Sometimes we win, but lose. Sometimes we lose, but win. Then there are sometimes we win but think we lose and feel like poop. Here’s how to calm down when you know you could have done better.
Three Olympians stand on the podium, wearing their new medals. Between the silver and bronze medalist, who do you think is happier?
If your answer is bronze, you’d be correct. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers investigated levels of satisfaction of gold, silver and bronze medalists. One might think that level of satisfaction would mirror the pecking order of winnings. But the athlete’sir thoughts proved otherwise.
The difference between a gold and silver medalist in athletics is significant
Silver medalists are more likely to think about being one step away from gold. Bronze medalists, on the other hand, are one step away from fourth place, no-medal land, so they’re happier. Researchers studied videotapes of athletes, analysing the facial expressions and body language of second and third place winners immediately after the race, and again on the medal stand. Bronze medalists were consistently visibly happier.
The person worse off is happier than the one better off
Researchers also analysed interviews with the athletes after the race. Silver medalist’s language focused on the gold “I almost won” while bronze medalists concluded “at least I did this well”. So the person objectively worse off, the bronze medalist, feels more grateful than the person objectively better off.
How we make up alternative facts all the time
Psychologists call this way of thinking – ruminating on alternative versions of past events, considering whether it could have been better or worse – counterfactual thinking. In other words, alternative facts. We know what that means – fiction! These fictional thoughts produce consequences that are either good or bad for the thinker.
There are two types of alternative fact ways of thinking
Upward: “If I’d paid attention to the dash, I could have pulled into the petrol station one mile ago, instead of having to walk for 30 minutes” or “if I’d asked for more instead of discounting my service I could have made more profit”. Thinking about how things could have been better off makes you feel worse.
Upward thinking can also motivate you to improve future performance, but be careful with this; there’s a fine line between a stick and kicking yourself when you’re down. One side can be motivating the other is debilitating. If you’ve gone too far and ruminating on what you should have done has snatched away your confidence, use the other type of thinking to help lift you up – downward thinking.
Downward: “At least I didn’t run out of petrol on the motorway” or “at least I didn’t forget to ask for the business, which is what usually happens”. Things could have been worse. This type of thinking provides you comfort in the face of perceived shortcomings. It’s what the bronze medalist does.
Impact on your well-being and performance
If you’re hard on yourself with upward thoughts like “I can’t believe I didn’t say that or do xyz”, you might depress your mood and paralyse your productivity. Do you think your clients and prospects enjoy the company of depressed and un-motivated people? I think not. Wouldn’t it be more useful if you felt better so you can get on with more pressing tasks? This is how downward thinking – what bad thing might have happened but thank goodness it didn’t – can help lift you up.
Downward thinking won’t magically bump you up from bronze to silver medal or make the client ask for a rate increase, but you’ll feel better in that moment. Then you’ll make the next best move. And later, when you’re not feeling so vulnerable, you can resolve to practise more or brainstorm how to improve next time.When you feel better, you're poised to make the next best move Click To Tweet
In August of last year, I was exchanging emails with a colleague, asking how his summer was going. He replied, “Trying to enjoy the summer in between these periods of bad weather! Got soaked on Wednesday, couldn’t believe it’s August!” The funny thing is, at the time of sending, the sky was blue, with brushstrokes of clouds. It was t-shirt weather. On a day like that his riverfront office is divine, yet all he could think of was the past, which was making him miserable in the present.
Ruminating on alternative facts after mistakes or small wins prevents you from getting a rush of productivity-boosting joy, and getting on with more productive tasks. Here are 3 ways showing you how to calm down after messing up.
How to calm down when you know you could have done better
Rear-view mirror technique
If you’re in the silver medalist’s position, and find yourself berating yourself for not achieving more, the first step is to be aware you’re doing this. Since it’s difficult being aware of every thought passing through your mind, notice how you’re feeling. This is a good indicator of whether you’re thinking useful thoughts. If you feel anxious and dejected, that’s an signal you’re thinking unhelpful thoughts.
Next, reflect on where you were two years ago, and then one year ago and count your accomplishments along the way, no matter how small. What hurdles did you jump to get to where you are? What did you learn, how did you grow? What small wins have you achieved? It all counts in your life’s journey.
Ultimately we’re all running our own race. In your twilight years winning won’t matter, it’s whether deep down you knew you did the best you could and lived up to your potential. The only person you’re competing with is the person looking back at you in the mirror.
If you typically lean towards negative thinking, list three things you’re grateful for right now and why. Doing so steers your mind out of the gutters of despair and into a feeling of abundance. At the very least it puts you in a more positive and productive state of mind from which to continue your day.
What would the best version of me do right now?
If you saved yourself grief by using a downward method like “I’ll do better tomorrow” or “it could have been worse”, and come tomorrow you don’t try as hard, ask yourself, “what would the world champion version of me do right now?” and do it. Another way to approach this is to consider a leader in your field of role model – ask yourself what he/she would do in your situation.
What’s your tendency, upward or downward thinking? How can you use these tips to improve your day?