Failure is trendy. Many successful people today are broadcasting their fails, flaws, and imperfections for all of us to see—from entrepreneurs who designed a whole conference about failure to fitness gurus posting their face-plants to Instagrammers fond of the #fail hashtag.
They seem to be aiming to normalize failure itself—to say to the rest of us (who are hiding our faults in a deep, dark closet) that it’s okay, everyone trips up sometimes. That’s a message we might try to communicate to a close friend when they’re distressed by their own failure. But does this strategy actually help?
According to a new study, it might—but only for certain people.
Researchers from the University of Waterloo recruited just over 100 college students to record a three-minute video about their interests and hobbies. Then, they were told, an “objective observer” was going to watch it and rate how socially skilled, friendly, likable, warm, intelligent, and mature they were on a scale of 1-9.
Before they got their score, students were shown how others had supposedly performed—averaging a 7 out of 9. Then, they got the bad news: They themselves had only scored a 5. (Of course, there were no objective observers and this was all part of the ruse to make students feel like they had failed.)
Next, the students were shown the score of one of their peers, someone of the same gender and in the same program at the university as them. Half of the participants saw that the peer also got a mediocre 5 out of 9, while the other half found out that the peer scored a 7—leaving them alone in their mediocrity.
After the experiment, the students filled out surveys of their positive and negative emotions, as well as their shame and guilt. The survey also assessed their level of self-compassion—that is, their ability to be kind to themselves while seeing their struggles as part of the human condition.
Did it make a difference whether they failed alone or saw others fail, too? It depended on how self-compassionate they were.
For highly self-compassionate people, the knowledge that they weren’t alone was beneficial—it led them to feel less shame, more positive emotions, and more self-compassion in the moment than when they thought they were the sole failure. This wasn’t the case for people low in self-compassion.
“Perhaps [the shared failure] led to better responses for self-compassionate individuals because this knowledge supported their pre-existing expectation that failure is a part of life,” write researchers Sydney V. Waring and Allison C. Kelly of the University of Waterloo. Indeed, another recently study found that
In other words, seeing a fellow coworker miss out on a promotion or another parent arrive late for back-to-school night could give us comfort—provided we already have a tendency to treat ourselves with care and kindness. Hearing about other people’s slip-ups doesn’t seem to create self-compassion out of thin air, though.
“Some people might not actually find that as helpful, and interestingly it would be the people who tend to have a more difficult time with failure—the more self-critical people,” says Waring.
As Waring and Kelly theorize, shared failure doesn’t really fit with the worldview of the self-critical, who typically see themselves as alone in their flaws and their suffering.
If you’re trying to comfort a self-critical friend, Waring says, jumping in with your own failure story might not do the trick. Instead, “we should be prepared to be flexible and open to trying out different strategies to see what works best for our friend,” she says—like validating their feelings about how hard the situation is.
And if you’re the one with a tendency to be harsh on yourself, you may need to cultivate self-compassion. Doing so will tend to bolster our belief that failures are learning opportunities and part of life. According to this study, that self-compassionate attitude could help us feel comforted when we witness the fallibility of other humans.