How Emotional Chest Colds Become Psychological Pneumonias

None of us reach adulthood without encountering failure thousands of times and many more such experiences await us in life going forward. Failure is so common a human experience that what distinguishes us from one another is not that we fail but rather how we respond when we do. Such differences are especially apparent when observing those who fail more regularly and more frequently than anyone else—toddlers. Trying, failing, and trying again is one of the main ways toddlers learn. Fortunately, toddlers are generally persistent and determined (otherwise we’d never learn to walk, talk, or do much of anything), but they can also display dramatically different responses to failure.

Imagine four toddlers playing with identical jack-in-the-box toys. To open the box and release the cute teddy bear within, they need to slide a big button on the side of the box to the left. They know the button is where the action is, but sliding is a complex skill. Toddler #1 pulls the button. It doesn’t move. She pushes the button hard. The box rolls out of reach. She extends her hand toward it but it’s still out of reach. She turns away and starts playing with her diaper. Toddler #2 fusses with the button for a few moments without success. He sits back and stares at the box, his lower lip trembling, but makes no further efforts to open it. Toddler #3 tries to pry open the top of the box by force. Then she pulls the button. Undeterred, she keeps experimenting until ten minutes later—success! She slides the button, the top springs open, and Teddy pops out with a squeak. She squeals with delight, stuffs Teddy back into the box, and tries all over again. Toddler #4 sees toddler #3 open her box. He gets red in the face, smacks his own box with his fist, and bursts into tears.

When we encounter failure as adults, we tend to respond in very similar ways (albeit few of us resort to playing with our diapers). Failure can make us perceive our goals as being out of reach, causing us to give up too quickly (like toddler #1, whose box rolled away). Some of us feel so demoralized by failure that we become frozen, passive, and helpless (like toddler #2, who gave up). Some of us fail but keep trying until we succeed (like toddler #3), and some of us become so stressed and self-conscious that we can’t think straight (like toddler #4, who burst into tears).

How we deal with failure is crucial to our success in life as well as to our general happiness and well-being. While some of us respond well to failure, many of us do not. Failure always hurts and disappoints but it can also be an informative, educational, and growth experience, as long as we take the failure in stride, figure out what we need to do differently next time, and persist in pursuing our goals. However, as with many of the psychological wounds we sustain in daily life, ignoring the injuries failure inflicts can make a bad situation worse, and at times, far worse.

Although our various ways of coping with failure are established early in our lives, we are by no means doomed to follow in the footsteps of our toddlerhood. Even those who respond to failures in the most unproductive and damaging ways can learn to employ more favorable and psychologically healthy coping styles. However, to do so, we must first understand the impact failure has on us, the psychological wounds it causes, and the emotional challenges we face if we wish to heal them.

The Psychological Wounds Failure Inflicts

Failures are the emotional equivalent of chest colds in that we all get them and we all feel terrible when we do. We usually recover from chest colds because we modify our activities accordingly once we get them—we rest, drink warm fluids, and dress warmly. If we were to ignore a cold entirely it would probably get worse and, in some cases, develop into pneumonia. We face similar dangers to our mental health when we encounter failure, yet few of us are aware of the need to employ the psychological equivalents of resting, drinking warm fluids, and dressing warmly. As a result, many of our failures cause unnecessary psychological damage, the implications of which can harm our emotional well-being far beyond the impact of the original incident.

Failure inflicts three specific psychological wounds that require emotional first aid. It damages our self-esteem by inducing us to draw conclusions about our skills, abilities, and capacities that are highly inaccurate and distorted. It saps our confidence, motivation, and optimism, making us feel helpless and trapped. And it can trigger unconscious stresses and fears that lead us to inadvertently sabotage our future efforts.

One of the reasons so many of us sustain psychological damage from failure is that it often takes only one or two incidents to set the entire vicious cycle into play. Further, when a failure is especially significant or meaningful to us (which it often is), leaving it untreated puts us at risk for developing psychological complications such as shame, crippling helplessness, and even clinical depression. Thus, what starts as a single episode of failure—a small emotional cold—can develop into psychological pneumonia that impacts our general functioning and mental health for the worse.

1. Honey, I Shrunk My Self-Esteem: Why Our Goals Seem Bigger and We Feel Smaller

Baseball players have long claimed that when they’re on a hitting streak the ball literally seems bigger to them (and therefore easier to hit). Not surprisingly, when they’re in a slump they report the baseball as appearing smaller and more difficult to hit. Most psychologists never took such claims seriously, perhaps because baseball players are a notoriously superstitious lot. Some players refuse to wash their underwear after a win so they don’t “jinx” it and others sleep with their bats in bed to break out of hitting slumps. Which of those practices leads to more baseball wives sleeping on the sofa is anyone’s guess.

When psychologists finally decided to investigate the players’ claims scientifically they ran into a problem. It turns out major league umpires frown at the notion of pausing baseball games to allow players to complete psychological questionnaires. Consequently, scientists decided to test this phenomenon using regular people ... and football.

Participants were asked to kick an American football through an adjusted field goal from the ten-yard line. They each had ten kicks. Before making any kicks, all subjects estimated the width and height of the goal similarly. But after their attempts, subjects who failed at the task (by scoring two or fewer successful kicks) estimated the goal as being 10 percent narrower and higher, and those who succeeded estimated it as being 10 percent wider and lower. It seems baseball players were right all along. Failure can make our goal seem literally more difficult and more imposing than it had appeared previously.

Failure not only makes our goal loom larger, it makes us feel “smaller” as well. Failing can induce us to feel less intelligent, less attractive, less capable, less skillful, and less competent—all of which have a hugely negative impact on our confidence and on the outcome of our future efforts. For example, if a college student fails a midterm exam, she might view herself as less capable and view the class as more difficult, making her more worried and less confident about doing well on the final. While some students might knuckle down and work harder as a result, others might become so intimidated they begin to question whether they can pass the class at all.

But what if that failed midterm also happened to be the first exam they ever took in college? What if they perceive not just the class but college as a whole as being a greater challenge than they’re able to meet? Since they’re unaware that failing the midterm has distorted their perceptions (such that the class and college appear harder than they actually are), they might reach premature and inappropriate decisions as a result. Indeed, many students drop out early in their freshman year for this exact reason (and toddler #1 is at risk for doing so as well).

Failure has an even greater impact on our self-esteem. Many of us respond to failures by drawing damaging conclusions about our character and abilities that seem incredibly compelling to us at the time even when they have no merit whatsoever. Many of us react to failure by thinking or voicing incredibly damaging thoughts such as: “I’m such a loser,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I’m just not smart enough,” “I’m such an idiot,” “I’m a total embarrassment,” “I deserve to lose,” “People like me never get anywhere,” “Why would anyone want to hire/date me?” or similar character assassinations.

