Emma started the discussion in my parenting class with the following story:
My daughter and I were playing an exciting game of CandyLand. Her entire four-year-old face was intently focused on the board as she skipped her card across two red spaces. She was very close to the Candy Castle when tragedy struck. She pulled the gumdrop card, which made her piece go all the way back to the beginning of the board. Her face puckered up, and she threw herself down on the carpet.
I crouched down next to her. She put her finger on my lips and said, “Mommy, you’re going to say that I’m ‘posed to say ‘that’s okay! I had fun playing.’ But it IS NOT OKAY. So don’t say that!” She lay face-down on the carpet, while her older sister tried to stifle their chuckles at her remark.
Emma’s daughter is on to something. Losing doesn’t feel good. In fact, research shows that when we lose, the same pain receptors that mediate physical pain are activated. We tell children, and ourselves, that losing isn’t so bad, that the pain is all in our head. And it is all in our head. Then again, ALL pain is in our head! We experience pain because our brain tells us we hurt.
I was living and breathing the KosherWorld account, Ayala recounts. This was the account that would have put my advertising agency on the map. I spent hours devising the perfect ad campaign for them, hoping this would be a springboard to a long-term contract with the company. Well, they used my ad, but told me that they were hiring a more experienced firm as their in-hour agency. Even though they loved my work, they wanted to go to a proven name. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I just wanted to crawl into bed. My husband was philosophical — you win some, you lose some — and I couldn’t explain to him just how painful this was.
When a child falls down and bruises her knee, when a neighbor stumbles down some stairs and twists her ankles, when a spouse has the flu, we are sympathetic. We might bring the afflicted person tea, call and offer sympathy, visit, or give them a treat. We do this because we know pleasant experiences dull pain. The pain of a broken foot can’t be soothed by some chocolates, but the experience of sympathy and the sweets can take the edge off it.
* We say, “It’s all in your head,” or, “You’ll do better next time,” but we don’t necessarily treat it as legitimate pain.*
Yet when a child doesn’t win that G.O. election, or our neighbor doesn’t get that promotion, or our spouse fails to land that big client, we don’t necessarily break out the treats and the sympathy. We say, “It’s all in your head,” or, “You’ll do better next time,” but we don’t necessarily treat it as legitimate pain. We expect people to get over the experience of losing on their own.
Scripts for Losing
Emma’s daughter throwing herself down on the carpet and crying after losing a game of CandyLand could cost her friends. Perhaps this is because it’s considered to be socially unacceptable to act this way. The boy who hurls the basketball away when his team loses the big basketball game is displaying poor sportsmanship. We’re supposed to say, “That’s okay; I had fun playing.” We’re supposed to congratulate the captain of the opposing team, smile politely at the co-worker who got the promotion we desired, and resolve to try harder the next time. We’re not supposed to engage in the adult equivalent of upsetting the playing board because the cards aren’t falling our way.
Maya was up for a promotion at work. It seemed logical to all the nurses that she, as the most experienced nurse in the unit, would be promoted to Director of Nursing when the current Director retired. She was already the “go-to” person in the unit whenever there was a question or crisis. As Maya did her holiday shopping that year, she thought about how a particular suit would look at the monthly Director’s meeting, and what budget shortfalls her raise would cover.
So when Maya showed up one day and found a new face at the staff meeting, she wasn’t sure what was going on. “I’m Terry. I was just hired on an RN line, until Mrs. Green retires. Then I’m going to be the new Director of Nursing. Just treat me as you would any co-worker.”
As hurt and confused as Maya was, work had to go on. The hardest part was dealing with her co-workers. “They acted like I had some embarrassing disease that they were too polite to mention. They were extra nice to me, but no one said anything. It was like, business as usual, but it wasn’t. Why didn’t they say anything?” Maya muses. Years later, it’s clear that this memory still hurts.
Perhaps Maya’s co-workers said nothing because they didn’t know what to say. We’re uncomfortable with the topic of losing, because we don’t have a script for it. We don’t know how to separate the experience of losing, which is absolutely, undeniably painful, from the socially unacceptable aspects of mourning a loss.
* CandyLand is just a game. Nothing terrible happens when you lose at CandyLand. And yet, it hurts. Remember the pain of being on the losing team in Color War? *
CandyLand is just a game. Nothing terrible happens when you lose at CandyLand. And yet, it hurts. Remember the pain of being on the losing team in Color War? What it feels like to study really well for a test and get an inadequate grade? How it feels to be passed over for a job in high school, to hear a “no” when asking someone out on a date, or not to be invited to give a model lesson? It hurts.
Going back to Emma’s daughter , lying on the carpet after drawing the gumdrop card, I asked Emma, “Were you going to tell her to say, ‘That’s okay’? She replied that she was, as she wanted to teach her daughter not to have strong reactions to minor things. “After all”, said Emma. “That’s why she doesn’t have so many friends. She overreacts to things.”
State It. Rate It. Abate It.
The way to get Emma’s daughter to react appropriately is first to validate that losing hurts and to give her a vocabulary to express that hurt. Emma’s daughter is disappointed. She expected one outcome, but it did not turn out that way. She wanted that spike of pleasure that winning engenders, and it was cruelly snatched away from her at the last second.
