Failures are not only disappointing and demoralizing, as they can also cause embarrassment, shame, anxiety, and fear. Some people feel so shameful about failing, they hide their failures from others, some develop test anxiety, performance anxiety, or other unconscious worries that can lead them to self-sabotage future efforts (read Ten Signs You Might Have a Fear of Failure here). Others feel such pressure to perform they are likely to choke in a crucial moment, increasing their embarrassment and shame, and deepening their performance anxiety.
Of course, such responses are not exactly in our control. No one wishes to feel humiliated or embarrassed by failure, we either feel shamed by it or we don’t. No one seeks to develop test anxiety or performance pressure, it’s simply something that happens to us after we fail. And certainly it’s hard to control unconscious worries such as a fear of failure as they operate outside our awareness and are typically expressed either by excuses to lower expectations (e.g., The professor doesn’t like me so I probably won’t do well) or unconscious efforts to self-handicap (e.g., I drank too much at the party last night so I wasn’t my best at the job interview).
Given the insidious ways failure can impact our mindset and behavior, how can we regain control after a meaningful failure and prevent these kinds of psychological ‘injuries’?
To conquer our embarrassment, anxieties, and fears, we have to do three things:
1. Gain awareness of our fears and feelings.
2. Remove the emotional sting attached to the failure.
3. Take control of our behavior and become empowered by doing so.
A great way to achieve all three of these goals is to harness the power of humor. Humor can ‘detoxify’ the sting of failure and turn a demoralizing and embarrassing event into an empowering one.
How Bill Buckner Turned a Historic Choke into Comedic Empowerment
Bill Buckner had a stellar career as a Major League baseball player, amassing over 2,700 hits, winning batting crowns and playing as an All Star. But he is remembered solely for the error he made when playing for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. Buckner was on first when a simple dribbler rolled by him, costing the Red Sox the game and eventually the World Series. Buckner spent the next 25 years getting heckled for his gaff wherever he went.
But in 2011, Buckner played himself on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode, Buckner is heckled on the streets of New York for failing to catch that crucial ball. Later on he approaches a burning building where a crowd has gathered, looking up at a mother who is forced to throw her baby into a firefighter net below. The baby hits the net and bounces high into the air just as Buckner passes by. The crowd of onlookers recognizes Buckner and collectively winces when they see the baby head in his direction—fearing he will choke and drop the baby. But Buckner redeems himself, makes the perfect catch, and gets wild applause from the crowd of onlookers. Buckner’s appearance on the show represented a real life example of someone who was able to laugh at his most painful failure and no doubt heal the psychological wounds it inflicted by doing so.
Stand-up comics frequently turn painful experiences of failure into comedic fodder and by doing do, they drastically reduce the pain their failure evokes. Comic Jim Short: “I’m 34 and I make $7,000 a year. I’m a loser! I was sad and depressed. And then I thought, [brightening] wait a minute, I’m not a loser. I’ve tried! I’m a failure.”
How to Turn Failure into Humor
By no means am I suggesting that all failures can or should be the subject of humor. But if you’re searching for a way to gain control and empowerment after a failure and it is appropriate to do so, humor can definitely do the trick. Although some people are more naturally funny than others, humor is a skill set that one can develop through practice. Here are some guidelines to get you started:
1. Define the failure in specific terms (e.g., “I flunked out of college,” “I failed another diet,” or “My marriage failed and I’m divorcing my second husband.”).
2. Craft a joke about it. Jokes require a set-up and a punch line. Your failure can be used as either. For example, if you wanted to use flunking out of college as a set-up line you need to come up with a good punch line (e.g., “I flunked out of college. My dad was furious. He accused me of majoring in failure. I said, then I guess I did really well! Maybe I can even join their honor society—Suma Cum Lousy!”).
If you wanted to use your failure as a punch line you need to come up with the right set-up, one that uses surprise or misdirection (e.g., “The partying and drinking at college is so out of control, it ruins people’s lives. But I found the best way to avoid all that—I flunked out. No shattered dreams for me!”)
3. To come up with your own joke complete the following exercise: First try using your failure as the set-up. Write it out in specific terms and then brainstorm 10 different punch lines. Next, try using the failure as your punch line, write it out in very specific terms and brainstorm 10 different set-ups that use surprise or misdirection to make the punch line funny. Choose the best three of each and try them out with a close friend. Tweak as you go till you hit on something that really works.
Feel free to share your best jokes in the comment section of this article!
Coming up with a good joke can take work, but using humor in this way is a form of taking control that can dissipate your unconscious anxieties, ease your performance pressure, and turn feelings of embarrassment or shame into ones of empowerment.
For more practical strategies for dealing with failure, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Join my mailing list and receive an exclusive gift: How to Recover from Rejection
Check out my talk @Google NYC: Emotional First Aid
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
For more mental health tips and articles, follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch
Teaser image by freedigitalphotos.net