How to Fail and Lose Well Part 2

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We have been looking at how little we are taught about how to handle failure, disappointment and discouragement in our lives. In the previous blog post I gave my personal experience of this.

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There would appear to be no school curriculum, or learning syllabus, as far as I know, entitled ‘How to cope with Failure.’

Through most of my life I have feared failure, misunderstood failure and been unprepared for failure.

However, over time and coming to work as a psychiatrist I have come to realise that my experience is far from unique.

The extreme end of not coping with failure is suicide. Here is how the author Simon Sinek (who interestingly describes himself as an unshakeable optimist and whose TED talk Start with Why is the second most popular TED talk of all time) puts it in his book “Leaders Eat Last”. He is talking about my generation known as the ‘baby boomers’ (born approximately between 1946-1964) :

“Disappointed and disillusioned, baby boomers are killing themselves in greater numbers than ever before. According to a 2013 study by the Centres for Disease Control, suicide rates among Baby Boomers rose nearly 30% during the last decade, making suicide one of the leading causes of death in that age group, behind only cancer and heart disease. The biggest jump in suicides was among men in their fifties – this age group experienced a whopping 50% increase. With the increase of suicides among Boomers, more people die of suicide than from car accidents.
Unless we do something, my fear is that it is going to get worse. The problem is that in 20 to 30 years when our youngest generation grows up and takes charge of government and business, its members will have grown up using Facebook, prescription drugs or online support groups as their primary coping mechanisms rather than relying on real support groups: biological bonds of friendship and loving relationships. I predict we will see a rise in depression, prescription drug abuse, suicide and other anti-social behaviours.”

This is serious stuff!

If we can understand the steps that can lead to such a negative state of affairs we can do something about it. The good news is that we already do!

It has been shown that anticipating outcomes, be they positive or negative, leads to different chemical reactions in the brain. When we anticipate a good outcome then this leads to an increase in the chemical dopamine in the brain. Among other things, dopamine helps the brain to be awake and interested, which is very important in overall performance and functioning.

As we get older we get use to having a certain degree of control of our lives. Here is how the psychologist Henry Cloud puts it:

‘Your brain first learns it in infancy. When you are hungry or in distress, you cry, and something good happens: someone comes with comfort, dryness, and food. Your brain learns very quickly that there is an order, or a set of rules, to the world, as in: cry and you get food. Or more generally: Act and good things happen. Through millions of other moments, this pattern gets reinforced, and you develop a life in which you feel like you have “agency” and “efficiency”. Said another way, the logic is “If my life sucks for some reason, I can do something to make it better.”‘

The point Cloud makes is how well this works in life until we reach a point where we are in overwhelm or we find ourselves in a  situation where we are continuously affected negatively, and we have absolutely no control over the things that are affecting us.

When this happens over a prolonged period of time this can lead to the state of ‘learned helplessness’. Basically the brain shuts down and stops trying to find a way out of the situation you are in. How does that manifest? The psychologist Martin Seligman talks about the 3 Ps of thinking style that result and are a hallmark of depressive thinking:

Personal: what that means is that I take the one situation where I am not getting what I want and I explain it to myself in a  negative way with me at the centre. There is self-talk of self blame: ‘I am not cut out for this. I am no good at (you fill in the blank)’. The thinking is that I am bad in some way.

Pervasive: instead of seeing what is happening to me as a specific, isolated event, I generalise to the whole of my life. I lose perspective and can only see everything as bad and as a disastrous failure.

Permanent: rather than seeing the frustrating event as a single event in a single point in time, I perceive it as permanent. At its extreme I tell myself there is no hope and there is no reason to hope.

In the severest form this state of learned helplessness can lead to suicide. In the milder form it can lead to  a negative outlook and fear of making a mistake or just a bad attitude.

One important key out of this is the realisation that I have the power to choose (see post on The Importance of Right Attitude regarding Victor Frankl).

Important and vital tools include proactivity, resourcefulness and perseverance. (See also Lessons on Happiness from a 108 Year Old about Alice Herz Sommer who died recently at the age of 110).

I appreciate that this is only a start to what is a huge topic.

What are your experience of these 3 Ps?  What lessons have you learnt about failure and losing well? It would be great to have your thoughts and comments.


4 thoughts on “How to Fail and Lose Well Part 2”

  1. I have definitely been a victim of the 3 Ps in the past, but I didn’t know the 3 Ps existed!! When I learned about the 3 Ps, it definitely helped to reboot my thought processes whenever a negative thing happened to me. I have not gotten into a state of learned helpless, however, I have accepted that life will never be a straight smooth path, and if it was, life would be boring and meaningless, I am trying to trust God again to redeem negative things in the hope that He will bring good out of something bad. I recently started getting pain in my right hip to the point where I could not even run for 3 mins. I catastrophised big time ‘I’m going to get kicked out of the military, I won’t be able to work, what will I do if I can’t work… ‘ and so on. I also wrongly blamed God ‘why God? What do you have in store for me next? Can’t I have just one year without disaster????’ and so on. I went to the physio and it turns out that my trainers were the cause of the pain. I bought some new special running trainers for £70, worth every penny because I can now run 10k no problem. So I learned from this not to immediately go to the extreme worse case scenario and not to blame God!!

    1. Thank you Karl for being so honest in sharing your thoughts. It is so easy to fall into catastrophic thinking, but as we gain self-awareness we can begin to move forward. Your personal example very helpfully illustrates that.


    The mule fell into the farmer’s well. The farmer heard the mule ’braying’ .

    After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the mule, but decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth the trouble of saving.

    Instead, he called his neighbors together and told them what had happened…and enlisted them to help dig a new well and haul dirt to bury the old mule in the old well and put the mule out of his misery.

    Initially, the old mule was hysterical as the dirt fell on his back!

    But as the farmer and his neighbors continued
    shoveling and the dirt hit his back …
    a thought struck the old mule.

    It suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel
    load of dirt landed on his back…

    This he did, blow after blow.

    “Shake it off and step up…
    shake it off and step up…
    shake it off and step up!”

    The mule repeatedly encourage himself.

    No matter how painful the blows, or
    distressing the situation seemed the old mule
    fought “panic” and just kept right on

    You’re right!
    It wasn’t long before the old mule,
    battered and exhausted,

    What seemed like would bury him, actually blessed him…
    all because of the attitude and manner in which
    he handled his adversity.

    If we face our problems and respond to them positively, and refuse to give in to panic, refuse bitterness, or refuse self-pity…


    From Pastor Wade Huges Sr. sermon

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    This information is for educational purposes only, and is in no way intended to be personal medical advice. Please ask your physician about any health guidelines seen in this blog, as everyone is different in his or her medical needs.