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Healing Low Self-Esteem: Failing Doesn’t Make You a Failure

“Remember that failure is an event, not a person.” ~Zig Ziglar

Take a second and imagine little you: running around like the little ragamuffin you were. Imagine as far back as you can—back when you were first able to comprehend feedback from parents, teachers, or whatever other authorities were around.

When considering the cause of low self-esteem, the most obvious answers are under the umbrella of past abuses or failures: a parent who demanded straight As, an abusive spouse, etc. These are common forms of mistreatment that cause some people’s self-esteem to tank.

But for those who’ve lived fairly easy lives, while surrounded by reasonably supportive people, low self-esteem has no obvious root (I talked about my own experience with this here.) What’s worse is that having an issue we don’t understand can make us feel weak or defective because the problem seemingly has no cause.

So if you’ve suffered with low self-esteem, even if just occasionally or in certain situations, research is now pointing us in an interesting direction. There’s a surprising link that can help us out, and it has everything to do with effort.

How Low Self-Esteem Takes Shape

Are you one of those people who think Sigmund Freud is an absolute dunce? I don’t blame you. But he was right about something, and it’s that what happens to us during childhood shapes us—big time.

Researchers in the Netherlands discovered that parents who praise their children for innate qualities may actually do more harm than good. According to the study, parents should instead praise children for their hard work and effort.

So what’s the difference? It’s hardly possible to distinguish between a mom exclaiming, “Oh, you’re such a good reader!” and another who says, “Oh, you worked so hard on your reading assignment!” But this difference is significant.

Children who were praised for “being” something felt a strange pressure that children who were praised for their work didn’t feel: When they fail, they associate the failure with an innate quality instead of associating it with the amount or quality of work they did.

As you can imagine, associating your failures with innate flaws instead of just the quality of effort you put in can be damaging to a child’s impressionable self-image. And it can continue to wreak havoc on your adult self.

Suddenly “I didn’t study enough” becomes “I’m stupid,” or “I need more practice with painting” becomes “I’m a bad artist,” etc. The low value falls on the self, not on the action taken.

To put it another way, this kind of praise conditions us to think we are supposed to already be something without practice or trial and error. After falling short of this irrational standard a few times, self-esteem can drop quickly.

The researchers also found that parents were more likely to praise children with low self-esteem for their innate qualities, thinking it would help give them a needed boost. Whoops.

If you think this sounds like a bunch of BS, I can vouch for it personally.

For much of my life, I wouldn’t try anything that I felt I wasn’t “innately” good at. I was big on beginner’s luck and anything I knew how to do intuitively, without much effort. Everything else (especially when hand-eye coordination was involved) could suck it as far as I was concerned.

My parents were not major enforcers of hard work, so their praises were usually directed at innate qualities.

As I grew up, this subtle distinction wreaked havoc in many areas of my life. I would quit things at the first sign of trouble, becoming extremely discouraged, and sometimes even feeling ashamed at the slightest mistake.

Basically, how I behaved and my upbringing exemplified the above theory: I had no understanding of commitment and how it was the key to being talented in any area. Instead, I fearfully avoided anything that required practice and stuck to things I felt I had a “knack” for. I believed that what I did was who I was—for better or worse.

Separating Yourself From Your Effort

So ask yourself this: What is your relationship with hard work and effort? How about innate talent? How do you see yourself when moving toward a goal?

If you’ve had self-esteem issues in your life, you may be familiar with quitting or shying away from effort. Maybe you felt bad when you weren’t immediately good at a new task, thinking you just “didn’t have it in you.”

So you need to begin catching yourself in these thought patterns. A failure of any kind does not reflect that you are a failure. It is simply that your action failed to have the impact you wanted.

So begin to:

1. Consciously separate these two things in your mind. Each time you recognize this pattern, remind yourself that a failed attempt at something does not equate to a failed person.

2. Suspend negative self-talk and replace it with a more neutral belief. For example, if you intensely feel that you’ve failed at something, remind yourself that it is probably a common mistake and getting good at any task requires patience.

3. Truly begin to understand that failure is necessary for success in anything. View
failures (as best you can) as learning opportunities that will propel you to the next stage.

