Why The Feeling Of Failure Is Inescapable And Why It Has Nothing To Do With You
We grow up in a society that surrounds us with messages every minute of every day. Messages that tell us that only one kind of person is lovable, worthy, enough. That person is usually white, (unattainably) thin, able-bodied, toned as hell, Cisgender, comes from money, has earned even more, is straight and has a laugh that sounds exactly like it should and behaves impeccably. Never screwing up. Never asking for help. People stare as they walk by. As they are showered in gifts or at least have everything they could possibly need to be admired.
These messages are usually in a visual format. In magazines, on film, adverts and television. Less often in explicit text or spoken language. Our brains process the images at speed along with the message: People who look like that, behave like that, own those things… they are the ones that are loved. They are the ones that are worthy. Our brain then goes further… believing that they are the “norm”. These “perfect ones”, they are the standard. The yardstick by which to measure ourselves, and then later beat ourselves with when we don’t match up.
It's funny how even the real people in the photos don’t match up to the level of perfection portrayed. They are made-up, tweaked, adjusted with lighting and further technology in post-production. If those people, the absolute minority, can’t even manage the standard presented in the images, then what chance has anyone else got. The answer is none. Not a bit. We are being constantly sold an unattainable goal. A standard that our minds have learnt is the absolute minimum we need to attain.
What does this mean for us?
Every time we look in the mirror or observe something about ourselves that doesn’t match the internalised magazine image, our brain signals… ALERT ALERT, DANGER DANGER. There is something wrong with you. You are different. You are not normal. NOT NORMAL.
This means the majority of people have a constant flow of messages in their mind that goes like this: “You are not normal. You are not good enough. You have to change. You are failing. You must do everything you can to change.” Now, that, that is pretty terrible. Rejecting yourself. Feeling that the only solution is to change.
If we add to that inner voice, the likely activation of the fight-or-flight response (see my previous article on this for more information: ‘Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response’ ) then we have the perfect ingredients for a pretty shitty feeling. Remember, the fight-or-flight response is activated any time your brain thinks you are in danger. It doesn’t know the difference between life-and-death threats and social threats. Therefore, for many, the moment they see their own bodies or observe their own behaviour, a rush of adrenaline occurs. The body sends a wave of adrenaline, stress hormones and other equally uncomfortable processes around the body. Yep. This happens and happens a lot. It will happen to you probably more times than you imagine each day. If you are lucky it will be barely perceptible, especially if you feel you have the resources to manage this or if you have somehow managed to escape the indoctrination that everyone bar you is worthy of idealisation.
Furthermore, what about the people who don’t see themselves anywhere in the media? People with marginalised bodies? People whose size, ability, skin type, skin colour, sexuality or gender aren’t represented? What message does their brain receive? The message that… you are unacceptable, people like you don’t exist, shouldn't exist, shouldn’t be seen or heard. Now imagine that since the day you were born.
We don’t even realise that we have internalised these messages. We don’t realise the continuous rejection we affect on our bodies. Or on others.
I know that this is not the first article written on this. I know that it is, in fact, the smallest drop in the ocean of articles written on this topic. However, I think the message is more than important. Every day, I speak to and see people who tell me (in one way or another) about their failures, or their fears of failing. The failures are usually linked to their job/education, body, face, relationship, sexuality, ability etc. The failures almost never reflect anything that resembles the traditional notion of failing.
Why is this happening?
In a capitalist society, capital is king. Where does capital come from? People spending money. What’s the best way to get people to spend their money? Make people believe that they need something and that without it they will be imperfect.
Remember, what I said about the fight-or-flight response? What better way than to make people spend money than by making them so insecure that they have an actual physical anxiety response when they consider their lives without the object. When they will do anything not to feel that again. Where their brain literally interprets them as being in danger when they look in a mirror and don’t see the magazine image. And this? This is what we call advertising.
Fun fact, after absorbing these messages we as a society go on to perpetuate these beliefs. Often without realising it. For example, in schools or at work, we see the people above us as being successful. The ones to aspire to. In media, these people never ask for help, of course not, they are perfect. We internalise this belief. End up super anxious at work, feeling that we are failing and are unable to ask for help (as this is a further sign of weakness). Then if we do make it to the top, there is often a lack of change in our behaviour. We reach the top, then we don’t offer support or show weakness to the more junior people, as now you are in power you definitely can’t show your hand.
Another way is how we judge others. Shunning those who don’t fit the mould. Even though we hurt so badly when people do that to us.
Another involves the … “to a point” comment. I have mainly seen this in the body positivity movement. A movement originally started by fat activists, later co-opted by a wider audience that at its best promotes the message that all bodies are worthy of love and respect. At worse, but not quite worst, this message is watered down to suggest that all bodies are ok, to a point. As long as people don’t deviate too far from the “norm” (read: perfect media presented body). And at absolute worst, body positivity has been totally flipped on its head to mean, let's get positive about our bodies by changing them completely. GUH. I suppose all campaigns end up diluted, co-opted, dispersed but in this case the message has been totally reversed.
What can we do about this?
You can’t not feel like a failure in this current climate. Because you will never achieve perfection. No one can. Even if you do, the goal posts will move. The zeitgeist will change. Or you will shift the person you measure yourself against, realise that they still have more than you and suddenly feel that you have failed once more.
What can we do about this?
- Realise this is not your fault and be kind to yourself. Notice the times any feeling of failure, imperfection or shame arises and talk to yourself as you would a friend.
- Look at the stories you have internalised. The beliefs you have linked to the times you feel dissatisfied with something about your self or others. Consider where they have come from.
- Unlearn these stories. Debate them, with yourself and willing others. Decide on your version of beliefs and what you think is more reasonable on balance.
- Learn self-soothing strategies, that can switch off the fight-flight response when triggered by any sense of failure (see 6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response and 2 Foolproof Ways to Relax and An easy grounding technique for times when you feel totally overwhelmed).
- Learn some new coping statements. These could include, “This feeling of failure and inadequacy is not real. I am worthy, lovable, enough.” Practise over and over when calm, slowly over time this will start to sink in.
- Surround yourself with people who share these beliefs. Who represent wider demographics. Talk to them. Show them it’s ok to talk
- Tailor your social media so that you don’t follow people whose highlight-reel makes you feel bad about yourself. The highlight-reel isn’t real!
- Support people you know. Pull people up on comments or remarks that further the idea of failure outside of the perfect.
- Campaign for wider representation of people in media, work, all spaces. And not just people who are close to the totally manufactured “norm”.
- If you are in a position of power or success, use this power to create change. To give a platform to marginalised voices, narratives and people. Show people that “imperfection” is the real normal. That asking for help is how you get there. That the feeling of failure will come up, then pass, then start again, over and over. That it isn’t real and that you (or another structure) are there to support them.
I could continue. I probably will on another post. I feel vitriolic that we are created, then immediately made insecure so that others can monetise this distress. And we are left believing everything that happens reflects our own personal failures.
So, yes. This is just another article, talking about an age-old issue. But if I am the latest person to write about it, that's one more voice. Another person wanting to make a stand and say enough is enough.
To those of you who feel like you are failing, you aren’t. The yardstick that you measure yourself and others by is not real and never was. It was unattainable. It is not your fault you feel like that. It is the fault of the people trying to sell you things. Accept yourself because you deserve it.
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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.