Personal Failure, Worry, and Self-Acceptance

Study Tip #16


  1. Purpose
  2. The false belief: "There is something permanently wrong with me."
  3. The bad effects of the false belief.
  4. Five normal school situations that activate the false belief and cause worry.
  5. Four normal things students do that activate the false belief and cause them to worry.

There is a false belief that many people have that causes them to worry more about school. If they fix the false belief, they will worry less. The purpose of this Study Tip is to help you fix it and worry less.

The False Belief: "There is Something Permanently Wrong With Me."
Let me speak personally to you to give you an example. From the time I was young, I was convinced that I was very different from other people. I believed there was something wrong with me. I linked the wrongness to the things I could not do as well as other people. For example, I was shy; I could not talk easily and sociably with people; I was poor at sports; and I was not very good looking. I also noticed that I wanted some things which were wrong, and I was bad sometimes in my teachers' eyes and in my parents' eyes. Because of these inadequacies and others, I concluded that I wasn't made right and that other people were better.

I hope you will read carefully and will think about what I mean in a way deeper than the examples and specific words I use. These ideas are hard to express.

I believed that there was something different about me. I thought that I was an inadequate human being in some deep and permanent ways.

I didn't then think the truth as it seems to me now, namely, "I am a person. I know I have faults.  In some ways I am inferior to some people, and in some ways I am superior to some people. But always we are all people together, not better, not worse."

When I grew up, I discovered that many people, perhaps most people, have the same belief deep down inside them, too. I now know that many people are like me in having the same irrational negative belief that they are "wrong" people. Many religions say we all miss the mark. When that's your problem, deal with it religiously. I'm concerned here with a different sense of feeling "wrong".

The Bad Effects of the False Belief
When you believe that there is something not right about you, it makes normal worries feel more serious.  Any little mistake seems to you to be a sign of your Great Big Problem.  And you want to solve the big problem of "personal failure" and you often fear that you cannot. You think that mistakes just prove what you fear--that you are a dummy and really an inferior person. It hurts!  And that's so big a problem that you think about giving up.

Suppose instead that you believe you are a normal person, not fundamentally inferior. Then when you make a bad mistake, you can say to yourself, "That's okay. Mistakes are natural. I'll try again and sooner or later I'll improve."

Now school and college create lots of situations that activate the false belief. In all learning there are naturally times where students make mistakes, hear a teacher criticize them, are slow to learn, get low grades, and try to learn and have trouble. School is just that way. It is natural.  After all, the purpose of school is for students to take courses in which they start out somewhat ignorant of the subject and learn it. It is not possible to have easy successes all the time.

Some of our natural failures and mistakes are caused by teachers and textbooks and normal school problems.  Other natural failures and mistakes are caused by our own foolish and careless behavior. Both of these normal causes of trouble can make us worry.  And if we are tricked by the false belief and believe that failures and mistakes prove that we are personal failures as human beings, it makes us worry more.

But I can prove to you that there are natural causes of mistakes and that your mistakes and failures and problems in school do not prove that you are a deeply inadequate person.  Read the list that follows and see how normal it is to make mistakes and encounter problems in college. Once you know how normal mistakes are, you can accept them and grin and keep working and watch yourself learn and grow and improve.

Five Normal School Situations That Activate the False Belief and Cause Worry.
1. People make natural mistakes on homework, give wrong answers to teachers' questions, miss some questions on tests, and get some low grades. They do some things right, but the teacher does not seem to notice. Sometimes students ask questions in class that seem like stupid questions to other students. Often students watch other students learn faster than they do. All these problems make  students focus on negative facts, problems, and troubles. And if it's you and you believe there is something "wrong" about you anyway, you will feel it more.

2. Some teachers make their courses hard.  They require that students do a lot of work. When they demand a lot of work, their students have more trouble and make more mistakes.  Yet the students are learning more. So while they learn more, they think they are having more trouble. This trouble activates the belief that "I am wrong" and makes worry worse.

3. When some teachers see students make normal mistakes, they blame the student in a stern critical way. They could have been relaxed and accepting of mistakes, but they are not. Students can feel very embarrassed at hearing criticism, especially if the teacher says it in front of others. That activates the false belief and makes worry worse.

4. Sometimes teachers set up the grading rules for their courses so that every mistake and every failure is important.  There are no assignments that are "just for practice". No low grades are forgiven. For example, a teacher might give just two big tests and not ten little tests. That makes each low grade important.  Or a teacher might not permit you to take make-up exams and do extra-credit work. It causes you a natural worry, and the false belief makes it worse.

5. Some teachers teach poorly. Some textbooks are poorly written. They make it hard for students to find the information, hard to understand it, hard to remember it. It is hard to learn easily.  Again, anxiety. Again the false belief that "I am a wrong person" gets activated.

Four Ways a Student's Behavior Activates the False Belief and Causes Worry.
  1. Some students put off their studying until the last minute. Some study carelessly and refuse to try hard.  These behaviors have two bad effects:
(a) They know that it isn't possible to get very high grades on projects and homework and exams. Worry.
(b) They know they caused their problems. They feel guilty. And it is very troubling for people to know that they have deliberately done something bad--like study carelessly.  So people worry about that, and it reminds them of their belief that "I am a wrong person".

2. When students do not know good methods to study effectively, then their poorer methods take a long time. It is likely that they will not learn as much as they need to, and they will make more mistakes than other people do. Anxiety.

3. Some students have a compulsion to be practically perfect and to make no mistakes. When such people do make natural mistakes, they feel hurt worse than do other people who set more reasonable standards for themselves. People with unrealistic standards often believe "I am a wrong person."

4. Some students just do not think it is right or possible to ask for help. Even when they could ask their teachers or counselors or fellow students, they don't. So they feel helpless and isolated.  When they encounter a student's natural problems, they feel they have no way to escape failing. Naturally, they worry.

Do you see now why problems are so natural in school and college? There are external causes for them beyond your control. Don't blame yourself for things you cannot control.

Do you see now that even if you cause many of your own problems, it doesn't prove there is something personally wrong with you. Since you can chose to change your behavior, do it!  Sure you will have to fight bad habits. Sure it may be hard.  Sure you may need help. But don't believe you are permanently spoiled.