What being set up to fail looks and feels like

A friend of mine asked me a to write about how I used to be set up to fail as a kid – so I’ve decided to oblige, mainly because I have it on good authority that this could help others to recognize and process the same thing.

Setting someone up to fail is a tactic used by many bullies in authority – teachers who bully students, bosses bullying employees, etc. It takes many forms, but fundamentally, it is what is likely happening when it feels like you’re constantly put in a situation where success isn’t just very hard, it’s actually impossible. Here’s a few ways in which I have experience with this odious brand of bullying, in no particular order:

  • In school: If the student has missed class owing to illness, injury, medical appointment or other thing outside the student’s control, the teacher refuses to hand out make-up assignments or to provide the student with the missed homework, even though the student will lose marks if the assignments or homework are not completed. Sometimes, the teacher may foist the blame back on the student, claiming that it is the student’s responsibility to get the work, e.g. from another student.
  • At work or home: The employee is expected to do tasks for which they have received inadequate or no training. Then, when they fail at the tasks, they are penalized with a poor work review. Example: I was once asked to strip and wax a floor – despite never having been trained on how to do either. When I refused (as is my right under local legislation – works are free to refuse hazardous tasks they’ve not been trained to do), my boss threatened to fire me, did give me a written warning for a bad attitude, but provided me with the training. As a kid, I’d run into this often from my parents, who would expect me to do tasks (e.g., defrost and clean out the freezer) without any knowledge or instruction on how.
  • Anywhere: The victim is given a task, but insufficient resources (time, supplies, etc) to get it done. The victim is then penalized for an incomplete or poorly-completed task. Example: I was once tasked with cleaning a building. Problem: The entire building had been so severely neglected by the previous cleaner that the floors were brown. Except the tiles were white. That was how much dirt had accumulated on the floor. It was simply not possible to get an entire building which had been that badly neglected clean in a single day of work – after which the boss wrote me up because even though I’d managed to get 2/3 of the floors back to the white it was supposed to be and all the inhabitants of the building were praising me as “so much better than the last cleaner!” and telling me it was amazing how fast I was turning the floors around, I apparently was obviously loafing off.
  • Anywhere: The authority figure badmouths you to those around, saying that you “Don’t want to succeed,” or that you’re “just a bad egg” or what have you. They do this to cover up the fact that they’re setting you up to fail in no-win situations.
  • Anywhere: The person in charge keeps changing the rules, without informing the victim, such that the victim is always getting in trouble for breaking rules they don’t know exist. Example: My boss at one job would change his mind every week about how much supporting info I needed with me in a meeting – one time yelling at me for not having brought the entire CRC handbook of Chemistry and Physics, and all of my literature papers I’d researched (a stack about a meter high, by the way) and accusing me of not having done the research and just being lazy, and the next week, when I obliged, yelled at me for having brought too much, “Stop being ridiculous. We all know you’re working hard at this, you don’t need to make a martyr of yourself.” This can also happen at home with an abusive parent.
  • At work or school: The victim is held to an unfair standard. The abuser may pretend this is a positive thing, to ensure the victim is “adequately challenged,” but the victim is never given a standard to which they can actually achieve. In the case above: I was expected to anticipate everything my boss might want to see for supporting info and bring all of that but nothing else. In school: My teacher would stop grading my work sheets after the first wrong answer and mark as if everything else as wrong – supposedly to teach me attention to detail. None of the other students had to get everything right. This meant if I made one mistake on a work sheet, I might get a 5% or a 95% depending on whether it was the second or the last question I messed up on.
  • Anywhere: The abuser gives the victim a goal, and then sabotages the victim’s attempts to achieve said goal. At home this might look like promising a small child a reward if they manage all day without yelling, and then spending all day needling them and trying to provoke an angry reaction. At work, this might look like assigning a task and then undoing the victim’s work behind them. At school, it might look like promising a reward if they get a certain mark on the test, and then changing the weighting of the questions to stack the deck against the victim being able to achieve that mark (e.g., if the teacher knows the student is bad at memorizing dates, suddenly the questions about what dates important things happened on are worth twice as much).

Pretty much any instance of being set up to fail looks like some permutation of the situation above. Emotionally, it is at first very frustrating. You’re doing your best, and it doesn’t seem like you’re making any headway. Over time, you might suss out that you’re being treated unfairly, and then you feel angry in addition to frustrated. Eventually, this leads in to feeling trapped, anxious, and/or hopeless as you know you’re stuck in a no-win situation – which can very easily feed into other mental illnesses that may or may not be at play, and can cause the development of new mental illnesses if you don’t have any yet. Quickly, it erodes your self-confidence and motivation – what’s the point in trying if you know the situation is engineered for your failure, anyway?

As for the solution, I can say this: The only solution I’ve ever found that works is a change of environment: Change the job, change the class, take your pick. Just get the victim away from the abuser, so the abuser doesn’t have free reign to engineer their downfall anymore.

Undoing the damage from being set up to fail is a lot harder. I am still working on it, I admit, but for me what helped was to slowly rebuild my confidence as someone who was competent at achieving things. Admittedly, I’m still working through it, but achieving incremental challenges has done wonders since then for my confidence in my abilities.

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