In general, pain, like all uncomfortable emotions, has to go somewhere. Putting on a pleasant face and saying “That’s okay” might be socially acceptable, but doesn’t really deal with the pain. Validating the pain by saying, “You’re so disappointed. Help me understand how upset you are,” allows the person to begin to manage the pain.
In the Targeted Parenting courses I give, I teach parents that children need to “State It. Rate It. Abate It.” The first step in dealing with difficult feelings is to state what the emotion is (in this case, it would be disappointment). If you want to bring the pain down to a size that feels manageable, you need to give it an intensity rating. Very small children can use their bodies as indicators. Ask them “Is the pain very little, like up to your toes? Is it more intense up to your waist? Or are you in so much pain that it’s over your head?* Once we give it a level, it feels like something we can cope with.
Maya never gave voice to her hurt over the promotion. She put on a “good face” and kept that face for the reminder of her at that hospital. In telling me the story, she was able to name the pain — it wasn’t disappointment, it was disillusionment. She had certain expectations of her employers — that they had noticed her dedication, that they valued her contributions, that they valued her contributions, that she would at least be given a chance to apply for the job. Not being promoted wasn’t as painful as the realization that her supervisors did not see her the way she saw herself. Naming the disillusionment and rating it gave Maya the availability to see the entire story more clearly.
Deal With It
Once the hurt has been named and rated, it is easier to decide how to deal with it. Now that Emma’s daughter knows that her disappointment is real, and it hurts, and Mommy notices and cares, she is ready to hear how to handle it. She can learn that it’s okay to feel disappointed that she’s losing, but she has to control how she expresses that reaction so that she doesn’t alienate her friends.
Losing well is a skill. It has to be taught and practiced, just like any other skill. In my parenting class, Emma and the rest of the group talked about how she could reward her daughter for each “good loss,” changing the meaning of losing from something negative to something more positive. If Emma and her daughter practice “losing well’’ enough times, the pain of loss will become more and more manageable. Emma’s daughter will both become desensitized to the disappointment of losing, as well as become more and more proficient in the art of managing her reactions. When Emma’s daughter is older, and she’s experiencing what Ayala or Maya did, she will have the necessary resources to handle it, because she will have learned a script for dealing with losing.
Meaning of the Loss
Losing is painful for several reasons. When we compete, our brains secrete adrenaline to help us deal with the challenge. When we win, our brains secrete dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that mediates the sensation of reward. When we win at a Chinese Auction, or get the answer right in class, the burst of pleasure we feel is due to our dopamine response. The combination of dopamine and adrenaline can make us feel powerful, invincible, and in control. That’s an addictive sensation.
When we play a game, we anticipate the sensation, and when it doesn’t happen, we feel let down. This can explain the intense disappointment that happens when we lose competitive events, like sports, a board game, or Color War.
The girl who isn’t accepted to the high school of her choice, the boy who hears a “no” when he asks a girl out on a date, or the job applicant who isn’t hired — these people are not just experiencing a neurological let-down. They are also experiencing a challenge to their sense of self.
In Maya’s case, being passed over for the position of Nursing Director cast her entire career and professional judgment into doubt . “I was that unit,” says Maya. “I was the poster child for it. If you asked my kids what to get me for a present, it was a ‘World’s Best Nurse’ mug. It became more than a job. It was my identity.” When Maya wasn’t promoted, it called her entire identity into question. If she wasn’t the “poster-child” for the unit, then who was she?
There is a danger in allowing our identity to become completely bound up in anything external. It’s wonderful to care about grades, to have school spirit, to be cautiously excited about a shidduch or a job. It’s another thing when that job, or those grades, or that external benchmark of success becomes who we are. Once something becomes part of our identity, to lose it is to lose a piece of self. And that is truly painful. Our sense of self is precious and should be guarded and preserved.
We need to teach our children — and ourselves — to keep our identity separate from extrinsic things. We are not our jobs, our successes, our grades, our relationships. We are ourselves. Everything else is just context for our lives. The more we give external things — jobs, relationships, grades — the power to define who we are, the more we risk when we lose things. It is even risky to allow our husbands or children to become who we are. They are an aspect of our identity, but not the entire thing.
I was at a mourner’s house after a funeral and overheard the family’s teenage daughter say something very prescient about her mother. “Her whole life was my father. If she’s not my father’s wife, then who is she?” Her aunt wisely responded, “She’s going to have to find that out now.” Our children are precious to us. The marriage or parenting relationship is the closest one there is. Being this person’s wife and that person’s mother is a large part of our identity. But if we allow it to define us completely, we risk much.
We can only teach children (and ourselves) to handle loss if we have fully learned this lesson. It’s okay to care about things — even care about them very much. It’s okay to be super excited because we’re almost at that Candy Castle in the game of our lives — we’re about to snag that big account, that promotion, that thing we always wanted. It’s okay to let those things become the context of our lives, provided we remain aware that the whole of the self must be more than the sum of its parts.