Thoughts on shame and failure—A mental strategy to stop dwelling on the down

I read a New York Times article about failure. The author asked the readers to do a quick experiment. He said think back on a time when you remember someone failing. It may take a few minutes, he said. Now write down adjectives you would use to think of that person or that failure. Now, he said, think of a time you failed. Write down adjectives you would use to describe yourself and that failure.

Try the exercise yourself. The gist of the results are that people have a hard time remembering other’s failures but when they do, they describe those people as courageous or having grit or plowing through. When they think of their own failures (which easily come to mind) they describe themselves as stupid or unworthy. These results did not surprise me. I couldn’t even remember another person’s failure—not one ridiculous example. But for myself, many memories of failure came to mind.

I tend to think back on negative experiences with extreme negative emotion. Looking back I feel intense shame and embarrassment, often disproportionate amounts of embarrassment or shame, for what were negative but seemingly minor bad memories. To give you an example, I found my mind wandering as I was drifting off to sleep a few weeks ago. I remembered this moment in high school, junior year, where I felt so stupid thanks to a failure.

In my high school everyone interviewed to be part of a prestigious government class called We the People. Everyone who got in was part of We the People senior year and went on to compete in a national high school competition. Everyone who did not get in took a remedial government class. In case it’s not obvious, everyone wanted to be part of We the People. We the People kids were the cool kids.

In my interview for We the People, the teacher asked me detailed questions about my political views. Despite being a bright teenager, I did not have developed, nuanced political views at 16. My views were basically the views of my parents. The We the People teacher asked if I supported abortion. I said no. He asked if I would protest outside an abortion clinic. I said, no, I didn’t think so. When he pressed the issue, I said I might hand out literature or something, I didn’t know. I remember feeling very flustered. Long story short, the teacher was not impressed with me. On the day they handed out acceptances and rejections the last open slot came down to me and one other girl. I did not think this other girl was very bright. But on that day, she got in. I did not.

More than 15 years later as I’m lying in bed remembering this moment, I am feeling intense shame – the shame of failure, the shame of naiveté, maybe the simple, overwhelming shame of adolescence. And while my particular circumstances of shame are unique to me, I know many, many people experience similar shame, embarrassment, and crushing negative feelings when bad thoughts circle back in their minds. And I have recently encountered a strategy that is really, truly helping.

What I learned recently, through a meditation app called Headspace, is an acknowledgement technique called “noting.” Thoughts or feelings tend to come to the surface of our minds, but by noting them for what they are – noting them simply as “thought” or “feeling,”—our minds consider the matter resolved and quickly move on. No dwelling needed. The matter has literally been sorted. Our minds have labeled the unwanted thought or feeling and put it away in its place. This sounds simple, but I have found it to be astonishing. I have always wanted to strong arm my mind into doing what I wanted it to do. It never works. But this simple act of noting is working. My brain is handling unwanted negative thoughts and feelings without me having to dwell in them, feeling crappy about myself and/or reliving any unwanted  experiences.

I have found my life (and my head)  running a lot more smoothly because I’m noting my thoughts and feelings without judgment—without dwelling.

I wanted to pass this along in case it makes a difference. We all have shame. We all experience failures. But it doesn’t do us any good to sit in that place. We can’t change the past, but we can live in the present. We can work toward who we want to be in the future. Let’s clear that negative mental space so we’re free to fill it with bigger thoughts and better pursuits.

Wishing you all well as we ramp up into fall.


Courtney is a law librarian living in NYC. She likes poetry, bikes, and Ethiopian food. Her next career will be in finance.

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6 Responses

  1. Patricia I Johnson says:

    The article is good. I vividly remember a number of failures, especially at night when I am trying to go to sleep. I try to look back and tell myself that given the circumstances that was probably my best. I must also say that I think the illustration at the top is brilliant!

  2. Kathy says:

    Thank you. I would say I needed this today, but really, I could say that most any day.

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