It seems as if nothing can turn an enjoyable semester into a stressful one faster than a failed test or botched project. With tuition on the line, half a semester finished, and the prospects of graduate school or employment hanging in the balance, it is easy for academic failures to put students on edge.
As unpleasant as failure is to experience, it is an inseparable part of learning and growing. A common adage states, “Failure is part of life. If you don’t fail, you will never learn, and if you never learn, you will never change.”
Since students dedicate a significant amount of time to learning and growing, they are faced with more academic failures, and failures in general, than at any other time in their lives.
Detrimental effects of perfectionism
Although natural in occurrence, failure, when handled incorrectly, can have drastic negative effects on mental health. Also known as perfectionism, it is when individuals “feel a strong need to be or appear perfect” or rid themselves of failure, according to Taylor Martin of WebMD. Those who develop perfectionism often decrease in productivity, increase mental health vulnerability, develop anxiety and depression, trigger physical health problems, strain relationships, or prevent themselves from living in the moment.
Jenny Wang, a licensed psychologist and featured author of CNBC’s Make it program, believes that although perfectionism helps individuals feel safe, it lends to a “fixed mindset” that can be detrimental.
“A fixed mindset holds the belief that we all possess specific skills and talents, and that no matter how much effort we apply, we can’t change that potential,” Wang explained. “Possession of a fixed mindset means any struggle or failure is attributed to one’s incapacity for growth.”
Rather than grounding potential and esteem in flawless achievement, Wang recommends that individuals develop a “growth mindset,” rooted in continual improvement. “A growth mindset holds the belief that we all have unbounded potential for growth and evolution,” Wang explained. “It makes the simple act of trying enough to move things forward. Failure is simply a pitstop where you refuel your journey and redirect your approach.”
For individuals to shift their perspectives from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, Wang recommends the following three steps:
1. Face the shame
“Ask yourself how this failure has woven shame stories into your identity. Does it reaffirm a negative belief you have about yourself?” Consider sharing your story of shame with a listener and then remind yourself of how the conversation released you from shame.
2. Reframe the failure
To reframe your thinking, ask the following questions:
- How can I reframe this failure in light of a growth mindset?
- How am I tempted to focus on a fixed mindset for this experience?
- Is the fixed mindset helpful in moving me toward my goals?
- If I focus on how this failure has helped me, what is possible?
3. Notice the beauty of trying
Try breaking goals down into smaller, tangible steps. As this is done, try to notice an underlying “spark” in the goal: “curiosity, excitement or interest that can fuel you, instead of being fueled by fear of failure.” Name the spark and remember it as you “embark on action to move through failure.”
As the semester draws to a close, students can enhance their mental health by reframing negative thoughts, embracing academic failures’ lessons and savoring the small victories along the way.