Returning to school and taking on the grind of academics, athletics and other pressures may arouse excitement as well as anxieties about how the year will go. You may be imagining how successful will you be, and will you do as well as you hope. Optimism is part of starting something new. It’s easy to be hopeful and confident before our mettle is tested. Sooner or later, when you challenge yourself you will likely bump up against an obstacle or face a set-back. In time, the reality of the demands you’ve taken on may unearth insecurities about how successful you will be. Dread and anxiety may be signs of deeper insecurities about achievement and self-worth. Some people seem self-confident, but sometimes it’s a show of confidence that belies a buried sense of unworthiness.
Everyone occasionally falls short, makes mistakes, misses the goal and fails. When you put too much pressure on yourself to always do well and the inevitable disappointment happens you may go through a series of emotions. The first feeling, often disappointment, can be about yourself, the situation, or others. What happens next tells the story of how you view yourself when you fall short.
Needing things to go well – Self-esteem hangs in the balance
If you are the type of person who needs things to turn out as expected, disappointment can lead to fear of failure. Your self-worth may be so tied up with performance that failing is intolerable; it diminishes your self-esteem. There are a few ways people deal with the unease of having things go wrong. Often they quickly, almost imperceptibly, minimize or rationalize to deal with their disappointment, especially if they tend to internalize feelings and blame themselves. People frequently say things like, “that test was a joke,” “those weekly quizzes are no big deal,” and “I don’t like that class anyway.” These are ways to minimize the importance of the event for you, and thus attempt to reduce the disappointing feelings of a poor performance. It averts having negative feelings about yourself and your choices. Facing these feelings is the first step to making the changes needed to get back on track.
Another common way of dealing with a disappointing outcome is to blame others or the situation and to feel anger about it. That way, the problem lies, not in you, but in some factor outside yourself. This is known as externalizing. While anger or frustration is a natural outcome of something happening that disappointed you, it’s worth remembering that this is a secondary emotion. The first, or underlying emotion is your disappointment. Externalizing the feeling by blaming others (“the ref sucks,” “nobody told me there was a study group,” “that teacher is horrible”) does nothing to help you deal with the fact that the outcome was not what you worked for, hoped for or wanted. A knee-jerk reaction is to look externally for reasons for failure is a self-protective mechanism, but in the end it is ineffective.
An especially toxic method of dealing with your feelings about having failed is to hide. People hide by avoiding others, dropping out or quitting, through distractions and even lying. This is not a moral issue, but it is a self-sabotaging defense strategy. When you are at the end of your rope and you just don’t know how to get where you’re going, escape may seem like the only outlet. Unfortunately, people who are highly self-critical cannot escape their internal intolerance of making mistakes. They may makes jokes (minimize) or excuses (rationalize), but inside, they are beating themselves up. If you are the type of person who is highly self-critical, you may be vulnerable to taking on an attitude of bravado, or false-pride. These attitudes are psychological compensations that may temporarily take away the sting of disappointment, but do nothing for the underlying issue that you can’t tolerate missing the mark, making a mistake or falling short.
Here are some ways to deal with your harsh inner critic
Begin by noticing your reactions to perceived failures. Are you a minimizer, a rationalizer or a blamer? It will take a few times before you catch your automatic thoughts. These behaviors and thoughts can be your “red flags” for possible self-esteem issues and deeper insecurities.
After you notice your thought patterns and can identify, in real time, when you are reacting to disappointments in unproductive ways, it’s time to begin an inner dialogue. Think about the disappointing event (a low grade, a bad game, a missed shot) and identify the feeling that applies:
- disappointment (a healthy recognition that you didn’t meet your goal)
- fear (this is a mark of anxiety)
- anger (probably a reaction to either disappointment or fear)
If you are sitting in disappointment, think about what you can do differently next time. Don’t hide, don’t distract yourself with social media, find a solution.
If you are stuck in worry or fear – for example that you’ll be cut from the team or that there is nothing you can do about a poor grade – go talk to that person for a reality check. Is it as bad as you imagine? Most likely not, but if it is, she or he will help you get back on track.
If you are embroiled in anger, ask yourself, what is making me mad? The answer often points to fears of underachievement and frustrations with what it takes to get where you want. Remind yourself that some goals are difficult and that you have the ability to get there, even if you need help.
Don’t run away from the situation. Ignoring a problem is never a solution. Hoping things will be different without doing anything different is not a strategy. Confidence only builds when you discover that you can affect the outcome you want and can roll with inevitable delays or detours.