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Why You Need to Cry Over Spilt Milk

Getting emotional about failure can improve your next performance.

Focus Pocus LTD / AdobeStock
Source: Focus Pocus LTD / AdobeStock

Kai and Mia decide to run their first marathon together.

They buy new shoes and start running every weekend.

Four months later, on the day of the race, they feel nervous but excited.

The gun goes off and they start running.

They pace themselves, knowing this will be the first time they’ve ever run 26.2 miles.

By the 10-mile mark, they’re both exhausted.

At 15 miles, they’re in pain.

By the 20-mile mark, Kai's feet are bleeding and Mia is limping from a pain in her hip.

Reluctantly, they agree to bail on the race without finishing.

Afterwards, Kai thinks about the reasons why they didn't manage to go all the way.

For example, it hadn’t been raining when they trained, but it was raining on race day, which made their footing less certain. It took more energy to stay balanced while moving forward.

However, Kai reasons, they did complete a half-marathon their very first time out. That’s an accomplishment in itself, as far as Kai's concerned.

Mia, on the other hand, feels crummy about not crossing the finish line. She’s full of disappointment and regret. Instead of rationalizing, she mopes around, feeling rotten about failing to meet her goal.

Research shows that if the two sign up for another marathon, Mia is more likely to succeed the second time than Kai.

No Pain, No Gain?

Researchers in a recent study concluded that our thoughts after a failure usually serve to justify the failure, and so aren’t likely to lead to self-improvement.

To let ourselves feel, rather than merely think about failure, is to open ourselves up to a painful experience. And therein lies the benefit.

Emotional pain inspires us to learn from our mistakes. We’re more likely to try harder next time, to avoid experiencing the emotional sting of failure.

Disappointed Mia is the one who will readily learn from mistakes made in training, and put in more effort to cross the finish line next time.

Kai’s thinking about the race instead of feeling about it shields him from both emotional pain and the opportunity for self-improvement.

The Courage to Feel

In terms of constructive wallowing, it's no surprise that Mia will make greater strides (no pun intended) in the long run (same).

It’s the hard task of acceptance, rather than denial or avoidance, of painful feelings that leads to personal growth.

Since making mistakes and failing at tasks are a normal part of life, anyone reading these words will probably soon get a chance to take this information for a spin.

The next time you try something and fail, consciously let yourself feel bad about it.

As usual, when constructively wallowing in emotions, try to name the feeling(s) you’re having.

Here are a few examples of feelings that might come up with failure:

Remind yourself of those difficult post-failure moments that feeling bad about failing sets you up for success—but only if you truly feel, and don’t just think.

So go ahead and wallow. It’s good for your performance.


Noelle Nelson, Selin A. Malkoc, Baba Shiv. Emotions Know Best: The Advantage of Emotional versus Cognitive Responses to Failure. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/bdm.2042

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