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Study: Overthinking Failure Worse Than Actual Failure
Study: Overthinking Failure Worse Than Actual Failure News header

New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has found that it’s not failing to make progress that is problematic but rather the tendency to overthink a lack of progress that leads to psychological distress and long-term failure.

Lead author Associate Professor Joanne Dickson of ECU has stated that there are two key ‘self-guides’ that typically motivate us and provide standards for self-evaluation: the ‘ideal-self’ and the ‘ought-self’.

“The ‘ideal-self’ is the person we ideally want to be – our hopes and aspirations. The ‘ought self’ is who we believe we ought to be – our duties, obligations, and responsibilities.

“Our findings showed that perceiving one’s hopes and wishes as unfulfilled and the loss of desired positive outcomes increases emotional vulnerability and psychological distress.

“Whereas actual-ought self-discrepancies were associated with anxiety (but not depression).”

The role of excessive negative thinking

Professor Dickson said a novel finding was the role of ‘rumination’, the tendency to engage in repetitive negative thinking.

“It’s not failing to make progress toward our ‘ideal-self’ that is necessarily problematic but rather the tendency to repetitively think about this lack of progress that represents a significant vulnerability that, in turn, leads to increased psychological distress,” she said.

In contrast, lack of progress in relation to our ‘ought self’ (ie duties, responsibilities, obligations) directly increased anxiety (but not depression), and this was not facilitated via repetitive thinking.

“It may be that fulfilling obligations, duties and responsibilities is more pressing or urgent than the pursuit of hopes and the more immediate negative consequences of not fulfilling these ‘ought to’ obligations may mean there is less time to engage in reflective contemplation,” Professor Dickson said.

Advice for minimising psychological distress

Professor Dickson said self-guides as standards that we aspire to are beneficial in giving a sense of purpose and direction in life and promoting wellbeing, even if we don’t always reach them, but turning the focus toward negative self-evaluation and self-criticism is counter-productive.

“Reflecting on and at times modifying our self-guides may be helpful, particularly if we are caught in a spiral of negative self-evaluation that is accompanied by a constant sense of failing to meet overly high standards.”

Read more: Find Your Life Purpose

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