This Campus Life: So I got my first F

How do we confront, validate and cope with our failures?

Failure is a normalized part of the college experience. Healthy practices for dealing with the emotional fallout that comes with failure, however, aren't quite as well known. On this episode of This Campus Life, join ASU student Camryn Thompson and counselor Dr. Aaron Krasnow for a conversation on what it truly means to confront and cope with our shortcomings.


STEFANO CONTRERAS:

It's an all too common hallmark of college: students take rigorous courses, they stay up all night cramming or spend whatever free time they have stressing. They come out the other end maybe successful. But every so often, we're met with what seems to be the greatest of all evils in academia: the heart-stopping, earth-shattering F. With one letter grade, our hopes and dreams can be crushed — all hope and motivation lost.

And we're expected to just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and do it all again the next week. But for some of us, failure doesn't register so easily. Failure doesn't necessarily mean getting an F, but regardless, it takes a real toll and leaves miles of wreckage behind. And we're just not supposed to talk about it. We're expected to simply move on. 

Joining me today on This Campus Life is ASU student Camryn Thompson to talk to me about her experiences with failure and how she managed to fare the struggle. Hi, Camryn. Introduce yourself.

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

Hi. I'm Camryn. I am an ASU senior majoring in urban planning with double minors in sustainability and design studies.

And I'm also a Barrett student. I was a late applicant to Barrett. Starting from the beginning, I kind of joined Barrett pretty last minute. And as a freshman, I went through all my courses pretty normally with, you know, success — A's, maybe one B or two per semester. Sophomore year in the fall, I kind of started having a rough time, but my grades pulled through. In the spring of sophomore year, I failed three courses.

I was going through some pretty severe depression at the time. And then in the fall of my junior year, when I was trying to pick myself back up, I failed one more class. 

So right now, I am doing pretty OK. I, you know, pulled back through in the spring of my junior year and came out, you know, on the dean's list and managed to pull myself back up out of that pretty rough two semesters having to deal with the consequences of having four failing grades while also trying to maintain Barrett academic standards and my scholarship standards, because I have the President's Scholarship. So when I failed the courses, I did not receive credit for those courses, which meant that I did not meet the minimum number of credit hours necessary for that scholarship. So that was a really rough period. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that with me. Can you talk to me a little bit more about your experience with that intersection of academics and mental health?

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

Well, I have dealt with mental health problems since middle school. So it's not something that was unfamiliar to me, and I knew I needed to kind of keep it under control, so to speak, or at least I wanted to try and keep it contained away from reflecting in my academics as much as possible. It was obviously unsuccessful.

Part of what made me struggle in these courses was I was so depressed that I no longer wanted to reach out to my professors about how much I was struggling or about missing assignments, because a lot of it was just my lack of strength to be able to begin assignments and to complete them to turn in.

And I stopped reaching out to the professors and none of them, even when I was missing multiple assignments, multiple big projects and was obviously not submitting my work, I never received an email from them reaching out to me asking what was going on. And so I felt like there was a wall of embarrassment.

Like I was too embarrassed to reach out to them at a certain point and it snowballed. I also did not receive great responses about failing grades from my parents. They don't really have a very strong understanding of mental health and were mostly concerned with how it was affecting my scholarship and my college graduation date.

If I would even be able to continue being in college, that was a very tough conversation to have. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I truly appreciate it. I myself struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder. And it's a major struggle. You know, people don't understand how physically draining it is to do literally the most monotonous task or to muster up the motivation to even get out of bed in the morning. They just say, "Just get up!" or "Just do it!" when it's so much deeper than that. 

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

Definitely. And that was the response that I got from my family was accusations of being lazy, of not taking academics seriously, of, you know, being drawn in by the wrong crowd and being forced by other people to like, not care about my academics anymore. Because, you know, I kind of touched on it earlier, like I hadn't really had any serious academic struggles in high school. And before that, I, you know, was a very good student and I started out college as a very good student. So this was kind of their first glimpse into how my mental health was affecting my academics. Because before that, I had always been able to keep them separated or at least work with it and be able to make it work. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Did you feel any social pressures in addition to those academic struggles? 

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

Obviously, when my mental health was affecting me very poorly, I distanced myself from my friends and everyone that I, you know, associated with socially and I never reached out to them for any academic help, because none of my friends are in my similar degree program. Some of them are in Barrett, but I felt like none of them would be able to help me complete assignments. Like that's something that I had to take care of personally. So I never really discussed how badly I was struggling with them until after the fact. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

So from your perspective, how is mental health approached within higher education, more specifically here at ASU? 

