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How the anxiety and stress of messing up something big can be vanquished

We can’t turn off feelings of embarrassment or failure, but we can change how we process them — and make molehills out of mountains.
Illustration of basketballs missing a basketball hoop.
Even when you fail at your goal, there are ways to cope and move on.Tim Lahan / for NBC News

The words “job interview” might as well be synonymous with “overwhelming stress.” When you take that pressure and multiply it by the anxiety of going on a woodland run with your interviewer, you’ll reach the heart rate I hit when I was applying to be an assistant professor at a major university a few years back.

When the professor who was leading my interview invited me on a run through a nearby nature preserve the evening before my big day, I agreed. Any opportunity to make a good impression shouldn’t be passed up, right? But my efforts to get in his good graces came with an unforeseen obstacle — in an effort to keep up with him, I wasn’t focusing on where I was stepping and tripped on a root sticking out of the path, falling mid-run.

While it’s natural to think all eyes are on you in an embarrassing moment, whether it’s a physical tumble or a verbal slip, nobody is as focused on you as you.

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries. But I’d literally fallen in front of the person who was going to be deciding my future. Rather than coming off as an amazing academic who also effortlessly found time to run and could fluidly tackle any course, I was worried I’d come off as someone who took on more than they could handle. I tried to keep my spirits up through the interview the next day, but it only went further downhill. I flubbed answers to several questions about my research and walked out of more than one meeting feeling like I had no business competing for such a big-league job. When I eventually learned I didn’t get the position, I was disappointed but not surprised.

We all have days where we seem to have left our A-game at home: You stumble over words in a presentation, forward an important document to the wrong person, make a small error on a financial report or, as in my case, bomb an interview. In the moment, these mistakes seem monumental. But as a cognitive scientist who’s spent years studying how our brains operate in times of stress, I’m here to share the silver lining: Though we can’t turn off feelings of embarrassment or failure, we can change how we process them — and, in turn, make molehills out of mountains.

The first step is to realize that while it’s natural to think all eyes are on you in an embarrassing moment, whether it’s a physical tumble or a verbal slip, nobody is as focused on you as you. That’s because we carry around an egocentric bias in which we assume that how we see and remember things is how others do, too. This bias can make you assume that everyone else cares as much about what you are doing as you do.

A few years after my interview disaster, I happened to run into the professor I’d gone on the run with at a conference. We struck up a conversation about our current research and at one point I mentioned how horrible I felt I had done at the interview. It turned out he didn’t even remember the fall. He actually thought I had done a great job; the institution had just decided to choose someone with a different research and teaching focus.

Of course, not all slip-ups are equal. In some of the highest-pressure situations, like the Olympics, everyone truly is watching you, and it may not only be you who remembers a mistake. But even in these cases, there are ways you can retrain your brain to better cope with your errors.

In 2004, the Canadian national swim team’s psychologist, Hap Davis, partnered with a group of neuroscientists to observe the brain activity of swimmers who failed to qualify for the Olympics or did poorly at the Olympic Games. The swimmers were instructed to watch footage of their failed races.

As the swimmers reviewed their own losses, the researchers observed increased activity in the emotional centers of their brains, including the amygdala, the seed of our neural alarm signals in times of stress. This increased negative emotional activity was coupled with decreased activity in regions crucial to planning and executing movements.

Once the film was finished, Davis and his team staged an intervention. First, they had the swimmers identify the feelings they had while watching the failed race. Second, the swimmers were asked to evaluate what went wrong in non-emotional terms — were their strokes too short? Did they get off the blocks late? Finally, they had to envision how they could successfully modify their performance for their next race.

When the swimmers re-watched their failed races after working through these questions, their brains responded differently. This time, there was increased activity in motor regions of the brain essential for the planning and execution of movement. By reframing their defeat and thinking of it constructively, swimmers seem to be preparing themselves for future races. Because imaging success can beget success, the swimmers are priming themselves to succeed the next time around.

While most of us aren’t operating on an Olympic level, this reframing technique can be useful in everyday life. Thinking about mistakes or failures in unemotional terms (what you did wrong, rather than that you feel bad) and then imagining yourself executing your next performance flawlessly can help ensure you do better.

If you think of yourself as the nuanced person that you are, rather than defining yourself by your mistakes, your outlook will improve.

Even when a screw-up persists in consuming our every thought, it’s important to make space for other thoughts about the additional facets of our lives that make up the totality of who we are. When you focus exclusively on your errors, you waste valuable mental resources dealing with negativity. Instead, jot down your feelings after you make a mistake and get them off your chest. Re-reading what you wrote can also help you realize that what happened was just not that big of a deal.

After you have unburdened yourself in the immediate aftermath of the incident, it’s important to reorient toward other modes of thought. You might make another list, for example, of all the positive ways you identify yourself: your family, your friendships, your skill as a cook, a painter, a guitarist, a skee ball player, whatever it may be.

If you think of yourself as the nuanced person that you are, rather than defining yourself by your mistakes, your outlook will improve. Most importantly, you’ll be reminded of all that you’ve accomplished in life, all that you have to offer — and all the ways you can fill your time more enjoyably than dwelling on what you did wrong.