Well-Being//

“Defensive Failure” Is the Inner Fear That Holds Us Back From Reaching Our Goals

A cognitive psychologist explains how to overcome it in just a few simple steps.

Marco Bottigelli/ Getty Images
Marco Bottigelli/ Getty Images

Have you ever set a goal in your mind, failed to follow through with it, and then wondered what got in your way? According to Amanda Crowell, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and doctoral lecturer at Hunter College School of Education, what likely held you back from sticking with your initial intent is a phenomenon she calls “defensive failure.”

“A huge part of the reason you’re not doing what you say you want to do is in your mind,” she explains in a recent TED Talk. “Your brain defends you against real failure by redirecting you and distracting you… and you never make any progress.” Crowell says that we all have our own subconscious fears of failure, and when we set out to achieve something, our mind builds mental blocks that capitalize on those fears. “Defensive failure is a cycle,” she adds. “Even though we think about it all the time, we never make any progress.”

Since defensive failure is a human instinct, moving past it takes a conscious and intentional effort. But according to Crowell, a few small steps can help you break past those mental blocks that defensive failure creates in your mind. Here are some simple ways to get started:

Identify the reason behind your goals

When we set out to do something ambitious, it’s important to recognize the reason behind your plan from the get-go. Crowell explains that our intrinsic reason (aka our interest, curiosity, and passion) must be stronger than our extrinsic interest (what other people think or expect of us). “It’s the intrinsic interest that keeps you focused on the steps you need to take,” she explains. And if you can’t readily identify an intrinsic reason, think about the broader implications of what hitting your goal can lead to. “It helps to focus on your long-term hopes and dreams,” Crowell says.

Record your mistakes

It’s natural to feel ashamed when we don’t accomplish what we had planned, but Crowell says that in order to move past that initial embarrassment, we must actively acknowledge our failures, whether out loud or on paper. “Over time, effort produces accomplishment and creates innovation,” Crowell says. By recording each effort, we can identify what went wrong, let go of our inner defense, and reframe how we see our failures. “They are no longer proof that you never should have tried,” she explains. “They’re opportunities to learn.”

Remember: You have the same toolkit as everyone else

We often tell ourselves that we weren’t born with the natural gift to accomplish a certain feat — or that it’s harder for us than for others. “You think, somewhere in your heart, that you can’t do it,” Crowell explains. “You think that some people have the talent to do this thing, and you don’t.” Instead of feeding into that innate defense, Crowell says it’s important to find others who are struggling with something similar, and talk through it with them. “Find people like you doing things like this, and share your concerns with them,” she suggests. Doing so will not only humanize the fear you’re holding inside, but will remind you that you’re not the only one at a standstill — and that you can move past it.

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