An Olympic-Sized Lesson on Dealing with Disappointment

I don’t know about you, but I was practically glued to my TV in the evenings during the two weeks of the Olympic Games in London. I am fascinated by how skilled these athletes from all around the world have become through their hard work, focus, and determination. The competitors in every event are mesmerizing to watch, and even better, so many of them display inspiring positive attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to have a good attitude when you’re happy with your performance. But what about the athletes who didn’t perform as well as they had hoped to? For those of us in the United States, two specific occasions stood out as disappointments: First, when Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion, did not make the individual all-around in women’s gymnastics, and second, when McKayla Maroney did not receive the gold medal on the vault—an event she was practically “guaranteed” to win.

Now, I don’t want to talk about the details or outcomes of Wieber’s and Maroney’s performances. (I’m still beyond impressed by their skill, and I’m certainly not an expert on gymnastics!) Instead, watching their events got me thinking about how everyone—not just Olympic athletes—handles disappointment. While you’ll probably never compete for a gold medal on the international stage, you will find yourself facing failure, dissatisfaction, and regret at various points in your life. And how you choose to respond to those negative circumstances will set the tone for the way others see you, and most importantly, for your overall quality of life.

While many Olympians showed the world what it means to display grace in the face of defeat, I believe that most of us don’t show ourselves that much—if any—kindness when we fail or make a mistake. Instead, we tend to beat ourselves up mercilessly, even though this reaction is unhealthy and unhelpful. Here are my thoughts on how you can learn to be easier on yourself when you’re facing one of life’s failures.

*Get some perspective. Have you ever noticed that people have trouble putting mistakes into context? For instance, couch potatoes around the world have been focusing on what gymnasts haven’t done correctly: And while it’s true that some of them did “mess up,” as the media has highlighted, the bigger picture here is that these young men and women are incredible athletes. They are all at the very top of their field, and they have numerous incredible accomplishments to be proud of. So the next time you mess up, try to harness the power of perspective and force yourself to put your misstep into context. For example, you might ask, “Is the one slide I flubbed up on really what people will remember from my whole presentation?” Often, you’ll realize that what you’re upset about is a mere drop in the bucket, and that you have a lot more to take pride in.

*Put someone else in your shoes. Most people operate under a double standard they don’t even know exists: They treat others much more leniently than they do themselves. Think about it: If a good friend called you and was upset about being fired from an account at work, for instance, how would you react? You’d probably try to comfort her by reminding her of all of her other professional triumphs, and you’d also assure her that this was not the end of the world. But what if it were you being fired from that account? If you’re like many people, you’d berate yourself for being so inept, tell yourself that you were worthless, and become convinced that everything would go downhill from here. Remember this double standard the next time you’re disappointed in yourself. Take a moment and think about how you’d react to a friend in the same situation. Then try to extend the same grace to yourself. Remember, it’s vital to engage in positive, not negative, self-talk because you are with yourself 24/7. The voice and opinion you hear most often is your own, and what you tell yourself can make or break the quality of your life.

*Make a list of your successes. Most of us do at least one hundred things right for every one thing we do wrong. But because we tend to focus on these failures, we magnify them in our own minds and reinforce to ourselves just how “subpar” we think we are. From now on, try to “catch” yourself when you start to dwell on a mistake. Then, force yourself to name at least five things you did today that were good. The things on this list could be as simple as, “I told my wife and kids I loved them before I left for work,” or as big as, “My boss said I did a great job getting everybody on the same page at the meeting today.” The point is to get yourself out of that dangerous I-can’t-do-anything-right rut.

*Surround yourself with cheerleaders. The words you tell yourself are important, but what you hear from other people can also make or break your attempts to handle failures in a positive manner. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with a team of personal “cheerleaders” who build you up and encourage you. As I’ve said many times before, studies show that you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with in terms of your attitude and outlook. Gravitate toward friends who build you up instead of pointing out what you did wrong or telling you why you’re not good enough. I know from the Olympic coverage that this was one of the women’s gymnastics team’s greatest strengths: Both the athletes and the coaches built the whole team up. I saw no evidence of blame or “how-could-yous”—only support and encouragement.

*Remind yourself that you’re normal. We live in a culture that revolves around success, achievement, and making it to the next rung of the ladder. In the midst of such obsession with perfection, it may come as a shock to realize that failure, at least some of the time, is normal and inevitable! Believe it or not, we are all human, and thus fallible. Until you give yourself permission to break free of the cycle of self-blame and negativity that causes you to be stuck demanding perfection from yourself in every situation, you’ll never have a chance to be a truly relaxed, content, and happy person. Mistakes are a fact of life, and you have about as much chance of avoiding them as you do of being able to stop breathing. Don’t let that fact depress you; instead, let it free you up to do more and dare more!

*Learn from the mistake and move on. This is easy to say but harder to do. It’s natural to go through a period of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and even grief after failing to realize a goal or dream. But eventually, for the sake of your health, your outlook, and your future, you have to find a way to forgive yourself and move forward. Force yourself to confront the fact that nothing you do—replaying events, berating yourself, or playing the “what-if” game—will change the past. But no matter what mistakes might lie behind you, you have the complete power to shape a more positive and productive future. Look at what went wrong, and see if you can find a way to improve your performance while avoiding the mistake next time. As I’m sure Olympic athletes are taught to do, channel your energy into shaping the future instead of lamenting the past.

*Celebrate whenever you can. Make a habit of noticing and celebrating your successes. Sure, go out for a nice dinner when you get a promotion—but also, allow yourself a few moments to stop and savor the fact that you cooked a delicious dinner, or that you ran further than ever before on the treadmill. If you look at your self-esteem and self-confidence as a bank account, this is a great way to make deposits. And the next time you do mess up, you’ll be less likely to think you’re the most inept person on the planet.

*Fake it ’til you make it. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge and process all of your emotions. I’m not suggesting that you ignore any negative feelings that bubble up after a failure or disappointment. What I do recommend is trying to react to setbacks with dignity, composure, and even optimism for the future—even if you’re tempted to lash out or vent your frustrations. I promise, when you choose to react to mistakes in a healthy way, you’ll speed up the healing process for yourself. I always remember UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s admonition that no one should be able to tell after a game whether you won or lost from your mannerisms, and I definitely think his advice was right on the money. Strive to become not only a better loser, but also a better winner. Both are characterized by humility, empathy, and the knowledge that no one is perfect.

Overall, I’d like to see Americans not only learn to be easier on themselves, but to change their perspectives on winning in general. It saddens me that the lion’s share of Olympic accolades is reserved only for the gold medal winners, while the silver and bronze recipients typically receive very little coverage. Worst of all, fourth, fifth, etc. finishes are portrayed as losses. Again, let’s step back for a little perspective: That’s fourth or fifth place in the whole world—a tremendous accomplishment!

Ultimately, for so many reasons, we all need to prioritize being easier on ourselves. We’re all human, we’re all unique, and we all have so many things to be proud of. Oh, and one more thing: If you’re thinking that it’s just too difficult to change the way you think and react, and that you don’t want to put in the effort it will take to be easier on yourself, remember this: Your children will grow up to be like you. They will develop their attitudes and outlooks based on yours. So if you won’t change how you treat yourself for your own sake, do it for your kids…and for their kids after them.