Few people would argue that such demoralizing and unproductive thoughts have any redeeming value. Yet too often we allow ourselves to indulge in them, utter them aloud, and give them validity. If our six-year-old failed a spelling test in school and announced, “I’m a stupid loser who can’t do anything right,” most of us would swoop in, refute every word, and forbid him to say such terrible things about himself ever again. We would have no doubt that such negative thoughts would only make him feel worse in the moment and make it harder for him to succeed in the future. Yet we frequently fail to apply the very same logic and wisdom to our own situations.

The negative generalizations we often make after failing are not only inaccurate but they do more damage to our general self-worth and our future performance than the initial failure that spawned them. Criticizing our attributes so globally makes us hypersensitive to future failures, it can lead to deep feelings of shame, and it can threaten our entire well-being. Further, doing so prevents us from accurately assessing the causes of our failure so we can avoid similar miscalculations in the future. For example, if we blame our inability to attain personal improvement goals on our character shortcomings we are unlikely to identify and correct crucial errors in planning and strategic goal setting that are far more likely to be responsible for our failure.

Why New Year Resolutions Often Nudge Our Self-Esteem in the Wrong Direction

Every New Year we list our resolutions with hopes of improving our lives and feeling better about ourselves, only to abandon our efforts entirely by February (and often by January 2). As a result, instead of our self-esteem being strengthened by our accomplishments, we’re left feeling weakened by failure and disappointment, which we quickly attribute to a lack of motivation or ability. We tell ourselves, “I guess I don’t want to change,” or “I’m just too lazy to do anything about my life,” and feel even worse about ourselves than we did on December 31.

What makes such conclusions unfortunate as well as inaccurate is that the primary reason we complete so few of our resolutions is because we neglect to think through how we plan to achieve them. Without a carefully crafted plan in place our resolutions are unlikely to make it out of the starting gate no matter how motivated or capable we are. Indeed, one of the most common goal-planning errors we commit is neglecting to set a start date.

Another common New Year resolution error is goal bingeing. As a general rule, if your resolution list is longer than the one your child made for Santa, you might want to pare it down. Pauline, a recently divorced woman with two school-age children, marched into my office on the first Monday after the New Year and proudly thrust a sheet of paper into my hands. “My resolutions,” she explained. “You’ve been encouraging me to take the wheel and steer my life in the right direction, so here, I’m taking it!” I glanced at Pauline’s list and flinched. It had the following items: go to the gym four times a week and lose twenty-five pounds, try harder at work, organize the closets at home, paint the bedroom, make five new friends, post a profile on a dating website and go on at least two dates a month, join a book club, volunteer one afternoon a month, take a wine-tasting class, teach myself how to play the piano, and spend more time with the kids.

“What do you think?” she asked eagerly.

“I think that’s what taking the wheel looks like—if you were a NASCAR driver,” I said with a smile. “It might be a little much for a soccer mom with a minivan.”

I explained that when we set too many goals for ourselves we are unlikely to complete any of them. Pauline’s list included an entire smorgasbord of goal-setting errors. Some of the goals on her list conflicted with one another (e.g., getting to the gym four times a week and spending more time with the kids), others were too ambiguous (e.g., “try harder at work”), and others were too difficult (e.g., making five new friends, volunteering one afternoon a month, and going on two dates a month would be a challenging agenda for most single women, let alone a working mother of two).

Having multiple goals would be less of a problem if we took the time to prioritize them according to which were most urgent or most attainable given the circumstances of our lives at the time. We also neglect to break down long-term goals into smaller and more realistic subgoals. Without doing so, many of our goals can appear daunting and overwhelming. Last, we rarely take the time to develop action plans for dealing with the obstacles, hurdles, and setbacks that might arise along the way and we’re then ill-equipped to deal with them when they do.

In short, we frequently fail to complete our New Year resolutions (as well as other goals) because we set the wrong goal(s) to begin with, and our self-esteem often suffers as a result.

2. Passivity and Helplessness: Why Not Only Mimes Get Trapped Inside Invisible Boxes

Failures sap our confidence, our motivation, and our hope. They can make us want to give up and forgo any future efforts and possibility of success. As a general rule, the more sweeping and negative our assumptions about our attributes and capacities are, the less motivated we’ll be, as few of us make efforts to pursue goals we truly believe are out of reach. After all, if we’re convinced we failed because we’re not smart enough, capable enough, or fortunate enough, why would we persist?

What we neglect to take into consideration when the sting of failure is still fresh and our self-esteem is still bruised is that the very assumptions and perceptions that form the basis of our impulse to “surrender” are fundamentally incorrect.

Lenny, a thirty-year-old office manager at a sales company, came to psychotherapy after feeling increasingly depressed about his career. Although his day job provided basic financial support for his wife and new baby, Lenny’s true passion was magic. He was a slender young man with angular features and a thick mustache (I’ve worked with numerous magicians over the years and why so many of them have mustaches remains a mystery to me). He wore oversized slacks and jackets, which I admit led me on more than one occasion to hope he would interrupt our session to pull out a stunning white dove, a cute rabbit, or even a string of colored handkerchiefs. Alas, the most exciting thing Lenny ever whipped out of his jacket was a throat lozenge.

Lenny had been performing as a magician since high school, but he never became successful enough to quit his job with the sales company. Although he was thrilled when his son was born, he also realized the added responsibility represented the death knell to his aspirations as a magician. Knowing little about the career path of magicians at that time, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me why that would be so.

“There’s no way to make a living as a magician without an agent,” Lenny explained, “and I’ve never been able to get one. A couple of years ago I sent tapes to every agent out there, and nothing came of it. Yeah, I know,” Lenny said, as if I was about to object, “you’re wondering if my signature trick was good enough.” Of course I wasn’t wondering anything of the sort, but Lenny explained that agents only take on magicians whose signature trick—the one that serves as the magician’s calling card—is a killer. Apparently, Lenny’s was not.

“I spent the last two years working on my signature trick,” Lenny continued. “But a couple of months ago, I turned thirty. Yeah, I know,” he said in response to yet another imaginary objection on my part, “thirty isn’t old. But I figured it was time to give up magic and focus on supporting my family. I stopped booking shows and I put away my stuff.” Lenny took a deep breath. “But not doing magic anymore ... it’s killing me.” Lenny swallowed hard. “Yeah, I know,” he continued, “it doesn’t matter how I feel because there’s nothing I can do about it. I tried my best to make magic work, and I failed. I’ll never be a professional magician: I have to accept that and move on. That’s why I’m here, Doc. I need help. You have to help me accept that my life as a magician is over. Maybe once I do, it won’t hurt so much.”

