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.