Robin Stern Ph.D.

Power in Relationships

Hold Onto Your Power

How can you stay self-confident when faced with failure?

Posted Apr 12, 2009

My blog topic is "power in relationships"—a topic I chose because I come across stories every day. I just had to write about this one. A young woman came into my office this past week- she is a student at an Ivy League university—let's call her Lia. Lia has an abiding love of learning, a terrific work ethic and the grades to show for it. She is accustomed to getting great feedback from professors, and, is often singled out for her achievements in class.

Why am I about to tell her story? Lia is now seeking treatment because she no longer feels sure of her intelligence...or herself.

She told me that she thought she knew she was smart—her hard work and the resulting GPA was something she took great pride in, and, in fact, took for granted. But after receiving a failing grade on her global history midterm, she no longer thinks so.

Before the exam LIa completed all required homework assignments flawlessly and was a leader in class discussion sections. But, for some reason, she received an F on the test. Needless to say, given her academic background, she was devastated to even SEE such a grade on her paper. but, more to the point here, she began to second-guess her intelligence, her study habits, and her ability to negotiate her education. Overnight, Lia's global history professor seemingly had the power to cause her to question how she defines herself in college.

Instead of thinking of herself as an A student, how can Lia now think of herself? As a failing student? And, to make matters worse, this professor who had the power to leave her second-guessing her competence in college, also, had the power to seriously impact her GPA forever. WOW.

She told me that she doesn't know why she failed the test. She could search for reasons: although she studied hard, the material on the exam seemed completely unfamiliar and the test was structured unlike any she had previously taken in all her years of school.

But, regardless, why should any one grade or any one person have the power to undermine the way she defines herself? And, for Lia and all the other Lias staring at unexpected bad grades, a less than optimal evaluation, or a genuine slip can one event pull the proverbial rug out from under your self-confidence?

How can you possibly go from thinking of yourself as an A student, to an F student just because of one mess-up? And, more importantly, how do you allow someone else or something else, to suddenly take over how you define yourself? How do you give over your power?

It is critical for each of us to keep our own counsel, to keep the power to define ourselves. We need to spend enough time with ourselves, so that we know who we are —to recognize our authentic voice, our strengths and challenges. Of course, we need feedback from others along the way - but, that feedback is only data to sift through and take away the nuggets of information most helpful for us. We do have the power to define ourselves—we must be careful not to give it away.

The story about Lia, has a happy ending on two counts. One: after much thought and self-stoking! Lia spoke to her professor, and, in consideration of her past performance, he was willing to erase her failing grade (kudos to him!) Two: Lia realized that she is not as secure as she thought, in her self-definition, and now she is committed to taking her power back, and, working towards being the only one who can define who she is!

Thanks for reading and have a great day!