An entry written on early Friday morning, from 4am to 5am, on bed, using my faithful mobile phone.
Lying awake at 3.58am makes me realise something that I have always known since years ago, yet I’ve failed to be aware of it. I have a very low coping mechanism.
In Psychology, the great Professor William James, one of the Einsteins of social science created this principle: humans will always experience failure, yet if you want to feel better about yourself, guess what? Lower your expectation. Shift your expectation location mentally.
Nearly my whole life I do that. I’m lowering my expectation because I’m afraid of the amount of disappointment and hurt that I will get if I fail.
In my early high school years, I believe that many of my peers hated me. I was always a good student, in terms of getting good grades. Yet I failed to get good grades occasionally, and my coping mechanism kicked in. “I don’t want to feel the disappointment. I don’t want to fail.” So I did what I knew best: I lowered my expectation.
Yet I was not proud of it. Why? Because it was a devastating blow for some of my friends. I lowered my expectation by answering that I didn’t put much effort into my studies, and I actually really meant it because I felt like I never finished studying for a subject. Yet compared to some of them, I received good grades with not much studying while they studied much harder than me, but they were unable to get good grades.
Psychology believes that humans will always be striving to fulfill their own goals, and along the way there will be some successes and failures. So the great Professor Higgins come up with the regulatory focus theory. Basically, it’s telling us that there are two types of how people cope with success and failures: by promotion focus or prevention focus.
Most Westerners are promotion-focus – they are striving for a goal in a sense of attaining a positive outcome (i.e. I want to get good grades in my exams, I’ll study hard). While most Asians, including me, we are the prevention focus – we are striving for a goal in a sense of preventing negative outcome (i.e. I don’t want to fail in the test, so I study hard). Promotion focus people are the ones who take risk, and make changes in the world. They experience happiness greater, but if they fall, they fall further as well. Prevention focus people, we are the ones who want to maintain our current state, while improving little by little. We are scared of moving towards the unknown future, scared of falling down, so we are not dare enough to take the risk – we can’t imagine the possibility of falling even further than this.
Promotion focus people take it hard if they aren’t able to do something positive. Prevention focus people take it hard if they are making mistakes.
The first time I got 40/100 for my test, I cried and called my sister. I was in year 12.
I consoled myself by saying that, “It’s the hardest subject in high school, it has the same level as the one in university,” but it still poisoned my mind day and night. I found out later that 40 was actually one of the best scores in class, but I have taken the fall hard enough – it haunted me for weeks. It was Mathematics Extension 2 subject, in the test about complex number. It’s funny to see how you are still able to remember these small details.
And what would you do to make yourself feel good then? Reciting the success that we have done. Don’t we all do that? This self-enhancing method exists in Psychology, it’s human science.
And despite having gone through failures countless times, I still have not developed resistance towards failure. I can’t be the Thomas Alpha Edison who tried a thousand times to make a light bulb work. I am not Walt Disney who makes people’s dreams come true. I’m just a girl trying to live my life, preventing any failures whatsoever and trying to walk very slowly towards my desired state of self.
The fact that I’m still unable to sleep at 4.30am and writing about this instead shows how bad I am in dealing with stress.
My assignments were returned, and the results were not that good. This is kinda ironic because I’m the writer who talks about “How important are grades to you” towards the other extreme. I’m not saying they are bad, they are just not as good as I expected. Coping mechanism #1 ala Professor James kicked in: you did not put much effort anyway so it’s alright, do better next time. But my heart whispered, “You have spent weeks of researching, drafting, editing, and doing your best to make sure you’d get a decent grade, but why wouldn’t you?” And again my brain tried to fight back: I did my best; the only thing that I can do are to do better next time, and not to make the same mistake. Yet my little heart whispered again, “What if your best isn’t good enough?”
I went to work and I was placed outside my comfort zone. “This is not my place. I don’t have any control here.” I felt so tired, and kept on making mistakes (now that I think of it, I only made several mistakes, but this is the live demonstration on how prevention focus people had a devastating blow after doing mistakes). I even said to myself, “Maybe you don’t have any talents working there, it’s just a waste of time and energy.” Whoaa, wait a minute girl, your treacherous mind is playing with your soul!
The take home message, if any, is studying more Psychology (joke, joke), will be knowing your own coping mechanism level and try to make it stronger. I have never experienced fatal failures or negative situations of any kind (except for those with normal childhood): no poverty, no sickness, no death of a loved person, no bullying, nor even peer pressure. In some sense, it makes me weak. Failures are necessary in order to move ahead, I know. But if someone invented a shortcut to success without failure I would gladly take it. Too bad there’s none, and I’m still determined to be successful.
So failure, next time you knock on my door, let’s go inside and have a cup of tea while chatting about how you like to poison humans’ minds.