Psychologist Jonathon Brown at the University of Washington let a hundred and seventy-two people play a computer word game. Eighty-one of the people tested high in self-esteem, Ninety-one tested low. Half of them, randomly selected, played a version of the game too difficult to do in the allotted time. In other words, they were destined to fail the game no matter how hard they tried.
After the game, everyone evaluated their own performance.
The people with high self-esteem didn't feel very badly about the failure. The ones with low self-esteem felt humiliated and ashamed, and they rated their own intelligence and competence more negatively after the failure.
The reason I'm bringing this up is because if you happen to think in a way that produces lots of negative feelings after a failure, it would naturally increase your anxiety in anticipating events. In a very real sense, you have more at stake than someone who doesn't feel badly after failing. If you don't feel very bad after a failure, why would you be nervous beforehand? You wouldn't. But if you have to pay dearly with suffering every time you fail, anxiety would be the natural accompaniment to anticipating just about anything, especially something risky.
Brown's study was about self-esteem, but keep in mind that the most effective way to raise your self-esteem isn't to try to convince yourself you're a great person, it is to argue against your irrational thoughts, and argue with them so effectively and so relentlessly that you change the way you think when you hit a setback. Read more about that here.
When you think sanely about failure, setbacks won't stop you from trying again. So you try again, and by taking more action, you learn more, which increases your competence, and that is the real source of self-esteem. People think well of themselves because they know they can handle it. They know they can handle it — not because they try to convince themselves they can handle it, but because they've tried things and found out they can handle it. And they try things because they know they can handle it, so once you change the way you think after a failure occurs, you begin a productive upward spiral of competence and self-esteem, a positive feedback loop.
This is the way to stop beating yourself up after a failure. This is how to stop feeling bad when you don't do as well as you'd hoped. This is the way to cure your fear of trying new things. Change the way you think about failures and setbacks. Train yourself to be more rational after a failure. Your competence will grow as a result, and so will your feelings of competence.
In the book, On Being a Writer, there is an excellent interview with Ray Bradbury. On this topic, he said, "The average young person you meet today seems to have the motto, 'If at first you don't succeed, stop right there.' They want to start at the top of their profession and not to learn their art on the way up. That way they miss all the fun. If you write a hundred short stories and they're all bad, that doesn't mean you've failed. You fail only if you stop writing. I've written about 2,000 short stories; I've only published about 300 and I feel I'm still learning. Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies to old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he'll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer."
Setbacks or failures don't have to make you more afraid. They can be the impetus that motivates you to change the way you think about failure, and that can turn your life in a positive new direction.
After a setback, argue with your negative thoughts.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.