A Research Paper By Elena Scolaro, Job Transition – Business Coach, ITALY
Coping With Failure – Resilience and Emotions-Based Approach
I was thinking about what might be the topic of my dissertation for days. I changed my mind several times in the process. I was stuck.
While listening to an Italian Podcast about the Costa Concordia shipwreck (Il dito di Dio – The finger of God), I found it mindblowing how one man dealing with a giant mistake caused such a heartbreaking tragedy.
Listening to the story as a silent spectator, I also heard the story of a man dealing with his failure, not accepting reality, and inability to respond appropriately.
Without going into many details, listening to the story is pretty clear that if the Captain had behaved differently, most deadly consequences of the tragedy could have been easily avoided.
Human error and bad choices are part of human life. We cannot avoid them, but how we deal with the consequences of mistakes, errors, and failures makes a difference.
Coping With Failure – The Trigger
I keep my attention on the story to frame the idea of what it means to cope with failure.
The Captain messed up with his decision to change the route and pass close to the cost. A terrible choice! What I found incredible is that it is not the mistake that caused the tragedy. It was the way he dealt with failure that caused it for me.
The Captain claimed his role was the next after God in court. This phrase makes me think about how deep the level of responsibility he felt, the pride of achievement of a lifetime, and the idea of being THE ONE that takes the decision and bears the consequences.
Strong feelings, typically positively related, can also be a burden when dealing with failure.
After the wrong decision was made and the failure was already showing its dreadful manifestation, the Captain would not accept the reality. Instead of reacting and making decisions, he discharged confusion on the crew, causing the humans tragedy.
What Happens in Our Brain When We Fail – Winner and Loser Effect
In nature, a so-called Winner effect implies that both humans and animals, winning in something, release testosterone and dopamine as a reward. With time and repetition, this signal shapes the brain’s structure and chemical configuration to make successful animals smarter, better trained, more confident, and more likely to succeed in the future.
Instead, when we experience failure, we go through an array of emotions, including anxiety, stress, and mostly fear. Failure causes a person to lose track of their mental stability and makes the thought process chaotic.
In those adverse circumstances, the brain releases chemicals known as cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone. In desperate and stressful situations, this hormone enables you with the fight–or–flight response (adrenaline).
In a study with monkeys, researchers found out that the animals who made a mistake in a trial later performed worse than monkeys who didn’t make mistakes. “In other words,” explains Scientific American, they were “thrown off by mistakes instead of learning from them.” Some research similarly suggests that failure can impede concentration, thereby sabotaging future performance.
Like monkeys, when we fail once, we are more likely to fail again at the same goal—and sometimes more catastrophically. It often happens when you are on a diet. In one study, dieters fed pizza and were convinced they’d “ruined” their daily diet goal ate 50% more cookies immediately afterward than those not on diets. When we fall short of our goals once, our brains say, “Abandon ship!”
This spiral explains why one failure can seem to set many others in motion. If we cannot stop the process, we risk perpetuating our failure.
Learning From Failure – A Sage Advice, but Not the Easy One
To this point seems very clear that success has a much more significant influence on the brain than failure. Earl Miller, a Technology neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute, believes that the findings apply to many aspects of daily life where failures are negatively highlighted. Still, achievements are rewarded in one way or another. A surge in the neurotransmitter dopamine brings about the pleasurable feeling that comes with success. By telling brain cells when they have struck gold, the chemical signals them to keep doing whatever they did that led to success. As for failures, Miller says, we might do well to pay more attention to them, consciously encouraging our brain to learn a little more from failure than it would by default.
Recent research made a step forward in the knowledge of the response after failure. The study participants who had focused on their emotions after failing a task during the next similar assignment exerted more effort than those who emphasized a cognitive response.
One of the researchers said, “I think people will be surprised that allowing themselves to feel bad about a failure can improve performance more than thinking about that failure in some instances. The kinds of thoughts — like rationalizing a failure — people tend to come up with are sometimes counterproductive.”
After a failure, the natural tendency is to suppress emotions and pay attention to details and facts to rationalize them. The research shows how negative this behavior can be. Accepting negative feelings is, for us, counterintuitive. When we feel bad, we do as much as we can to switch our sensation into positivity, and maybe it is this effort that makes the learning process so tricky.
However, not all individuals experience significant emotional distress in response to failure. Several psychological models highlight the role of psychological reactions to failure in developing failure-related distress and emotional disorder.
The resilience-based approach offers an alternative point of view to understand the factors that enable individuals to withstand stressors and avoid psychological distress rather than focusing on the mechanisms that lead to distress and disorder.
Resilience-based approaches have the potential to highlight skills and tendencies that individuals can develop to maintain psychological health, leading to a more positively oriented approach to well-being.
Dealing With Failure: A Resilience-Based Approach
As a Career coach coping with failure will be the bread and butter, especially for clients seeking a career transition. The fear of failure and negative past experiences can impact their ability to progress in their ambitions.
Based on the evidence presented, I would like to share some reflections on how to support the client in dealing with failure and sustaining their progression toward the goal.
- The importance of acknowledging emotions: rather than focus on a meticulous analysis of what went well and what went wrong, it is better to focus on the emotion connected with the failure and give enough space to this expression.
- Build resilience: neutrally thinking of resilience as a factor that reduces negative outcomes in the face of adversity. This meaning shows that some variables mitigate the association between risk factors (failures-mistakes-errors in this case) and outcome.
- Self-esteem: For high achievers who struggle with self-confidence, a key component of resolving the dilemma is to allow people to see your weaknesses. Knowing that people see our flaws and love us anyway helps us build a solid base of self-confidence. Self-confidence promotes a sense of belonging, optimism, and courage. It allows people to accept imperfection, live life on their terms, and embrace the richness of life’s complexity.
- Positive attributional style (Optimistic view): Being optimistic means that you possess an overall positive outlook of the world, trusting that good things will happen and that people’s desires will be fulfilled. Promote attention to positive memories and practice gratitude.
- Reduce perfectionism (see my power tool Performance over Perfection)
Dealing With Failure Is a Critical Milestone for Growing
To conclude, dealing with failure is a critical milestone for growing, most of the time, we don’t know how to deal with it and possibly choose behaviors that can lead us to repeat the mistake. As coaches, we have options to support our clients in making the most of it.
Recent research shows us the importance of not suppressing our feelings and cultivating resilience as a key to unlocking the client’s learning process.
This means the coach’s attention should be focused on accurately exploring the client’s feelings and facilitating the client’s growth through resilience.
This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Fail (And How to ... - HuffPost.
Productive Ways to Cope With Failure - Career Advice - Interview Kickstart.
The Bar Concept – The Break a Record Concept.
How You Learn More From Success Than Failure - Scientific American.
Getting Emotional After Failure Helps You Improve Next Time, Study...
Feeling Bad About Your Failure May Lead To Success.
Resilience to Emotional Distress in Response to Failure, Error, or...
Self-Confidence - Adler’s Theory and Its Application for High Achievers.
How to Be Optimistic When the World Around You Isn’t - Verywell Mind.