Narratives of Failure

The stories you tell yourself about how and why you fail are important. You can reshape your meta-narratives to tell a story of fullness instead of blaming, brokenness, and victimhood.

Your meta-narrative is the way you think about life, the story you tell yourself to interpret what’s going on in the world and how it connects back to your own life.

In general, if your meta-narrative is positive, you will be happy and go through life focused on good things and covering over or explaining away the bad things. Similarly, if your meta-narrative is negative, your focus will be on the bad things instead of the good things.

Your meta-narrative can also be passive or active. When you think about your life, do things seem to just happen to you or are you in control of crafting your path through obstacles?

This is best seen in terms of the narrative you tell yourself when you fail.

When you fail an important test, lose a bid on a contract, have your hours cut, get passed over for a promotion, or get rejected romantically, what is the story you tell yourself about how and why this happened?

Let’s look at some of the most common failure narratives people use.

Blaming. Many times, you can comfort yourself through failure by justifying it as another person’s fault. You failed the test because the professor wrote the questions poorly or didn’t teach well enough. You weren’t chosen for the special team or project because the boss hates you or because another, less deserving coworker did something to suck up to the boss to get chosen. The problem with a Blaming failure narrative is it takes all the responsibility off of you. If it’s not your fault, you don’t have to look at the ways you may have contributed to the outcome.

Broken. Instead of passing all the fault to others around you, a Broken narrative assumes the fault is an intrinsic part of your character. You had your hours cut because you’re the worst employee and it was only a matter of time before your boss found out. You were turned down for a date because nobody could ever love you. Again, the problem with the Broken narrative is it takes responsibility away from your actions and puts it on your character, or who you are as a person.

Victim. This narrative feels chaotic since your life is completely out of your control. Things just started happening to you one day and since then it’s one thing after another. Nothing seems to go right at home or at work. Like the others, this narrative also takes the responsibility away from your actions but instead of putting it on yourself or others, it’s just that Life or the Universe or God has it out for you.

Do you see the common thread? All these bad narratives deny personal responsibility. A healthy narrative looks at all aspects of a situation. You, your thoughts, and your actions have a part to play in your failure. Regardless of what others do or don’t do, the contributions of your character and personal history, or your external circumstances, a healthy narrative centers around what you do in response.

Life will always happen, and your meta-narratives about life and your part in shaping it will affect the way you respond to events. Do you notice Blaming, Broken, or Victim stories when you think about your life, particularly your failures? If these have become your habitual responses to failure, therapy can help you untangle your unhelpful meta-narratives and create new ones that support you in thriving through life.

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