Luke - "I can't believe it" Yoda - "That is why you fail"
When I’m working with athletes I often pontificate - something to the effect of, “we shouldn’t be repeatedly visualizing and practicing the skills on which we would score ourselves a 9/10. Instead, we should practice and fail, and fail repeatedly, at the ones where we score 4 or 5/10. Our struggles or weaknesses are where our potential lies, and our failures are where we learn”.
It’s the same in life.
How we behave when confronted with the emotions involved in failure and loss is probably one of the ways we can determine our level of skill on the spectrum of behaviours that indicate mental strength.
Why is it that some people adapt to challenges and thrive, and others shrink from challenges and devolve, failing to adapt based on experience? Part of the difference is purposeful action. The purposeful arrangement or our environment and lives so that we have the best opportunity to contact reinforcers that strengthen our resolve. These reinforcers can be people, places, things, or any actions or behaviours that contribute to the development of increased skills for coping, increased mental strength, and increased adaptability and success.
The trouble is that when we are in the grips of an emotional time taking those steps seems daunting, or even pointless, because it’s difficult to see past the emotions we are currently experiencing. “I'll never get better”, “I'll never succeed”, “I’ll never be happy”, are the common refrains of the devalued, abandoned, fearful, and emotionally traumatized.
Sometimes, in an effort at contentment, happiness, or success at home, in business, or in sport, we turn to outright denial of emotional turmoil as a means of coping. This seems rational; we don’t want to feel certain emotions so we protect ourselves and block them out as best we can through distraction and continue on, “one foot in front of the other”.
While this seems intuitive, and can be effective to a certain extent, protecting ourselves by avoiding sadness, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, shame, guilt, frustration, and anger, or any so called “negative emotion” does us a disservice. When you really think about it, there is no such thing as a “negative” emotion, only an emotion, which is a natural response to an environmental event. What occurred was negative, the experience of the emotion that followed was a natural response, not a negative one.
Emotions are part of being human. Where would we be if we didn’t feel these “negative” emotions? - the answer is that we’d either be very sick or dead.
All emotions are a part of life.
Attempting to avoid thoughts and emotions is an exercise in futility, avoiding thoughts and emotions can become the “elephant in our brain”, so to speak.
Let me give you an example of how this might work - DON’T think about chocolate cake.
I’m willing to bet my never once used guitar that you thought about chocolate cake. Trying to avoid thinking about things doesn’t work - It takes up cognitive energy, which can contribute to stress and anxiety and even more attempts at avoidance, creating a troublesome and sometimes endless circle of distress. *
Many people in helping professions such as psychologists, counsellors, and therapists will mention words like “processing” when it comes to emotions - I think we can safely say that processing emotions can be loosely defined as discussing an event that precipitated an emotion, the emotion itself and the effect is had on us, and then making a conscious commitment to change our behaviours, and consequently our thoughts over the course of time in an effort to accept and “reframe” the experience so as to make it part of our growth as a person.
Mindfulness is a fantastic tool to help us to confront emotions, and it is often used as part of the “processing”. In the case of processing traumatic events, it is used retroactively, after a trauma or failure or loss has been experienced, but it doesn’t have to be practiced retroactively. Mindfulness is a good proactive tool as well. It can help us to confront emotions and calm our bodies and minds, allowing us more room to work toward taking effective action to resolve our circumstances, adjust our environments, and promote effective behavioural change.
Accept, analyse, commit to effective behaviour change
The simple fact is that all of us reading this will feel the pain of failure, loss, or trauma many times throughout the course of our lives. Be it the sickness or death of a loved one, the heartbreak and humiliation of break-up or divorce, the stress of a job-loss, losing streak, slump, or financial burden, or just the daily pangs of embarrassment that can come from failing at work, or at home, or in social situations. These sorts of failures and traumas are inevitable, and we would be wise to learn to accept this fact, and use such times as an opportunity to honestly analyze what occurred, learn from it, adapt, and become mentally stronger and motivated to learn new skills.
Some say that “everything happens for a reason”, seemingly intending to communicate that certain things were supposed to happen to us, to set us on some alternative path. I don’t buy this "fate intervening" argument for a second. I believe that we can take effective action to change the circumstances in our lives and I’ll never be convinced that kids get cancer for a reason. What I do subscribe to is the idea or the end result of thinking this way. I think the natural end to believing that “everything happens for a reason” is acceptance of things that could otherwise be intolerable and contribute to paralysis of acton, fear of the unknown, and struggles with our adaptive behaviours and mental health. Confronting fear and failure and its associated emotions makes purposeful action with the risk of failure less aversive. In effect, practicing acceptance of fear desensitizes us to it, allowing us to freely, fully, and honestly practice for success in athletics, business, and relationships, and for our own personal contentment.
Fear of failure drives apathy, and robs us of our motivation to succeed.
“Willful acceptance” is a term used in mindfulness practice - the idea is to accept our experience right now, taking a moment to slow down and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and our emotions, too. Mindfulness is paying attention the moment you are living right now, on purpose. It’s also accepting that your mind will wander while you are attempting to pay attention, sometimes to troubling things. Again the idea is to notice that your mind has wandered and what you feel, and gently bring yourself back to your breathing or to whatever you are mindfully attending to. Maybe most importantly, for those struggling with confronting emotions, is to notice what you are feeling and to perceive it without judgement. The judgement is where the “negative”in “negative emotions” comes from.
Negative emotions don't exist
Natural emotions do. It is what we do with our emotions that matters. If we choose to remain stuck through avoiding confronting them they can become debilitating. Often times, we remain stuck because we are fearful of confronting emotions because of pain. It is difficult to accept that these painful emotions that we are experiencing are needed, or valid, or part of being alive and responding to our situations, However; when we refuse to confront our emotional pain, the problem is negative actions, not negative emotions.
By no means is this a simple task. If it was, therapists wouldn’t be all that necessary. Learning to accept emotions involved in trauma, loss, and failure, and to commit to new behaviours takes time, and it often takes work with a trusted professional, but that isn’t to say that we can’t take some steps right now to improve our mental strength.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a great way to start taking control of the way we feel and behave, and I’ve included a link to an easy example that takes 6 minutes to complete. There is also a great app called “headspace” that is a good mindfulness tool.
We can think about whatever we want, but what we can’t do is avoid thinking. Dr Seuss wrote a fantastic book that I often read to my kids, It’s titled - “Oh, the thinks you can think”, and it’s brilliant.
“You can think about Kitty O’Sullivan Krauss, in her big balloon swimming pool over her house”. - Dr. Seuss
As a mentor of mine often says - “Use your head for GOOD”.
below is the progressive muscle relaxation link - excuse the cheesy music and try it.
**For my behavioural colleagues who are undoubtedly cringing at the use of all these “mentalistic” terms… A radical behaviourists approach might explain trying not to think about our emotions as the result of avoidance conditioning based on past experiences, and the negative reinforcement involved in avoiding that which is aversive, as well as the potential punishing properties of confronting them.