On Personal Failure and Self-Affirmation.

It’s September and the Red Sox are losing as usual for this time of year.  Did you know that in major league baseball, a hitter could have a long and productive career by maintaining a .300 average—that is, by getting a base hit 30% of the time? A great deal of money could be earned and fame accrued. Yet the other 70% of the time, this player would have failed. I wonder what 30% success rate does to your Ego.

In the past month I have had two couples not return to therapy after their first session. Two. Granted, one I think it’s simply a scheduling issue. Truthfully, I know it’s my fault for possibly having challenged them too early. I actually have no doubt about it. Therapy is not a precise science. There are no absolute measures for success but there are some. And one of them requires that the client physically returns to see you.

Before I get all caught up in telling you how unhappy I am about this turn of events, let me focus on the subject matter at hand.


Like major league baseball players, people face failures and self-threats. These include substandard performance on the job or in class, frustrated goals or aspirations, information challenging the validity of long-held beliefs, illness,  scientific evidence suggesting that one is engaging in risky health behavior, negative feedback, rejection in  relationships and so on. In order to face these challenges we develop what is called a psychological immune system which initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived (Gilbert, 1998). Psychological adaptations to threats include the various cognitive strategies and even distortions whereby people come to construe a situation in a manner that renders it less threatening to personal worth and well-being.

For example, in my case,  I would have told myself that my clients were not ready to change and them dropping out had more to do with their lack of motivation or (even worse) resistance. This is precisely what we call being defensive.

Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988; Aronson et al., 1999; Sherman & Cohen,2002) begins with the premise that people are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity can be defined as the sense that, on the whole, one is a good and appropriate person. Here are the four basic tenets of self-affirmation theory:

1. People are motivated to protect the perceived integrity and worth of the self. The purpose of self-esteem is to  “maintain a phenomenal experience of the self … as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes…” (Steele 1988).

2. Motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive responses. When self-integrity is threatened, people are motivated to repair it, and this motivation can lead to defensive responses.

3. The self-system is flexible. People often compensate for failures in one aspect of their lives by emphasizing successes in other domains.

4. People can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of “who they are” (and doing so reduces the implications for self-integrity of threatening events). Bummer for whomever is encouraging you to change. They will be out of luck.

Why is this helpful to you?

A great deal of research has used self-affirmation theory to address a wide range of social psychological phenomena, including biased information processing, causal attributions, cognitive dissonance, prejudice and stereotyping, stress and rumination.

People often interpret new information in a way that reinforces their beliefs and desires. In other words, people believe what they want to believe.

To take it one step further…

Defensive processing of new information can be particularly costly when it leads people to reject important health information. Think about that next time your doctor talks about you smoking, drinking too much or eating fat, salt and sugar…and not exercising.

Interestingly, high self-esteem individuals have greater affirmational resources, and are thus more resilient to threatening events than low self-esteem individuals as well as less likely to rationalize a choice they have made.

So next time someone challenges you (even if it is too early) think about why that’s bothering you. Is it because it goes against what you believe or what you want to believe about yourself? Or is it because it’s really untrue and unfair? And most importantly how do you know the difference?

How do you process personal failure? How do you self-affirm?

As for my failures, don’t fret my friends. Through meditation, self-awareness and humility, my big, defensive Ego has shriveled up to the size of a mango…OK I know I still have work to do.

So I leave you with some tea Tao wisdom.

“You are infinite.”

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