How to beat the failure formula
Self-sabotage. We’ve all been there. The crappy decision that ruins our chances of promotion. The mindless splurge when we’re supposed to be saving money. The completely unnecessary Tuesday night tequila shots that lead to Wednesday morning misery. . .
People often talk about the “keys to success,” but those things don’t work when your unconscious is running a failure program in the background.
This article explains the mechanics of self-destruction.
The function of belief
We each uphold a complex matrix of beliefs — about the world, our spirituality, other people and ourselves — and it’s as unique as our fingerprints.
Some of our beliefs will be conscious (i.e. we know that they’re beliefs), whereas others elude our mindful awareness. As a rule, it’s the unconscious beliefs that tend to have the most sway over our behaviour. This is because — without the knowledge that we’re thinking these thoughts — we fail to question them and take them as truths.
Our belief-matrix forms as we accumulate experiences in life, and it will continue to shift and change as long as we’re still breathing. However, our most stubborn and fundamental of beliefs will usually have been around since our formative years.
Some of these beliefs will be positive: “I’m good at maths/beautiful/lucky/life is great.” Others will be negative: “I’m untalented/stupid/bad with numbers,” or “Other people/mice/spiders are dangerous.”
It’s the negative ones— known as “limiting beliefs” — that function as failure formulae. They act like lenses through which we view the world; influencing our interpretation of everything we experience, and informing all of our decisions, large and small.
Limiting beliefs may seem extreme, but exaggerated conclusions are easy to arrive at while we’re young. We think differently when we are children. The world is binary: things are either good or bad; we win or we lose; we’re loved or we’re unloveable.
In therapy, we call the events that cause children to come to negative conclusions about themselves “significant emotional events.” But these moments needn’t be any more dramatic than tripping over in the school nativity play or getting told off by Mummy for drawing on the walls. After all, those things are significant to a child.
So, of course, we’ve all had “significant emotional events,” and we’ll all have limiting beliefs too. Whether life feels like a broken record that skips eternally back to the most depressing line of the song, comes down to how much power we give to these things.
When something or someone conveys a failure-message to us while we’re young, we can respond in one of two ways. We could accept the experience and healthily integrate failure into our model of the world (because failure absolutely is a healthy part of life). Or, we can resist and fight against it: “No! I don’t like this! I’ll show you that I’m not a failure. Just look what I can do!”
If, as children, we too aggressively resist a negative injunction like, “You’re not good enough,” we’re likely to become an “overachiever”. We may strive (and succeed) in almost everything we do, getting the best grades in school, winning at sports, etc. We might even grow up to go platinum or win a Nobel Prize. But anyone who succeeds reactively in this way is doing so out of a deep-rooted fear that their old failure-messages are, in fact, true. So, we can’t really enjoy our (over)achievements, because our sense of inadequacy pre-dates and overwhelms any win.
It’s as if there’s an invisible barrier, which if transcended would carry us into the unknown territory of actually feeling accomplished. By crossing over, the negative belief that we’re battling would need to be disproved. We’d have to accept that we aren’t a failure; that we are good enough after all.
Sounds great, right? But it’s not easy. Doing so would mean shifting a considerable load of resistance from the unconscious mind. Because here’s the thing: while consciously we want to let go of our limiting beliefs, unconsciously we’re desperate to keep them true.
Welcome to the (dis)comfort zone
Our limiting beliefs, along with all the others connected to them, form the very fabric of our reality. Our beliefs are what we know. And to the unconscious mind, known = safe. Therefore, disproving a limiting belief, no matter how unpleasant it might be, would seem like a great risk to the unconscious. As a result, it will intentionally sabotage any success that might threaten to push us through the barrier and into a new and greater sense of Self.
If we believe, deep down, that we’re unloveable, the unconscious will find a way to keep us alone. If we believe that we’re failure, the unconscious will find a way to make us fail.
What all this means is that our self-sabotaging behaviours are acts of protection. In reaction to the threat of novelty, the unconscious searches for the quickest and most direct route back into the familiarity of all that’s known.
I call that place “the (dis)comfort zone.” It’s the world in which the risk-averse unconscious mind can breathe a sigh of relief, because it feels like it can handle things when everything stays the same. But to the rest of us — the conscious part that that craves excitement, change and growth — “all that’s known” can feel decidedly uncomfortable. We don’t want to keep believing the things our frustrated parents or angry teachers told us. We don’t want to keep on feeling the way we did on our very first day of school. No, thank you! Yet, the unconscious calls those experiences home, and it’ll do its very best to keep us there.