Magic was Lenny’s lifelong passion, but his failure to secure an agent or come up with a spectacular signature trick made him feel as though he’d exhausted all his options. In his mind, the only choice he had left was to give up his dream. Failure does that to us. It makes us feel hopeless and trapped, and it induces us to give up. We tend to fall prey to this kind of defeatist thinking far more than we realize. We get passed up for a promotion, so we cease making efforts because we believe our boss won’t promote us no matter how well we perform. We skip the voting booth because we don’t believe the candidate of our choice can win. We refuse to go back to the psychiatrist when our antidepressant medication fails because we assume if one of them didn’t work, none of them will. We join a gym, sprain a muscle, and conclude we’re too out of shape for physical activity. We break our diet and conclude we’re one of those people who “just can’t lose weight.” When our intimate advances keep getting rebuffed by our spouse we conclude he or she no longer finds us attractive and we stop initiating sex.

In each of these scenarios failure convinces us that we have no chances of getting what we want and so we stop trying. Failure can be very persuasive.

Failure can also be very misleading.

Accurate as we feel our assessments are, in the vast majority of situations, ceasing our efforts only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. By not taking action we guarantee we won’t succeed, and we then view our eventual failure not as a lack of persistence on our part but as a confirmation that success was impossible all along. The fact that our own surrender has brought about the very outcome we feared eludes us, as does the fact that our pessimism has blinded us to the options and possibilities that do exist.

For example, we might have been second in line for the promotion at work and therefore next up for advancement had we continued to perform well. We could have campaigned for the political candidate we favored and by doing so increased that candidate’s chances of getting elected. We could have tried another antidepressant, as it often takes trying several medications to find the one that works best for us (just as it does with over-the-counter pain relievers). Becoming more educated about exercise could have helped us avoid injury by planning workouts suited to our fitness level. If we found it too difficult to stay on a diet we could have taken steps to strengthen our motivation. And if our spouse rebuffed our advances we could have discussed things with him or her and resolved any larger issues that were at play.

Succumbing to feelings of pessimism, helplessness, and passivity is as damaging to our mental health as ignoring a worsening cold is to our physical health. Indeed, Lenny’s “chest cold” took a rapid turn for the worse the moment he decided to give up magic. He became engulfed in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair, and he was at risk for developing full-blown depression, a “psychological pneumonia” that could threaten his mental well-being.

3. Performance Pressure: What to Expect When Expecting to Fail

When we fail at tasks in which our expectations for success are low, the psychological wounds failure inflicts are relatively minor. Failing to win a national lottery rarely sends people into a depression and the vast majority of untrained singers do not experience deep feelings of shame when they fail to get on a singing show (although they definitely feel disappointed). But when we possess the necessary skills and abilities to succeed and have expectations of doing so we are likely to feel much stronger pressure to perform well. Performance pressure can be useful in small doses but it becomes extremely unproductive in larger ones, as it can foster test anxiety, a fear of failure, and the risk of choking.

Many of us get anxious in test-taking situations regardless of our intelligence, preparation, or familiarity with the material. One of the reasons test anxiety is so common is that it is relatively easy to trigger. Even one episode of heightened anxiety is sufficient for us to feel intensely anxious when facing a similar situation in the future. Test anxiety is especially problematic because it causes massive disruptions to our concentration, our focus, and our ability to think clearly, all of which have a huge impact on our performance. As a rule, anxiety tends to be extremely greedy when it comes to our concentration and attention. The visceral discomfort it creates can be so distracting, and the intellectual resources it hogs so critical, that we might struggle to comprehend the nuances of questions, retrieve the relevant information from our memory, formulate answers coherently, or choose the best option from a multiple-choice list. As an illustration of how dramatic its effects are, anxiety can cause us to score fifteen points lower than we would otherwise on a basic IQ test—a hugely significant margin that can drop a score from the Superior to the Average range.

One of the more insidious but lesser-known manifestations of test anxiety occurs when we’re reminded of negative stereotypes about our gender, race, ethnicity, or other group. Known as stereotype threat, such reminders often trigger subconscious worries and fears of conforming to stereotypes, even when entirely unwarranted and even when we believe the stereotype in question has no validity whatsoever. Such worries, even if they barely register in our awareness, can steal away just enough of our attention to hamper our performance on the task at hand.

As an illustration of stereotype threat, consider what happens when girls take math tests. When girls take math tests without boys present, they do substantially better than when taking the test with boys. Even in the twenty-first century, the presence of boys can subtly remind girls of the stereotypical yet false belief that men are innately better at math than women.

We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear of Failing Itself

For some of us, failure is associated not just with disappointment and frustration but with far more damaging feelings, such as embarrassment and shame. As a result, the prospect of failing can be so intimidating that we make unconscious efforts to lower expectations for our success. While lowering expectations might seem like a reasonable approach, the way we go about doing so can result in our unwittingly sabotaging ourselves and bringing about the very outcome we fear.

Lydia, a woman in her late thirties I worked with some years ago, had taken a ten-year break from her career in marketing to raise three young children. When her youngest child started kindergarten, Lydia and her husband agreed it was time for her to resume working. Lydia quickly leveraged her connections to get job interviews at six different companies. But despite her inside track and impressive credentials, none of them called her back for a second interview. Lydia was horribly embarrassed by her failure, not to mention truly befuddled. Although she believed she had done the best she could, it quickly became apparent that a fear of failure had led her to unconsciously sabotage one opportunity after the other. Or rather, it quickly became apparent to me. Lydia, on the other hand, was convinced she had done all she could to succeed.

“Look, I understand why the first company turned me down,” Lydia explained. “I didn’t have time to read up on it before the interview because my daughter had an important basketball game and I promised I’d bake brownies for the team.” Lydia’s account of the second interview revealed an equally unconvincing imperative. “Ah, you see, my mother called the night before and I got stuck on the phone with her for three hours. She was upset about my cousin’s wife feuding with her sister, and I felt bad about cutting her off.” Lydia’s take on what went wrong in the third interview was just as flimsy: “Well, what happened there was my nails were a mess and I thought I’d have time to do a quick mani-pedi before the interview, but I misjudged the time and got there half an hour late. Maybe forty-five minutes. Anyway, they refused to see me. Can you believe it?” I certainly could believe it, but I graciously refrained from nodding.

