The Neuroscience of Failure

delayed flightResilience means having the ability to bounce back from many of life’s setbacks and traumas we must endure over the course of our lives.

Indeed, many successful people including those with great inventions have done exactly this. Think of Thomas Edison and the thousand ways he learnt of how not to invent the light bulb.

And yet, many of us give up after failure has delivered its blow to our dreams and aspirations.  The big one that that did not take off or worse get away; the love of your life gone and or perhaps we are plagued by some health issue.

With failure, common feelings can include an acute sense of loss, hurt, grief, a wounding of the ego and over time, depression. 

Does failure create a stress response?

When we encounter unmet expectations such as missing goals or failing our dopamine levels are impacted, which affects the reward areas of our brain. Interestingly, this has been shown even in rat studies.

Failure decreases dopamine activity, which is what happens in some cases of depression. 

Failure and SCARF model

In David Rock’s SCARF model, there are five fundamental needs which when fulfilled gives us a sense of security in pursuit of our goals and doing our life.

Another way to look at the SCARF model is as the social equivalent of Maslow’s model.

The letters in SCARF stand for:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness.

We can be either moving towards or away from these social drivers.

With failure is it likely that at a neuronal network level, a threat response has been activated in these dimensions?

Therefore, the most meaningful of these social drivers may also create the most agitation.

So which social driver would you say was the  most meaningful to you thinking back to  a time when things did not go your way?

STATUS – Was there an expectation of a perceived lift in status and this didn’t materialize?

CERTAINTY – Was the project or relationship going to take away or minimise uncertainty, say financially?

– Was the project and its outcome going to be the pathway for independence or financial freedom?

RELATEDNESS – Was there an expectation for connection and affiliation – strong human drivers that did not get fulfilled?

FAIRNESS – Sometimes despite our best efforts and well-planned actions, we do not win – someone else – perhaps seemingly less deserving wins. Life can seem unfair at times. Has this response been activated?

It is worth keeping in mind that being challenged by any of the above can create a threat response and lead to fight, flight or freeze.

What’s more, as Dr. Dan Radeski highlights, a challenge to any of these can also have a negative impact on our higher brain, thus decreasing our ability to perform such uniquely-human behaviors such as managing our emotions, planning for the future and considering others perspective.

Next time when you are in this zone, notice which of the above drivers may have been activated the most.

Understanding our responses, feelings and emotions helps us process and integrate our experiences so we can keep moving forward and setting some new goals subsequently. These can be not just doing but ‘being’ goals e.g. greater mindfulness.

Certainly from a neuronal and a feel good perspective, moving towards something positive can only but be good for the soul!

Jasbindar Singh is a coaching psychologist who loves helping her executive clients and teams clarify their vision and purpose and helping them achieve their desired outcomes.

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