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What is Defensive Failure?

What is Defensive Failure?

What is it and how will this help me achieve my goals?

I was watching this TEDx talk by New York City cognitive psychologist Amanda Crowell, who shared 3 powerful mindset blocks that defend you against achieving your goals. It made me so curious so I thought it would be interesting to you guys!

She starts of talking about her own struggle to commit to running. She knows running is good for her but struggled to do it. Can you relate? Hands up here!

She shared “I will run when a bear is chasing me and never before then.” This hatred “went on for another 34 years,” she says in a TEDxHarrisburg talk, “until I woke up one day with an infant … and a back that hurt all the time.” If she wanted to be the kind of mum she hoped to be ― as she put it “a mother who can chase around her kids at the park or pick her kids up and swing them around,” ― she needed to get in shape and focus on her fitness.

One Sunday, she told her husband that starting that week, she’d go to the gym regularly. Monday came and went without her making it there. And as the common story goes, she never made the gym. She says, “I meant to go to the gym, I intended to go to the gym, so why am I not going to the gym!?” To answer the question, Crowell did three years of research.

In this blog

  • I will define what Crowell coined as Defensive Failure,
  • Summaries the three powerful mindset blocks that underpin this term and
  • three ways to challenge these mindset blocks.

What is Defensive Failure?

“Defensive failure” is the term she came up with to capture what occurs when we want to achieve something, and we think about it constantly, but we don’t do it. She says, “I found that there are three powerful mindset blocks that are keeping you locked in a cycle of defensive failure.” Below, I will explain what they are and how to beat them.

Mindset Block 1:

“I just don’t think I can do this.”

You want to have better relationship with friends. After one interaction didn’t go as well as you hoped- your defence failure emerges, and you think to yourself I just can’t do it “I can’t make strong friendships or have good relationships, I’m just not that type of person”.

In this mindset block Crowell says. “You think that some people have the talent or the genetics to do this thing, and you don’t.” As she says, “If you believe that at the core of success is talent and genetics, then this rookie mistake matters a lot; it’s the proof you need that you didn’t have what it takes.”

How to overcome this:

Try to think of each failure as just another step on the road to progress by developing what Stanford University’s Carol Dweck (watch her TED talk) and other psychology researchers call a “growth mindset.” When you cultivate this kind of mindset, Crowell says, “these rookie mistakes lose their significance. They are no longer proof that you never should have tried”.

I love this reframing your failures into new perspectives.

Crowell reminds us “They’re opportunities to learn, because you know that at the heart of success is not talent; it’s effort over time that produces accomplishments.”

The next time you feel like you’ve fallen short, tell yourself: “This is putting me one tiny step closer to my goal.”

Mindset Block 2: “People like me aren’t good at this.”

You think that people like you don’t do things like this. This comes down to your identify.

Growing up we form an identity. Our identities can give us a sense of meaning and a place in the world, sometimes they can get in our way when we’re attempting new things. When Crowell became a coach and she struggled to sell her business to get clients. This is a common feeling; many of us will avoid doing anything that threatens our sense of self, Crowell says. In her case, she thought of herself as a “heart-centered helper type,” and, she says, “promoting myself and selling my services felt very inauthentic ― it felt really pushy.” She said she struggled to get clients and had to revalue this.

How to overcome this:

The closer you can bring your goal or activity to your identity, the easier it will be for you to move forward. Crowell shared “I had to find a heart-centered helper type who was great at promoting her business and learn from her.” This peer showed her ways that she could sell her business without feeling like she was selling out.

Mindset Block 3: I feel like I have to do this thing, but I don’t really want to do it!

Crowell puts it, “Secretly, you don’t want to do it; you just think you should want to do it. Basically, you value it for the wrong reasons.” She says that there are generally two reasons why we want or value things:

  “On the one hand, you can value them for what we refer to as intrinsic reasons ― reasons that come from inside of you, your interests, your curiosity, or … your long-term hopes and dreams.”

On the other hand, she adds, there are the “extrinsic reasons, like ‘All the cool people do it’ or ‘My mom would be proud’ or ‘Boy, would I like to be admired.”

If we doing things based on extrinsic reasons we are more likely not value it and ultimately end up failing to achieve it.

Here’s how to OVERCOME it!!!!!

How to overcome it:

Think of your underlying reason ― the motivation behind why you’re doing what you say you want to do ― as your own personal energy source. Remember why this is important for you!

If you find yourself procrastinating or never really feeling able to achieve your goals Psychotherapy will help you get a better understanding why you might be feeling this way. To book into our free Best Fit consultation email: or Call on 0861781059

Blog written by Shaunna Impey, Psychotherapist MIACP


TEDxHarrisburg talk,