Lydia continued by explaining that a severe migraine headache kept her up the night before her fourth interview. “I was exhausted! Could you believe I even forgot to bring them a copy of my resume?” Lydia reported being afflicted with sudden “gastrointestinal distress” the morning of her fifth interview. “At some point my stomach was rumbling so loudly I just made a joke about it and apologized. But they hadn’t heard a thing so it was kind of an awkward moment. I’m sure I’ll laugh about it in the future.” I doubted Lydia would ever find the situation chuckle-worthy, but again, I held my tongue.

Lydia claimed her sixth interview would have gone well, except—“My luck, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, real irritable and impatient. My husband thought I should go to the interview anyway, but I should have listened to my gut and stayed home. The receptionist was so annoying I ended up getting into an argument with her. The interviewer came out to see what the ruckus was about and, whatever ... it just went downhill from there. You know what they say, if it isn’t meant to be, it isn’t meant to be.”

Most people hearing Lydia’s account would immediately recognize an obvious pattern of excuses, avoidance, and self-sabotaging behavior that was sure to guarantee failure. But Lydia was truly oblivious to it. Her unconscious mind knew that by having obstacles to blame for any possible failures she could avoid the shame and embarrassment she feared. Fear of failure makes many of us engage in all manner of self-handicapping behaviors in which we exaggerate or create impediments to success without being aware we’re doing so. Indeed, we are often extremely creative in the self-handicapping devices we construct in order to have something to blame for our failure.

Many of us procrastinate and “run out of time” to study before an important test. We might go out with friends and drink too much the night before an important presentation or get too little sleep. We might forget our study materials on the subway or at a friend’s house. We might forget the cherries when packing our ingredients for the county fair cherry-pie-baking contest, or we might arrive at the marathon having packed only our left sneaker. And as Lydia demonstrates, there are endless physical ailments we can manufacture. If we do well despite these setbacks we have the added bonus of giving ourselves extra credit for succeeding when the odds were against us.

Of course, self-handicapping rarely leads to success. In addition, such strategies prevent us from examining our failures accurately and drawing useful conclusions about what we need to change or do differently in the future. For example, Lydia’s resume might have needed changes or her job-interviewing skills might have needed sharpening, but it is impossible to assess such factors because they were obscured by the array of obstacles Lydia placed in her own way.

The unconscious nature of self-handicapping can blind us to its existence even when someone else points it out to us. Lydia was initially convinced that every one of her excuses was valid and that her failure was due to events over which she had absolutely no control. When I suggested otherwise, she responded with statements such as “You don’t expect me to break a promise to my daughter, do you?” and “The problem was I didn’t listen to my gut and stay home. My gut never leads me astray.”

Fear of Failure in Families

Confronting Lydia’s fear of failure was all the more urgent because studies show that parents who suffer from fear of failure often transmit such fears to their children. Most parents view their children as extensions of themselves as well as products of their parenting skills, so that when children fail, parents’ own feelings of shame get triggered. They might then respond to their child’s failure by withdrawing from them both subtly (e.g., with their tone of voice or body language) and overtly (e.g., expressing disapproval or anger). Children pick up on their parents’ withdrawal, which triggers their own feelings of shame and teaches them that failures should be both feared and avoided.

To be clear, in the vast majority of situations, parents are entirely unaware they might be impacting their children so negatively. Lydia had three young children whom she loved dearly. However, the fact remains that unless she treated the psychological wounds failure inflicted and corrected her self-sabotaging habits, she was likely to perpetuate the cycle of fear of failure and pass it on to her children.

Choking Under the Influence

Bill Buckner had a stellar career as a Major League Baseball player, amassing over 2,700 hits, winning batting crowns, and playing as an All-Star. But he is most known for the error he made when playing for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. Buckner was on first when a ground ball that should have been simple to block went by him, costing the Red Sox the game and eventually the World Series. Buckner is hardly the only athlete to choke in a championship game when executing a simple skill they’ve performed perfectly thousands of times. Nonprofessional athletes choke in clutch moments just as frequently and choking is also common outside of sports.

Why do so many of us bowl a great game only to gutter the last ball? Why does a gifted vocalist sing flawlessly in a crucial audition only to deliver a cringe-worthy, off-key final note? Why does an advertising executive pitch the perfect presentation to every client, only to stammer incoherently and draw a blank when his company’s president steps into the room?

Psychologists began researching why we tend to choke under pressure over two decades ago, but only recently have studies uncovered the psychological mechanisms responsible for these mental gaffes. Choking tends to happen because the stress we feel in high-pressure situations makes us overthink tasks and draw attention away from the part of our brain that executes the task automatically or fluidly. To illustrate this point try the following exercise. Fill a coffee mug with water, hold it by the handle, and walk it across the room. Easy, right? Now do it again, but this time, keep your eyes on the water as you walk and focus on making the adjustments necessary for the water not to spill. Most of us are far more likely to spill the water when we’re trying not to than we are when we walk with the mug without thinking about it.

Choking is based on a similar dynamic. The greater the pressure of the situation, the more likely we are to overanalyze our actions and interfere with the smooth execution of a task we’ve performed or rehearsed hundreds of times. While we all make errors, choking usually occurs when the stakes are extremely high. The ramifications of choking and the self-recriminations that follow can be profound. Bill Buckner is still heckled for his gaffe even twenty-five years later, and many of us have trouble living down our own choking moments for years or even decades.

How to Treat the Psychological Wounds Failure Inflicts

Failures are often painful but not all of them warrant emotional first aid. Many of our failures are minor, and we shrug them off with relative ease, even if they do sting for a short while. Even substantial and meaningful failures might not require treatment if we are able to take them in stride, accurately assess what we should do differently next time, put in the necessary effort, and persist until we reach our goal.

But when we fail repeatedly or when we respond to failures in ways that set back our confidence, our self-esteem, and our chances of future success, we run the risk of allowing our emotional chest cold to turn into psychological pneumonia. Because much of the anxiety associated with failures can build upon itself, it is best to be prudent and apply psychological first aid treatments as soon as possible after meaningful or bothersome failures occur. Let’s open our psychological medicine cabinet and review our treatment options.

General Treatment Guidelines

Failures inflict three kinds of psychological wounds. They damage our confidence and self-esteem and make our goals seem further out of reach. They distort our perceptions, make us feel hopeless about succeeding, and compel us to give up or stop trying. And they can create the kind of performance pressure that increases our anxiety and causes us to unconsciously sabotage our future efforts.

Treatments A (getting support) and B (regaining control) help minimize damage to confidence and self-esteem, they prevent the pessimistic and defeatist mind-sets that lead to loss of motivation and giving up, and they also boost our motivation, hope, and chances of success going forward. Treatment C (taking responsibility) is focused on owning the failure as well as the fears and feelings it elicits so as to minimize the likelihood of our self-sabotaging future efforts. Treatment D (managing performance pressure) helps reduce performance pressure, fear of failure, test anxiety (and stereotype threat), and choking.