The book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How does a great job of debunking the “innate talent” myth. The author explains where talent and skill actually come from. (Spoiler alert: it’s practice)

Every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice.” ~The Talent Code

Extraordinary innate talent is sort of a myth, perpetuated by meaningless phrases like “you either have it or you don’t!” Of course, it’s safe to say that we all have propensities for certain things, but that does not bar those who don’t from practicing and developing that skill too.

So the next time you hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, remember: You are not your effort.

About Brianna Johnson

Brianna is a professional writer delving into the nitty gritty of mental health, exploring emotions, beliefs, and cultural constructs to help you attain greater freedom. Subscribe for new blog posts every Wednesday at existbetter.com/blog.

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  • You’ve greatly pointed it out! Thank you for this very refreshing reminder. In this day and age, what we dread is to fail in whatever we do. I, for one, get really depressed when I fail to meet job/work expectations. And it is very difficult to bounce back and grow self-esteem when you’re disappointed with your own efforts. Here in the Philippines, there are recruitment services that really assess the employee candidates with regards to their reaction and problem-solving capability with real-life work situations.

  • Ja-chan

    Thank you for writing this.. 🙂 I really need this.. I feel like a failure because I can’t be the best in my class. I can’t become my expectations to be number 1. That hit me real bad even though I just failed 3 times.. I’m still confused what “You are not your effort” truly means. Hope you can explain it some other time. I really appreciated it.

    Somehow I think my mom will think that I’m blaming her for giving me this mindset lol if I told her this article. She will say that it depends on how I’m thinking too. I wonder if I can get your opinion on this. Thanks!! :))

  • Cate

    What a helpful article — thank you! Most conventional accomplishments — academics, sports — came easily to me when I was younger, so I naturally applied hard effort to those pursuits because the rewards were great. But I have been easily discouraged and ashamed of shortcomings in areas in which I seem to lack natural talent, notably navigating intimate relationships. I very quickly feel as if I am not up to the task at hand, and withdraw rather than tolerate continual feelings of inadequacy and failure. I’m going to read the book you suggest; perhaps it will help me more constructively apply the work ethic I know I have to areas in which progress is less assured. Thank you for this interesting and illuminating reflection.

  • Brianna Johnson

    Cate,

    So glad this helped you! And yes, the intimacy thing is something so many people struggle with – myself included. You sound like you are on the right path with learning and growing 🙂

  • Brianna Johnson

    Ja-chan,
    Yes, good point. I think it’s important to not blame parents in a harsh way, as they probably did the best they could. But also recognize that it’s not YOUR fault that you grew up that way. “You are not your effort” basically means that if you try really hard at something and it doesn’t go the way you wanted, that means absolutely nothing about your worth – you’re still every bit as worthy with or without the thing you wanted to achieve. Thanks for your insight! 🙂

  • Brianna Johnson

    Maya,
    Ughhh yes jobs can really wear people down, it’s a bummer. I think there is a wise saying about this … something like “the master has failed more times than anyone.” It’s funny, but in reality the most successful people have failed the most. Hope that helps you stress a little less!

  • Patrick Morris

    The “professional writer” part really came out. Was a bit difficult to read and associate with, but I did pick up on some of the reasons why low self-esteem was prevalent, whether passed down or whatever.

    I will say this. Both my parents had low self-esteem. I grew up mostly with my mom, who has struggled all her life to maintain low-paying jobs and is now over $100,000 in debt after deciding to go back to school at the age of 45ish. It was basically a waste of time.

    In addition to growing up in an atmosphere of dithering, low self-esteem, my life experiences, whether it be at school, etc. didn’t help. Struggles with ptsd etc are real. Now at 21, I’m still stuck but working to get unstuck enough to apply to CC by October. That in itself will be the biggest thing I have ever done in my life.

  • Deborah

    I’m 25, not happy in my current job and only now beginning to appreciate that hard work to change my life’s path is the only way. I honestly can’t remember if my family praised natural talent alone. I think they praised hard work as well, but maybe more one than the other. Low self esteem just seems to be part of me so I probably jumped on the innate talent conclusion myself.
    If we are not our failed attempts, then when are we a failure? I know that question isn’t really in the spirit of this article. But it could mean no one is ever a failure. We’re just human.