as part of our being if we are to overcome the thread of suffering that derives from inconveniencing people with our large failure.

Crisis of Confidence

In the examples, although errors of logic were made, let us assume that the woman and the guy both put forward their best possible effort (for that time) with the business and the relationship respectively. While it may sound counterintuitive to us, this is actually the worst possible scenario for the woman and guy to face, because it means their best was not good enough. A crisis of confidence in ourselves might result when we invest the full extent of our abilities into achieving a goal and still end with failure. It might quite literally bring us to ask ourselves, “What good am I?” or, more specifically, “What good am I if my best is not enough to achieve my goals?” Big failure further teaches us how unreliable our intuition can be; after all, good intuition would have kept us from making many of the mistakes that ultimately have brought us to our current failure. In effect, we might in this case feel like we have betrayed ourselves, or rather betrayed our conception of self. In these ways, a loss of trust in our own abilities and judgement becomes a third thread of suffering incurred from dramatic failure.

This type of suffering is uniquely isolated to us, unlike the previous two threads, which owe their existence at least in part to other people. Its severity depends on the situation and our individual temperaments. However, its remedy is nearly identical to that prescribed for the suffering that comes from faulty logic and embarrassment: We must build new successes in our lives. The only difference is that, whereas before new success was used to prove to others that we could improve and learn from mistakes, we are now using new success to simply prove to ourselves that we can improve. To begin to successfully overcome a loss of trust in our own abilities and judgement, we must believe that in the future we will be capable of efforts above and beyond the “best effort” that has resulted in failure in the present. The unfavorable alternative is to resign ourselves to believing that a long-term character flaw prevents us from reaching a given goal, and that to remove this flaw from ourselves would either be impossible or require too much effort. In this way, a death of ambition would occur, in addition to a permanent devaluation of self-worth. This is surely to be avoided.

To close out this section of discussion, let us return solely to the example of a guy who has failed in his relationship, but while considering it from scenarios where both he broke up with the lady and the lady broke up with him. If the guy broke up with the lady, a loss of trust in his abilities and judgement can take several forms: Should he never have engaged in the relationship at all? Is it his fault that his romantic feelings for her changed? Could he have broken up with her in a less hurtful manner? These are all rational considerations, albeit all born of guilt.

In the case where the lady broke up with the guy, the guy experiences an even simpler crisis of confidence, in that his best efforts to love and cherish his girlfriend were not enough to keep her. He very much doubts his abilities and judgement: Did he do something unforgivable that warranted her leaving him? Did he exhibit regular patterns of behavior that were unattractive? Were he and she truly incompatible, but only she could currently see it? The fact of the matter is that, in a relationship, both participants are likely to make significant errors from time to time. Should a non-abusive relationship end where fidelity has been maintained, it is reasonable to place some distribution of blame with both participants, even when only one person ends the relationship. As is demonstrated here, both participants believed in the relationship at one point, and both experience remorse that it did not work out. It could actually be seen as a final courtesy to the other person to experience anguish over the situation, a final point of commonality shared between two people who wished they could have meant a great deal more to each other.

It may sound like a cop-out to say the only remedy for wounded self-trust for the guy in either scenario is to “try again” with a new girlfriend, but it really is all that can be done to demonstrate definitive improvement. Self-assurance can of course be found elsewhere too, such as if the guy looks to his numerous successful friendships as evidence that he is capable of sustaining healthy relationships of at least some kind, but these outside sources of assurance will never be completely satisfying. Additionally, factors exist pertaining to romantic relationships that are just out of his control (e.g., that love cannot be forced to happen). There always exist factors that are out of our control; relationships merely provide a straightforward example of it. We should be mindful of this chaotic truth of life, especially following a dramatic failure. We would be remiss to blame the entirety of our large failures on chance, but at the same time, we would be entirely too hard on ourselves not to contribute some of our failure to it.

Hurricane of the Brain

Everything described above attempts to distinguish in a rational and clean way the various sources of suffering that are incurred by great failures in our lives. The problem is that humans are not rational, and our brains do not inherently attempt to make sense of pain in an orderly fashion. What is most likely to occur immediately following a great failure is that we randomly feel flashes of each kind of suffering described above, often in rapid succession or all at once. As has been explained, an overarching sense of having “betrayed” people is likely to serve as a major nexus for our many forms of suffering, but due to the chaotic nature of human thought, betrayal is merely one of countless catalysts to ignite our pain all over again. Faced with such complete lack of control over our own thoughts, it would be an insurmountable task to try to quell the whole storm of painful thoughts plaguing our minds all at once. To attempt to do so anyway could only result in frustration at best and a much severer crisis of confidence at worst.

The only way we can take an active role in overcoming our greatest failures is by scrutinizing ourselves and identifying the individual threads of suffering that have coalesced into a form of pain that is much unwieldier and intenser than its individual parts. Faulty logic and embarrassment, inconveniencing people and earning their resentment, and a loss of trust in one’s own abilities and judgement are three major threads of suffering as they have been described above. When properly applied to our own situation, recognition and understanding of these threads can help us rationally work through the pain we experience following a dramatic failure–one part at a time.

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