Treatment A: Get Support and Get Real

Whenever a patient tells me about a disappointing and meaningful failure, my first response is to express sympathy and express warm emotional support—which often makes my patients reach for the tissue box. My second response is to point to some of the lessons they could learn from the failure that would help them going forward—which often makes them hurl the tissue box in my direction. Having silver linings pointed out to us when we’re still getting rained on is always somewhat annoying.

Nonetheless, I respond this way for two reasons: First, because I’m really good at ducking. And second, because research has repeatedly demonstrated the most effective way to treat the psychological wounds failure inflicts is to find the positive lessons in what happened. Further, providing social and emotional support alone often makes people who experienced a failure feel worse.

But why is that so? Don’t we always benefit from empathy when we’re hurting?

Receiving concern and emotional support when we’re still reeling from a failure can actually validate our (mis)perceptions about the deficits and shortcomings in our character and abilities. But if expressions of social support are quickly followed by realistic evaluations of the failure’s implications, we could benefit from receiving emotional validation while still maintaining a realistic and grounded perspective that allows us to “get real.”

This one-two combination of getting emotional support and assessing what we can gain or learn from the experience is the most effective strategy we can take in the immediate aftermath of a stinging failure. Most of us are proficient at getting emotional support, but figuring out the relevant takeaways when we still feel bad about ourselves can be challenging.


The following writing exercise will help you identify what you can gain from the failure. There are six general lessons that can be extracted from most failure experiences. Apply each of these lessons to your own situation.

  1. Failure is a great teacher. Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he invented the lightbulb and he viewed each failure as a learning experience. In his words, “I haven’t failed once. I’ve learned ten thousand things that don’t work.” Failure always tells us something about what we need to change in our preparation or execution of the task. What should you do differently next time?
  2. Failure provides new opportunities. Henry Ford’s first two car companies failed. Had they succeeded he might never have tried company number three, which was when he hit on the idea of assembly line manufacturing and became one of the richest men of his time. What opportunities might your failure possibly present?
  3. Failure can make us stronger. Diana Nyad was sixty-two years old when in August 2011 she attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida, a distance of 103 miles. Unfortunately, asthma attacks forced her to give up her attempt after covering sixty miles of the distance. Remarkably she tried again less than two months later. This time she swam over eighty miles before painful Portuguese man-of-war stings forced her doctors to pull her from the water. Diana quickly announced she would not try the swim again. But once her exhaustion and initial disappointment wore off she realized that her two attempts had only made her stronger and more likely to succeed if she tried again. She made another attempt in August 2012 and although she swam farther than she had in her previous efforts, dangerous squalls forced her out of the water before completing her quest.
We all get demoralized when we fail. But bouncing back from our failure and learning from the experience will always make us stronger and more likely to succeed in the future. In what ways might your failure make you stronger?
  1. Some failures are also successes. I’ve always wondered how the runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant feels once she’s had some time to reflect and pick out the confetti from her hair. Does she feel proud to have represented her country so well, or does she feel devastated about coming so close and not winning? It’s crushing when our amateur sports team loses the playoff game but does that nullify the accomplishment of getting to the playoffs in the first place? Sure, it’s disappointing we didn’t get the job offer after so many rounds of interviews but surely we should feel encouraged about being among the top applicants.
Many of our failures are also successes in some way, except we tend to focus far more on aspects of failure than of success. No matter how disappointed we feel, we should always acknowledge the ways in which we were successful even if we ultimately failed. In what ways could you view your failure as a success?
  1. Failure makes future success more meaningful.Studies show that the harder we work, the more failures and challenges we overcome, the greater the meaning, joy, and satisfaction we derive when we eventually succeed. Oscar Pistorius is a professional athlete from South Africa who in 2011 ran the four-hundred-meter sprints at the Track and Field World Championships in South Korea. However, unlike the other sprinters in the field, Pistorius is a double amputee; both his legs were amputated when he was a child. Running on metal “blades,” he became the first disabled athlete ever to run in an able-bodied world championship meet. He then capped off his achievement by advancing to the individual semifinals and winning a silver medal in the relay races (as well as setting a national record).
For Pistorius, just being on the track was a triumph. He had spent years fighting in court for the right to run in the world championships and the Olympics, eventually proving that his blades did not give him an “advantage” over the other athletes. Even after winning the legal battle, he struggled to make the minimum qualifying time for the event, failing to do so until the very last race before the deadline—one week before the championships began. When Pistorius took the track for his first race, every camera in the stadium was pointed at him. The sheer awe and joy on his face as his name was announced outshone that of every other athlete there and gave goose bumps to anyone watching. Pistorius then repeated his stunning performance and reached the semifinals of the four-hundred-meter sprints in the London 2012 Olympics. (Sadly, Pistorius gave fans goose bumps of an entirely different kind when he was arrested in February 2013 on charges of killing his girlfriend.)
The more we fail, the greater the impact our eventual success will have on our mood, self-esteem, and confidence. How much more will success mean to you now that you’ve encountered failure?
  1. Success is not always necessary. Recent studies have begun to illuminate a surprising aspect about failure: many of the benefits we hope to reap by pursuing our goals are not necessarily dependent on our ability to complete them. In most situations, making steady progress toward our goals contributes more toward our sustained happiness and self-fulfillment than actually reaching them. The satisfaction, excitement, sense of pride, and personal accomplishment we feel by inching ever closer to our target combine to create a heady mix of satisfaction and joy that does wonders for our mood, motivation, and psychological well-being. Can you identify ways in which you derived meaning and satisfaction as you pursued your goal?
Dosage: Apply the treatment as soon as possible every time you experience a meaningful failure.

Effective for: Minimizing damage to confidence, self-esteem, and motivation.

Secondary benefits: Reduces performance pressure.

Treatment B: Focus on Factors in Your Control

Failing can make us feel trapped and helpless, as though events are out of our control and we are doomed to fail. Once we believe nothing we do can bring about a different outcome, we tend to give up or make only feeble efforts. However, succumbing to such paralysis can turn an emotional cold into psychological pneumonia, as hopelessness and helplessness often lead to conditions such as clinical depression.

The tragedy of failure is that many of the assumptions and perceptions that lead us to draw incapacitating conclusions about our lack of control are actually false. Further, scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that changing our perspective and focusing on aspects of the situation that are in our control can have a hugely beneficial impact on our hope, motivation, and self-esteem. In some cases, merely acquiring information that refutes our incorrect assumptions of helplessness and lack of control is sufficient to cure our paralysis and prevent our “emotional cold” from getting worse.

