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A Psychologist Shares a Lesson in Losing Yourself After Failure

How to stop a shame spiral in its tracks

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When I was 14, I started my first year at a competitive, private high school. Until then, I had been a big fish in a small, community school where I excelled academically. I transferred to this new school without knowing anyone, and understanding that my family was extending themselves financially to support me. In the midst of so much change, I believed I could rely on the fact that I was smart and would be successful.

It didn’t take me long to realize I was no longer a big fish. Classes were acutely more difficult and most of my classmates had been learning at this level since kindergarten. On my very first test, biology, I got a D. As I write this, I can feel my shoulders starting to reflexively cringe. I remember holding my test, and experiencing heat spread across my face and a dark black clenching over my heart. This was my first palpable experience of shame.

The failures continued that year as I struggled academically and shame came to reign supreme. With each test, teacher meeting or report card I felt smaller and smaller, less and less okay. I remember wanting so strongly to hide myself and be out of my own skin. I felt more isolated, lost and disconnected than ever. This made it easier to make other decisions that weren’t consistent with my true sense of self.

I used to look back on this period as a really dark time. However, it took me many years to realize that it was shame that made it dark, not failure. It was shame that cut me off from empathy and self-compassion, kept me out of touch with my values and left me feeling empty. Because I felt unworthy as a person, it was easier to give up on myself in other ways.   

Research indicates that individuals who fear failure are also more likely to be sensitive to shame. When these people make mistakes or hit speedbumps, they will respond with a holistic devaluation of themselves (“I’m a loser”) rather than focusing on opportunities for growth (“I would do this differently next time”).

We know that failure has the potential to enhance empathy, vulnerability and connection with others. It can ignite grit, creativity and resilience. There are countless stories about great successes, personal and professional, being by sparked by a failure. Shame keeps us barricaded from all of this.   

My early experience with failure eventually taught me that failure isn’t enemy number one, shame is.

Below are some common ways that retreating to shame after failure can keep you stuck:

Isolation: Every emotion is connected to an action response. When we feel shame, we often feel the urge to retreat or hide. We keep secrets, from others and ourselves. Unfortunately, withdrawing keeps us isolated, cuts us off from emotional support and gives shame a perfect place to thrive.

Snowball Effect: One of the biggest problems with shame is that it grows with time. Each day that we hold on to a shameful secret, it reinforces to us that there is something so terrible about ourselves that it cannot be shared. Opening up becomes harder and harder as the shame-monster grows.  

Less open to taking risks: Research has demonstrated that when we feel shame after a failure, we’re less likely to try the task again. It’s not so much another failure that we want to avoid, but the risk of feeling shame again following a failure.  Shame is an incredibly painful emotion that most of us would pay good money to erase forever. It make sense that we would stop taking risks that could potentially expose us to shame.

So what do we do to prevent a shame-spiral after a failure?

Tell someone…immediately. The antidote to shame is connection. Choosing a safe person to let in when we feel shame is like pouring water on the wicket witch of the west. Shame cannot survive when we are connected to others.  Plus, we have the chance to receive support and feel less alone.

Treat yourself the way you would a child or a dear friend. We are generally way more harsh to ourselves than we are to others. When you find yourself flirting with shame, bring an image to mind of someone you love purely and unconditionally (can even be a pet). How would you speak to them if they came to you and told you they had failed? How would you feel toward them? Even if it seems unnatural, try to internalize some of that sentiment for yourself.

Get back on the horse, as soon as you can. One of my deepest sources of sadness is that when I experienced shame in the face of my first significant failure, I gave up on myself. The emotional experience seemed too overwhelming to risk feeling it again. School had always been my haven. Yet I convinced myself I didn’t care about grades enough to try so that I could spare myself an emotion.

The consequences of those early grades are hard to quantify at this point. Things found a way of working out. It wasn’t the first failure of mine and definitely won’t be the last. The time I spent living in shame and disconnected from myself is a true loss. The good news is that awareness brings a certainty that it will never happen again.

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