Saturday, August 14, 2010

internalizing and externalizing failure

There are many times when I feel that an essential difference between people does not really lay in whether one believes in terms of the old cliche of "worldview"but in how one assess failure. A great deal of wisdom in every stream of human thought lays in acquiring the discernment to understand this single persistent, vexing, bewildering aspect of life. Failure is absolutely inevitable from day to day and in the face of the inevitability of death. Everyone, ultimately, will reach the point of failure. No amount of positive thinking can avert it and no amount of reverse engineering will necessarily reveal a way to prevent it.

What I have noticed over the years is that there are two essential ways one can cope with, address, or explain failure. There are any number of ways to combine these two options, of course, but the two irreducible options are to internalize or externalize failure. These seem to be so self-explanatory and so self evident it would seem there is absolutely nothing that could be said for or against them in the abstract. Yet it is also nearly self evident that all debates about life and ethics amount to parsing the distinctions to be made between these two paths and which option should be chosen to explain what circumstance.

Of course to internalize failure is to account the failure as your own and your responsibility. You are the explanation for your failure. You said something wrong, you did something wrong, you thought something wrong, you failed to measure up, you weren't good enough, strong enough, smart enough, fast enough, and maybe people don't like you because you're just not the right kind of person. So if you can't land a date or a job or a grade it's because you didn't do your best or your best just wasn't good enough. If you'd been a better tenant or a smarter tenant whatever your landlord decided wouldn't have happened or you wouldn't have been laid off from your job. I have known only a few people who consistently internalize their failures.

To externalize failure means that it ultimately must be someone else's fault that things are as they are. You're good enough, smart enough, strong enough, and people OUGHT to like you but they don't because something is wrong with them. This is the man or woman who pins the blame on the exes rather than on himself or herself for having contributed to the situation. The ex-spouse holds the blame for not being sympathetic to your problems or struggles. The boss or landlord should have given you a break because external circumstances mitigated your ability to get the job done or pay the rent.

Now obviously both internal and external explanations for failure can and are valid but the path to pathology (and I realize that pun is unavoidable) lays in unflinchingly leaning toward one or the other to the exclusion of the alternative. Either you tell yourself that you constantly screw things up and deserve to fail or expect to fail at one extreme or at the other you tell yourself and others that you're fine if only people would stop having unrealistic expectations of you or would stop deceiving you or stop having criminal expectations.

What I have noticed over the years is these kinds of stringent attitudes can stay steady in a person even when their fundamental beliefs on issues of religion and politics change. For instance, I knew a fellow who went from being a slightly paranoid right wing charismatic Christian to a slightly paranoid left wing atheist. We still mostly get along, by the way, but I have told him from time to time that his propensity to be an idealogue and freak out manages to get the better of him regardless of his belief or unbelief. For his part he has said that my willingness to be pragmatic is a kind of balancing effect on him. He may sometimes be tempted to write people off because of ideological, political, or religious differences that are considered deal breakers. I refuse to consider any of those differences to be deal breakers.

I tend to internalize failures and assume that if something went wrong I just wasn't good enough. This seems like one of my problems. Other people seem to go very far the other way. A few years ago a fellow I met held forth on the ethical failures of his landlords. I could have taken the account at face value but there's a little proverb that says any account sounds true until you hear the other side. How was I to know that the real issue was the unscrupulous landlord in this person's account and not the fellow's own failures that accounted for being told to move out?

Particularly in a town like Seattle the laws so favor the tenant that as long as you follow the law there's virtually nothing that an ethical landlord could or would do to evict you short of you simply failing to pay the rent or the property having to get sold. This fellow's account about the evils of his landlords evicting him without cause was simply not passing the smell test. I felt bad that his housing situation was so volatile but it didn't seem like this guy was going to own up to having contributed in any way to the situation he was in. He was externalizing everything.

A guy who gets evicted once might have had a corrupt landlord. A guy who gets kicked out of a church once because he ran afoul of leadership might have been dealing with problematic leaders. A guy who gets one restraining order issued against him by an ex-girlfriend may have had the misfortune to pick a bad woman. But once you get to two or three of these kinds of situations and it may well be the problem is not merely the putative wrong-doer. The landlord may not be the bad guy if more than one eviction is involved in your life. If more than one pastor has issues with how you handle yourself and the leaders are at multiple churches then you might be part of the problem. The second restraining order could be a major sign that the ex-girlfriends are not the ones with character problems.

Another fellow had it in his mind that it was a gigantic category mistake to consider any woman out of his league. It would seem cold and unsympathetic to say that this fellow was not a particularly compelling catch either in terms of looks or character but far be it from me to tell someone he's going for a woman who's not a probable match for him. Eventually after a few cases of deciding it was wrong to consider a woman out of his league and managing to not even end up on the woman's radar in the mating dance the fellow began to conclude that maybe he wasn't cut out for marriage because of a few character flaws he knew he hadn't gotten a handle on. I was a little surprised that the fellow came to this conclusion since he betrayed no evidence in his words or actions that he had an introspective bone in his body ... but sometimes we get surprises in life that are not altogether unpleasant.

When I got laid off from my job I couldn't help feeling that if I had been a better employee my job wouldn't have been cut. The idea that my job got cut as the long range effects of policies that couldn't be sustained in light of other policies eventually, even quickly, made itself apparent. In fact a few months before I got laid off I found myself thinking that if anyone on the team I was in were to get laid off it would probably be me because though I had vastly specialized knowledge and training the new systems being put in place would no longer make such specialization as important as it once was. Unfortunately for the sake of my job security even though my supervisors begged to differ about this to some degree it was not in their authority to dispute the uppermost management in cutting my position. So I've been job-hunting over the last ten months ever since.

Looking back I now realize that the problem was not that my work wasn't good enough. Far from it, there were some things were it turned out I was the one person in my field doing things the right way even when dozens of people were saying I was doing things the wrong way. I wanted to internalize my sense of failure out of reflex and began to realize that this wasn't what the deal was.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny, someone pointed out to me today that I internalize other people's failures too often and I had never thought of that. She said I do this with everything and other people failing is not my fault.

I searched "internalizing other people's failures" and your entry was the top listing. I read it and completely identified with it.

I agree that most people externalize and don't see the trends when they repeat the same mistakes that it may be them and not society. I seem to miss the fact that I do the opposite by assuming that other's failings with me are somehow related TO me or a result of my not being "enough." (Important enough, skilled enough, enough of a part of their lives etc.)

great read, thank you.