One study illustrated this point with a group of seniors over the age of sixty-five. Seniors are often quite sedentary, which can seriously compromise their health (though being sedentary isn’t a recipe for good health at any age). The problem is that seniors today often believe that being sedentary is a natural part of aging (which, of course, it isn’t). Scientists taught the seniors to attribute their sedentary lifestyle not to age but to factors that were entirely in their control, such as how much walking they tended to do on a daily basis. One month later, this simple intervention led to the seniors increasing their walking by two and a half miles a week (which is hugely significant) and they reported equal improvements in their stamina and mental health.

The best way to regain a sense of control over the circumstances that led to our failure is to reexamine both our preparation (our goal planning) and our performance (how we executed our efforts) so we can identify elements that we perceived as being out of our control that could be in our control if we approached or perceived them differently.


Since it is best to pursue one goal at a time, complete this exercise for each goal separately. I’ve included the responses of Pauline, the recently divorced woman with an abundance of New Year resolutions, for illustrative purposes. Pauline agreed to prioritize the item “make new friends,” as her social circle had been severely reduced over the course of the divorce and she was eager to find new outlets for social engagements and new friends with whom she could enjoy them.

  1. Define your goal in as realistic and specific terms as possible.
Keep in mind: Formulate clear and measurable objectives. For example, “get into shape for summer” is realistic but not specific. “Win the lottery” is specific but not realistic, and “write a best-selling novel” is neither specific (what is the novel about?) nor realistic (few novels become best sellers). Pauline defined her goal as “find three venues to meet people with similar interests.”
In addition, defining your goal in ways that are personally meaningful and that you find inherently interesting and enjoyable will help maximize your motivation over the long term. For example, you might define your weight loss and exercise goal as “develop a healthier lifestyle that gives me greater vitality and stamina so I can enjoy active pursuits with my children and grandchildren for many years to come.” Give careful thought to the regimens you choose as well. For example, your motivation to exercise might be stronger and last longer if you joined a hiking group with friends than if you ran on a treadmill in your basement alone.
  1. Break down the goal into intermediate steps.
Keep in mind: How we break down our long-term goals into smaller intermediate steps can have a huge and crucial impact on our motivation. Intermediate goals that require too little effort can cause us to lose interest and enthusiasm and become less engaged in pursuing our larger goal, and thus hamper our motivation. Intermediate goals that are too challenging tend to frustrate us and therefore also lead to a loss of motivation. Try to define intermediate milestones that provide a challenge but aren’t too daunting. It is best to get some successes under our belt, so we should ramp up slowly by starting with easier challenges that become (incrementally) harder.
When defining our subgoals it is important to focus on variables within our control (e.g., our performance) rather than those outside our control (e.g., a specific outcome). For example, weight loss or fitness goals should focus on what we eat or how much exercise we get (as those are within our control) and not on how much weight we lose (as we cannot force our bodies to lose weight at a predetermined rate). If we plan to start a blog we should determine the allotments of time we plan to set aside to work on it, not the actual progress we hope to make (as it is difficult to foresee programming and design problems and other difficulties). It is better to feel we’re making progress on our cheese lovers blog because we put in as many hours as we said we would than to feel as though we’re failing because it took us half a day to resize a stunning picture of Swiss Flösserkäse.
Pauline broke her goal into the following subgoals: “Make a list of activities that interest me. Search online for possible venues. Explore one new venue a week.”
  1. Set time frames for the overall and intermediate goals.
Keep in mind: It is best to go through the intermediate goals on your list and indicate two time frames for each, a starting date/hour and a completion date/hour. Objective deadlines might make it necessary to create a time frame for our larger goal first and then assign time frames to each of the intermediate goals accordingly (such as when we’re training for a marathon or creating a portfolio for an upcoming job or school interview), but when possible we should set time frames for intermediate goals first, as doing so allows for more realistic and attainable schedules. Much as we did when forming our intermediate goals, making the time frames moderately challenging is the best way to maintain our interest, effort, and motivation. Pauline decided to start the next day and to explore one new venue a week until she found a suitable one, after which she would explore a new venue every two weeks.
  1. List any potential detours, setbacks, or temptations that might arise.
Keep in mind: We would be wise to adopt the Boy Scouts’ motto and “be prepared” by troubleshooting not only what might go wrong but what could go wrong as well. For example, if our goal is to minimize our drinking and adopt moderation we might anticipate the need to strategize what to do during holiday parties at work but we should also consider what to do if we’re asked to attend a last-minute business dinner with clients who are wine lovers. Pauline anticipated potential problems with her babysitter, who had a history of canceling at the last minute.
  1. List the possible solutions for each of the above detours, setbacks, or temptations, including what you can do to avoid them and how you plan to implement these solutions. Phrase your implementation strategies as positive actions (e.g., “If I’m offered a cigarette I will say, No, thanks, I quit,” as opposed to, “If I’m offered a cigarette I won’t take it”).
Keep in mind: Anticipating problems and planning solutions to them ahead of time is crucial for avoiding discouragement and maintaining motivation and morale when difficulties arise. Any solution is only as good as our plan to implement it. For example, asking women intending to get a breast cancer exam to spend a few moments planning how and when they would do so made them twice as likely to follow through with the exam than women who did not make a plan. Pauline’s solution was to find a spare babysitter she could call on if necessary.
Reexamining Our Execution of the Task

Not all our failures are due to faulty planning. We also need to identify ways for gaining control of how we execute the task. For example, Lenny abandoned his dreams of becoming a professional magician because he believed he had tried everything he could to develop a great signature trick yet still failed to do so. He spent hours going over lists of all the tricks he knew. He tried brainstorming new combinations and elaborations that could elevate them to a new level. But despite all these efforts, he failed to come up with a show-stopping trick.

After hearing about his efforts, I expressed sympathy for his feelings of disappointment (which made Lenny reach for the tissue box). I then told him I disagreed with his assessment entirely, and prepared to duck. Lenny was surprised by my comment but also extremely curious. I explained that there were still many brainstorming avenues he could explore and that by trying to generate ideas from his existing list of tricks he had actually limited his options and inadvertently rendered his brainstorming efforts ineffective.

I then gave him examples of other ways in which he could approach brainstorming, for example, from the top down, by first identifying conceptual themes he found compelling (family, nostalgia, love, culture, food, etc.) and only then considering how to evoke these concepts using magic. Or he could start with the emotional impact he was trying to elicit (awe, surprise, wonder, confusion, amazement, shock, etc.) as well as the sequence in which he wanted to evoke them. Or he could focus first on unconventional materials or approaches (such as reversals). For example, I suggested that it would be hilarious if instead of holding out cards, putting the chosen one in a hat, and pulling out a rabbit, he held out several rabbits for the audience member to choose from, put the rabbit in the hat, and pulled out a card (alas, Lenny did not share my vision).

