When Nava failed the bar exam for lawyers she was devastated. Trying to delay telling her friends and family the bad news she did what she often did to pass the time: She pulled out her phone and surfed through friends' and Instagram feeds. She hoped seeing some of the inspirational messages her friends tended to post would cheer her up. But the more time Nava spent looking through her friends’ posts the worse her mood became. And then something happened that happens to many of us: She began to feel bad about the fact that she was feeling bad.
Turning Failure into Fuel for Success
The question is, why did seeing friends’ Facebook and Instagram posts, many of which were inspirational and supportive in nature, make Nava feel worse about her failure? Should they not have made her feel more hopeful and optimistic?
A new study published in the journal Emotion looked into the impact our "culture of happiness" has on how we react to failure experiences. In the first of two experiments, three groups of participants were asked to complete an anagram task (in which you have to unscramble letters to create words). In two of three groups the anagram task was impossible to complete, leading to a failure experience. In the first failure group, subjects were seated in a "happiness" room full of happiness, motivational, and well-being posters, books, and sticky notes. In the second failure group, subjects sat in a neutral environment. The third group had doable anagrams and sat in the "happiness" room.
"If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?" - Milton Berle
All subjects were then given a series of measures including one for rumination. Subjects who failed the anagrams and sat in the happiness room ruminated significantly more about their failure than subjects in the neutral room who failed the task. The subjects who failed in the happiness room also experienced greater negative emotion as a result of their ruminating.
A second correlational study corroborated these findings and found that the more people believed their culture expected them not to experience negative feelings, the worse their emotional well-being was, and the more likely they were to ruminate about negative experiences in their own lives.
The researchers concluded that the greater emphasis a culture places on happiness, and the greater the societal pressure is to not experience negative emotions, the more poorly and less adaptively we might react to negative emotions when we have them, about failure and in general.
How to Apply these Findings
Treating the emotional wounds failure creates requires a two step process. In the first, we should always give ourselves time and space to experience negative emotions when we have them, especially when we’re dealing with a failure experience. This also means we should validate the distressed and negative feelings our friends and loved ones have when they experience failures or rejections. However , since our goal is to bounce back emotionally, we need to limit the time we give ourselves to feel bad so we can pivot to emotional recovery. The idea is to give ourselves (or our loved ones) enough time to acknowledge and validate the negative feelings we have but not enough time to wallow in them or allow them to become fodder for ruminative thoughts.
Positive, or authoritative, parents value mutual respect and being a good listener.
When our negative feelings are not validated by others, or when, like Nava and the participants in the study, we see around us messages that imply it is wrong or incorrect to have negative feelings, we are likely to experience the double whammy of feeling bad about the failure and then feeling bad about ourselves for feeling bad.
Therefore, we should give ourselves time to feel bad, seek out emotional validation for our distressed feelings (e.g., our disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness) so we do not 'feel bad about feeling bad’, and then pivot to emotional recovery sooner and more effectively. (For the "how," see Why You Should Investigate Your Failures like a Detective.)