• Louise Carnachan

Strategies When Things Go Wrong

The Olympic Games are about as high pressure as you get for an athlete or a team.You’d think a silver medalist would be happier with their win than the bronze medalist, right? Nope. Psychologists who have studied happiness ratings of elite athletes (as well as their facial expressions on the medal platform) attribute this surprising result to a psychological principle we can apply in our daily lives.

The analysis goes like this: the silver medalist knows how close they got to winning the gold so they’re unhappy; the bronze medalist knows how close they were to losing, so they’re delighted to get third (and not fourth) place. After all, they medaled.

When you compare yourself unfavorably to an outcome, your “I should have done better” self-talk is what is called upward counterfactual thinking. When you compare yourself to those who didn’t do as well as you did, the self-talk is, “Wow, I was lucky! It could have been a lot worse.” This is called downward counterfactual thinking. It helps us see the silver (or bronze) lining in a disappointing outcome.

Years ago, I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Suzanne Kobasa who wanted to understand why some people were more resilient in the face of difficulty. The study focused on those who thrived during mass layoffs versus those who became despondent. Her conclusions about what the “hardy personality” possessed to help them weather personal storms is what she calls the three C’s: control, commitment, and challenge.

Control is about having a sense of dominion in one’s life as opposed to feeling at the mercy of fate. Commitment means having a perspective larger than oneself. This is a broader view of life can be found, for example, through spiritually, the natural world or a cause. The third item, challenge, is the ability to perceive a setback as something to overcome and not a catastrophe.

If you weren’t graced with a personality wired to the three Cs point of view, Kobasa offers tools. The first is called focusing and it refers to identifying what’s uncomfortable in your body so you can intervene early and avert problematic pain. The next she labels “compensation through mastery.” For example, if you feel you don’t have control in your work situation perhaps there’s a hobby or volunteer position over which you can exert authority (even if it’s only with yourself). Her last recommendation is to ask yourself, “What could have gone worse?” which brings us back to the concept of downward counterfactual thinking.

Frankly, that question has helped me through any number of lousy events. My fallback response is, “I didn’t faint and no one died.” Fortunately, to date both have remained true. If you haven’t used this practice before, keep it in the back of your mind for the next difficult day/week/month.

As humans, we experience an array of emotions from exultation to profound sorrow. Disappointment that shakes you (whether as a result of your own hand or that of another) is something we all face. Should this apply to you in the future, I encourage you to borrow Kobasa’s advice on hardiness. And remind yourself of the bronze medalist mantra: it could’ve been a lot worse.

Many thanks to my friend and former colleague, Lee Strucker for another one of his wonderful cartoons.

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