Failure had caused Lenny to limit his options in other ways as well. He was convinced audiences were more interested in reality television stars and jokes about celebrities or politicians than they were in magic. However, he never considered integrating these concepts into his existing act and changing his patter accordingly. Lenny soon came to realize there were many more avenues to explore and that it was too soon to give up on his dream. His mood changed the instant he reached the decision and for the first time I saw a sparkle of hope in his eye.


The goal in this writing exercise is to identify factors that contributed to the failure and that are in your control and to determine how to address these factors when making future efforts. I’ve included Lenny’s responses for illustrative purposes.

  1. Describe the failure in question. Make sure it is a single incident of failure. For example, if you failed a driver’s test five times, list only the most recent attempt.
Lenny wrote “I failed to become a professional magician.”
  1. List all the factors that contributed to your failure.
Lenny listed “weak signature trick, no agent, lack of contacts, audiences don’t care about magic.”
  1. Identify which of the factors on your list are in your control and which are not. For example, factors within your control might be “I failed to complete the marathon because I didn’t give myself enough time to train,” or “My marriage failed because we never learned to communicate with one another.” Factors outside of your control might be “I failed the bar exam because I get nervous during important tests,” or “I lost the customer because the product we delivered had too many problems.”
Lenny listed the factors outside his control as “No agent will take me on without a stronger signature trick,” “I’m not a good enough magician to invent a great signature trick,” “I don’t have contacts that could help me get more bookings or secure an agent,” and “Most audiences don’t care about magic.” The only factor he listed as within his control was “Giving up magic was my decision.”
  1. Go through each factor you listed as being outside your control and try to view it differently. See if you can replace the factor with one that is within your control. For example, you might replace “I failed the bar exam because I get nervous during important tests” with “I didn’t take steps to manage my test anxiety” (because we can always learn ways to do so), and you might replace “I failed to retain the customer because the product we delivered had too many problems” with “I lacked the necessary complaint-handling training to retain the customer” (because complaint-management training is something we can always get).
Lenny switched “I’m not a good enough magician to invent a great signature trick,” with “I only tried one brainstorming approach among many.” He swapped “I don’t have contacts that could help me get more bookings or secure an agent” with “I haven’t networked with other magicians, bookers, and club owners as much as I could.” And he replaced “Most audiences don’t care about magic” with “I haven’t restructured my tricks around topics audiences care about.”
  1. Once you’ve completed step 4, create a new list of action items that are within your control. For each factor, identify how you might go about addressing the issues or making the necessary changes to improve your chances of future success.
Lenny decided to try three additional brainstorming techniques for his signature trick and to allot himself an additional year within which to do so. He also decided to focus on networking with other magicians, bookers, and club owners and to increase his presence online using social media platforms.

Eight months later Lenny left me a message letting me know he would be performing his new signature trick—on television! The trick he came up with was both moving and visually beautiful. But to me, the most magical thing about his television debut was the sheer joy I saw on his face as he performed.
Dosage: Apply the treatment as soon as possible every time you experience a meaningful failure. Make sure to revisit the goal-planning and execution exercises before making future efforts and whenever you set new goals.

Effective for: Preventing or reducing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, increasing hope and motivation, and improving chances of future success.

Secondary benefits: Minimizes damage to confidence and self-esteem and reduces performance pressure.

Treatment C: Take Responsibility and Own the Fear

Although it is tempting to make excuses about our failure, doing so prevents us from learning the many useful lessons it can teach us. Worse, the more we deny any responsibility we might have, the more likely we are to feel as though the situation is outside our control. By recognizing that failure usually evokes at least some measure of fear and anxiety, we can begin to get in touch with such feelings, own them, and thereby prevent them from influencing our behavior unconsciously and destructively.

Lydia, the mother who sought to reenter the workplace after raising three children, struggled because her self-esteem and confidence as a professional were extremely low after a long hiatus from the workplace. Her unconscious self-handicapping served to protect her self-esteem by providing ready-made excuses for any failure she might encounter. Unfortunately, it practically guaranteed her failure, a fact to which Lydia was completely blind. Once she finished telling me about her sixth job interview fiasco (arguing with her prospective boss’s receptionist), I decided to share my concerns with her.

“I sometimes get a little anxious about coming back to work after a week-long vacation,” I began. “I can only imagine how terrifying it must be to jump back into the workplace after an absence of over a decade.”

“Well, sure, yeah, it’s a little scary,” Lydia admitted.

“I’m sure it must be. Do you discuss that aspect of things with anyone?” Lydia shook her head. I continued, “Feeling apprehensive, anxious, and even scared is entirely natural, Lydia, especially given the changes in the marketing industry over the past ten years. In fact, it would be weird if you weren’t a little scared. But the way our fears work, if we don’t own them and if we don’t talk about them, our mind will find other ways of expressing them.”

“Like what?” Lydia asked.

“Like getting into fights with the secretary of the person who has to determine whether you’d fit in well with his staff,” I responded with a smile.

“But you don’t know how irritating she was!” Lydia objected.

“Actually, I assume she was incredibly irritating,” I said. “But you have three young kids, Lydia. I’m guessing you must be pretty used to handling irritating and frustrating situations.” Lydia nodded. “Again, I think you weren’t expressing your fears consciously so your mind decided to express them for you.”

“Wait, you mean like the migraine and bad stomach? Those were real!”

“So is your anxiety about failing,” I responded. “But unless you own it and figure out how to address it, I see more headaches and stomachaches in your future.” I was relieved to see that Lydia didn’t argue this time, she just became thoughtful. Difficult as it was, Lydia was eventually able to own her feelings and take responsibility for each one of her failed job interviews (and the self-handicapping that caused them). Once she did, she was able to reengage in her job search in a much more productive manner. It took her several more months of looking and numerous failed interviews but Lydia eventually found a job in her field and reentered the workplace successfully.

We should all assume that where failure goes, anxiety and fear might follow. The best way for us to own both our feelings and our failures is to talk about them with supportive people. Airing our fears and exposing them to trusted friends or family members will minimize our unconscious need to express them self-destructively. Another option is to write about our fears in a journal or blog, as long as we make sure to balance them with more optimistic assessments.

One of the most effective ways to remove the emotional sting of failures is to joke about them when it is possible or appropriate to do so. In studies, seeing the humor in a failure was found to be an extremely effective way to get over the pain as well as any embarrassment or shame a failure caused. Being able to “see the funny” in a situation also helps reduce performance pressure when making future attempts. By verbalizing our fears in joke form we make it less necessary for our minds to express them unconsciously and in self-defeating ways. Of course, not all failures are ones we can or should laugh about, but many are.

