On Shame and data points (or treating failure as an act, not an identity)

I failed the second exam of medical school.

In the wake of receiving my score, I found myself using distancing language to hide this fact— “I didn’t do as well as I wanted,” or “Gotta bring up that average for the next exam!” Sure, there’s a time for honesty and then there’s TMI, but my discomfort told me where to find my Shame.

Why did I fail? Because I’m in pursuit of useful data points. I’m trying to find that sweet spot where I can study just the right amount and get good returns on my exam. I passed my first exam with a very medium approach; I utilized this same strategy without much modification for the second test, and failed. More material and less urgency led to complacency, which brought me to this uncomfortable data point.

The rational, scientist part of Eugene knows that this failure, this data point, actually represents a success. I learned what did not work. This failure has utility— I can use this feedback to refashion my approach to studying and generate another data point with my third exam.

The emotional, feeling part of Eugene feels deep Shame. How could I fail a test? Am I really smart enough for this medical school? I want to hide this failure from my peers and from my family— to pack it deep inside and ensure it never sees the light of day.

Shame loves this: Shame gurgles and giggles in anticipation. Shame loves isolation and darkness. Like a black mold, it grows in the deep dark corners that we try to ignore— that corner of the sink we never get around to wiping off, or that edge under the toilet we skip during spring cleaning.

We think that avoiding Shame will push it away, but this feeds it and gives it power over us. We go out of our way to not see it, we use language to hide our disgust, and we adjust to our new lives like an arm in a cast.

How do we fight Shame? The longer it sticks around, the more we get used to it and the more we accommodate our lives to its presence. After enough time, imagining a life without Shame becomes difficult, if not impossible. It grows stronger with time in the darkness.

Shame demands that I identify with my failure. It wants me to think that I am a failure. It wants me to stay silent, to keep this within myself so it can fester and grow. Shame seduces my emotional self into believing that my worth rises and falls with my exam scores.

My rational self does not buy it; he has seen far more cunning foes. Sober scientist Eugene knows that failure is an act, not a descriptive label for a person. He knows that Shame gets desperate when cornered.

Removing Shame requires the same principles of eliminating mold from a household: fresh air, sunlight, and an overall change of environment hostile to its survival. I will use Shame as a guide to be open and honest— if Shame wants me to hide in isolation, then I will go the opposite direction and into the light.

So, I will not hide my failed test. Shame loves isolation and I will not separate myself from my failure, nor will I consider myself a failure— unless I allow Shame to succeed.

10 thoughts on “On Shame and data points (or treating failure as an act, not an identity)

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