Don’t Be Afraid of Your Emotions After Failure

We’re taught that getting upset after failing won’t do anything but prevent us from getting back up and trying again. But feeling your feelings after failure could actually be one of the best ways to do better next time.

failure rewire pbsNew research that involves shopping online for blenders offers a lesson in resilience—remaining emotionally detached after a stumble isn’t as effective for moving forward as experiencing your emotions is. In situations of failure, our emotions are more powerful than our thoughts when it comes to getting it right the next time.

The power of emotions

Researchers from the University of Kansas, Ohio State University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business tested this by asking participants to shop for blenders online. The shoppers were asked to find the cheapest blender they could. But after they had found it, they were all told that they had failed—the cheapest blender on the internet actually cost $3.27 less than the one they found (in other words, the blender hunt was rigged).

failure rewire pbsBefore they learned they had failed to find the cheapest blender on the internet, the participants were asked to focus on either their thoughts—like their rationalizations for getting it wrong—or their emotions when they found out their results.

The ones who focused on their emotional responses worked harder to get it right during the next task than the ones who focused on their rational thoughts.

At first blush, that’s kind of counterintuitive. But once you think about it—rationalizing your failure is almost like telling yourself you did nothing wrong and don’t need to change your approach the second time around.

“I do think people will be surprised that allowing themselves to feel bad about a failure can improve performance more than thinking about that failure in some instances,” said lead researcher Noelle Nelson, assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior in the KU School of Business, to the university. “The kinds of thoughts—like rationalizing a failure—people tend to come up with are sometimes counterproductive.”

Allowing yourself to feel bad after a let down will help you make better decisions when in similar situations in the future, the research suggests.

Not just for the workplace

This way of approaching failure doesn’t apply only to work situations. Taking time to process your emotions after any kind of stumble—in your love life, with family or in school, for example—can ironically make you smarter the next go-round. So while it might feel more comfortable to squish down bad feelings and simply move on, it might not be the most productive way to pick yourself up and try again.

The researchers believe their finding can easily be used as a self-motivation technique.

“A natural tendency after failure is sometimes to suppress emotions and cognitively rationalize the failure, but if people know the possible negative effects of that behavior, they can override that natural tendency and focus on the negative feelings,” Nelson said. “That should lead to learning and future decision-making that is more positive.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.