One group of people who regularly practice laughing about their failures is stand-up comedians. Many comics turn their painful experiences of failure into jokes, and in doing so drastically reduce the pain the failure evokes. For example, comic Jim Short found a way to deal with his feelings about his financial failures and shortcomings by talking about them in his act. “I’m thirty-four and I make seven thousand dollars a year. I’m a loser! I was sad and depressed. And then I thought, wait a minute, I’m not a loser! I’ve tried! I’m a failure!

In 2011 Bill Buckner, the Red Sox player whose choking cost his team a ticket to the World Series, played himself on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode, Buckner is heckled for not catching that crucial ball at first base (yes, even decades later). Later, he passes by a burning building, where a mother on the third floor is instructed by firefighters to toss her baby into their net below. Reluctantly, the mother complies. The baby drops into the net but bounces high into the air. The gathered onlookers gasp and then collectively wince when they recognize Buckner and realize the baby is headed straight in his direction. But Buckner reaches for the baby, makes the perfect catch, and redeems himself, while the crowd breaks into applause. Buckner’s appearance represented a real-life example of someone who was able to laugh at his most painful failure and no doubt heal the psychological wounds it inflicted by doing so.

Dosage: Apply the treatment as soon as possible every time you experience a meaningful failure.

Effective for: Preventing or minimizing damaged confidence and self-esteem and taking the sting out of painful failures by finding the humor in them.

Secondary benefits: Reduces performance pressure and fear of failure.

Treatment D: Distract Yourself from Performance Pressure Distractions

Performance pressure can increase test anxiety, it can make us choke at crucial moments, and it can drain our attention with worries about conforming to stereotypes. It does so because the stress or anxiety we feel in the moment steals attention from the task we’re executing, hampers our performance, and makes us more likely to fail. We then feel even more stressed and anxious going forward and the cycle deepens.

To treat the psychological wounds of performance pressure we have to fight fire with fire. When stress and anxiety threaten to steal our attention we need to steal it right back. Studies have demonstrated a number of ways to distract ourselves from the distraction of performance pressure, and some of them are as simple as whistling Dixie. In fact, one of them is whistling Dixie, or rather whistling—whether “Dixie” is your warble of choice is up to you. Let’s examine these countermeasures in more detail.

1. Whistle While You Choke

The Seven Dwarfs (from the Disney film Snow White) believe in whistling while they work. I assume they too feared choking under pressure, because studies have demonstrated that whistling can prevent us from overthinking the kinds of automatic tasks we’ve done many times before and then choking as a result (such as swinging a golf club, throwing a football, carrying a cup of water, and, yes, Bill Buckner, catching an easy dribbler at first base). The reason this works is that once we’re focused on the task at hand, whistling requires just enough additional attention to leave none left over for overthinking.

One word of caution: while you might find whistling incredibly useful in certain situations, those around you might not. So keep in mind you don’t have to perform a bird-calling aria to combat performance pressure; whistling softly is just as effective.

2. Mumbling to Yourself During an Exam Does Not Mean You’re Crazy

The most important thing we can do to avoid or minimize test anxiety is to prepare and study for the test as best we can and avoid procrastinating when doing so. The better prepared we are the less anxious we will feel on exam day. However, test anxiety can strike us even when we’re well prepared, hampering our ability to focus during exam time.

We therefore need to do two things: quell our anxiety and regain our focus. The first will require us to sacrifice a tiny bit of exam time to calm ourselves down. Even if we don’t realize it, anxiety can cause shallow breathing that limits the oxygen we take in and increases our sense of panic. To restore normal breathing and lower your panic you should put down your pen, look away from the exam, and focus on your breathing for one minute as you inhale and exhale to a count of three (count “in-two-three out-two-three” in your head while doing so). As you count, notice how the air feels filling your lungs and how it feels as you exhale. Roughly a minute should be sufficient to stabilize your breathing and take the edge off your anxiety.

Next, we need to redirect our attention back to the task at hand and we need to prevent our mind from worrying about how well or poorly we’re doing and the implications thereof. The best way to keep our focus on the specific steps required to answer the questions is by reasoning through them aloud (but quietly—a whispered mumble will do). By vocalizing the questions and reasoning aloud, we use just enough attentional resources to deprive the part of our brain that wants to focus on worrying.

3. Neutralize the Stereotype

When we’re reminded of negative stereotypes about our gender, race, ethnicity, or other group, it can trigger a subconscious worry about conforming to these stereotypes that can prevent us from giving our full attention to the task at hand. The best medicine in such situations is to neutralize such worries by affirming our self-worth.

In a series of recent studies, four hundred seventh graders in a socioeconomically diverse school were asked to choose a personal value (e.g., athletic ability, close friendships, or strong family ties) and write a brief essay about it at the start of the school year. Half the students were instructed to choose a value that mattered to them and write about why it mattered and how they expressed it, and half (as a control group) were told to choose a value that did not matter to them and write about why it might matter to someone else. The results were no less than astonishing. Students who wrote about values that mattered to them narrowed the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent and the effects lasted through the eighth grade (two years). A similar experiment was done with college women taking physics (women are chronically underrepresented in the hard sciences). Women who did the self-affirmation exercise did significantly better than their female counterparts who did not.

Of course, stereotype threat does not affect everyone, but the lower our confidence the more likely we are to become distracted by such concerns when reminders of them are present. If you feel you might be susceptible to such worries, take time before the exam to write a brief essay about an aspect of your character you value highly and about which you feel confident and proud. Doing so is a good investment, as it requires little time and it can make you more resilient to any irrelevant worries and anxieties a previous failure might trigger.

Dosage: Apply the treatment before and during situations in which you might experience performance pressure or anxiety or in which stereotype threat might come into play.

Effective for: Reducing performance pressure, test anxiety, stereotype threat, and risk of choking.

Secondary benefits: Minimizes damaged confidence and self-esteem and eases fear of failure.

When to Consult a Mental Health Professional

Treating the psychological wounds failure inflicts should bring you emotional relief, foster your future preparation and performance, and allow you to persist in making efforts toward your goals. However, if you’ve applied the treatments in this chapter and still struggle with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, shame, or depression, you should seek the help of a mental health professional. You should also seek professional help if these treatments have not helped you lower performance pressure or if you continue to fail at tasks at which you should be succeeding. Finally, if your mood and outlook have become so bleak and despondent that you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek immediate help from a mental health professional or go to your local emergency room.





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