The pain of plummeting back down into (dis)comfort resets the resistance cycle again and again. We embark on mission after mission to strive up and away from our feelings of failure, only to end up right back where we started: “Still not good enough.”
This is the process at work in a yoyo dieter’s weight fluctuation and a drug addict’s repeated trips to rehab. It’s the cause of procrastination when we ought to be working towards a triumph. The reason for overspending when we should to be saving for something amazing. The impetus to push partner away when they could the one to bring us real, wholehearted love.
Change is scary to the unconscious, full stop. It seems safer to just stick with what we’re accustomed to, even when we’re accustomed to misery.
So, how do we break this pattern?
Everyone knows that when you run from something it only get’s scarier. Be it from the monster in your nightmare, or from your little sister as she chases you up the stairs, fleeing is absolutely terrifying. This also applies to things on the inside. The more we focus on trying to disprove our limiting beliefs by battling against them and running from them, the bigger, more monstrous and more powerful we allow those beliefs to become.
Although it might seem risky at first, it’s by embracing failure that we can let go of our fears, limiting beliefs and the resulting self-sabotage.
To do that, we need to get OK with things not going to plan; with looking silly, losing some money, getting rejected or saying the wrong thing. We fear these things because we feel like they would prove our limitations: “If they say ‘no’ when I ask them out, then that means that I really am unloveable.” But it doesn’t, does it? And if we refuse to ever approach the people we like, then we may as well sign a contract for a loveless existence.
Surely, to allow fear to rule our lives would be the greatest self-sabotage of all. If we want to enjoy the fruits of growth rather than the rot of protection, we need to stop running from the failure-monster, and give it a big hug instead.
The growth mindset. Learning = success.
By accepting failure as a positive part of our lives, we teach ourselves to feel worthy regardless of our results. This is a big deal. It means we can adopt the highly coveted growth mindset; an outlook that negates very concept of failure.
Once we’ve detached our fundamental sense of value from our objective achievements, any experience that causes us to grow can be deemed a success, no matter what the outcome. The result, of course, is that we end up going further in life as well as feeling calmer as we do.
The distinction can be understood like this:
The resistant life (protection)
When resisting our limiting beliefs, we operate from this position:
“I’m not enough now… but if I could just achieve X, then I’ll be OK.”
X might be a dress size, a car, a qualification, a certain partner, etc. But it never brings us what we desire because external things can’t disprove our limiting beliefs. So, no sooner than we achieve X, we’re already looking for Y and Z in order to feel good about ourselves.
Choosing acceptance (growth)
On the other hand, by accepting ourselves fully (negative experiences and failure-monsters included) we operate from this position:
“I am enough right now. I’m OK. I’m worthy of existence, of breathing the very same air as everyone else. So, this next achievement is not a pre-requisite for my OK-ness. It’s just an exciting experience for me to enjoy.”
Of course, I’m not saying there won’t be ups and downs. It’s not that we’ll feel happy, exactly, when things go wrong. But with a growth-oriented outlook, each bad day provides information about how to be better in the future. The difference is that when progress is our focus, then any lull is unlikely to be as low as the last because we can see that we’re always learning.
Ultimately, anything that could change our lives will be seen as a threat by the unconscious mind. This means that any improvement — anything we desire — will always demand that we navigate some unconscious resistance before we can actualise it.
But navigation requires knowledge. So, it’s only by getting familiar with our fear that we can use it as the gateway to growth, rather than allow it to dictate our decisions without question.
The solution to the self-sabotage problem, then, is to turn our most (dis)comfortable moments into learning experiences. Instead of beating ourselves up when we fail and vowing to try harder next time, we should be asking questions like these:
What was I actually afraid of here?
What kind of limiting belief could my mind be trying to keep true?
Where did I learn that belief?
And, what would happen if I were to let it go?
Fear, challenge and even dissapointment needn’t bring us down so long as we read these experiences like signposts. We just have to remember that when self-doubt ramps up, it could actually mean that we’re on the cusp of something amazing.
So, join the parade, failure-monster! You’re more than welcome to come along, and we might even let you march at the front. We just won’t be allowing you to decide on the route, because it’s not your place to determine our destiny. That, good friend, is a job that belongs to us.