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

I'd say that there are good professors out there who will reach out. My freshman year, there was a couple-week period where I was struggling and one of the professors from one of my classes that I had missed multiple weeks of, she reached out and was like, "I haven't seen you in class. I want to make sure that you're doing OK."  And that actually was the push that got me out of the rut, and I was able to go back to class and finish the class strongly. And I still remember that professor because just that one email was enough to kind of make me snap back, I guess in a way. And that was really helpful.

I have also utilized ASU mental health counseling with kind of a mixed success. My experience there is that they're more of a resource for venting and or receiving some loose guidelines as to how to approach academic situations. They're not really a long-term resource. They will refer you to, you know, a psychiatrist office or another office that's actually suitable for long-term therapy. I do appreciate that it is there as a resource. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

So in our discussion surrounding failure, I want to touch into how you went about coping with that failure. In what ways did you go about coping while also carrying that weight of mental health on your shoulders? 

CAMRYN THOMPSON:

WelI, I consider that period of my life to be the first instance of true failure that I've ever experienced. It was my first major consequence of my mental health ever. And I had to really come to terms with that: to have failed academically multiple times and to have to deal with the consequences. 

I had to appeal my scholarship. I got my scholarship removed, and I had to appeal to get it back. And I only received 80% of my scholarship for the semester following my appeal. And then it was returned a hundred percent, but I had to navigate not only my own brain and what it was telling me was the end of the world, but also deal with the logistical consequences of the biggest failure of my life. 

I had to have some serious discussions with myself. Like I said, I'm a planner. I like setting goals for myself. I like having steps to follow and achieve. So, I had to think about what my next steps were and having that plan in it of itself was reassuring to me. Just, that's who I am. I like having a game plan. And then when I was failing these classes, it felt like I didn't have a plan for getting myself back up. Like I knew I had to do better, but I didn't have a real plan for that, and that made things worse on me personally. 

I had some serious conversations with my family, which honestly, I wouldn't say that those helped, but they helped me start conversations with myself. This is probably not a true coping mechanism, but it's how I was able to get back on top of my academics. But I did have to have those conversations and kind of realize that this is not the end of the world. This is not the apocalypse. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Camryn's experience isn't an anomaly in the system that is higher education. She is a representative product of a society driven by stark individualism and capitalistic motivation that, rather than accepting and giving guidance to, shuns those who fail to live up to traditional notions of success.

Joining me next is Dr. Aaron Krasnow — associate vice president of ASU counseling and health services — to shed light on what it truly means to cope with our lived experiences. 

So, Dr. Krasnow, in our discussions about addressing and coping with failure, which psychological principles are applicable to these conversations and why do you believe there is such a social stigma surrounding such conversations? 

DR. AARON KRASNOW:

Well, the discussions of failure reveal a lot about the people in the discussion and how they think about what it means to fail both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. And so, when people do talk about it, give people advice about succeeding and failing, you have to think about it that both people, or multiple people if they're in a conversation with more than two, are filtering that through their own perceptions of it. But sometimes the discussion takes on an element of like platitudes where like there's one way to do it, or there's tried and true method.

And so what is lost sometimes on the receiving end of conversations of failure, like if you're struggling and someone gives you "advice" is the idea that the person giving the advice really knows and is telling you something, again, tried and true. More often, they're revealing to you their own attitudes towards failure, which often is related to their own attitudes towards difficult emotions.

So your question about what are the psychological principles, one of the really important psychological principles that undergirds our approach to failure is how much we can tolerate distressing emotions; how much we feel like it is okay or not okay to feel tough feelings. Because when someone has failed at something — something that they extensively would care about — you are likely to have difficult feelings.

Maybe you feel sad or angry or embarrassed or worried about your future if it was a failure about something that was related to some future goal that you have. And some people have a very high tolerance for those negative feelings. And what I mean by that is they can feel them and they can not get overwhelmed by them and they can not make their circumstances worse as a function of them.

They just feel them and go with it. More often, most people have a very difficult time tolerating their distressed feelings. So they try and avoid them. Sometimes they'll avoid them by acting like they don't matter or avoid them by not ever taking chances or circumstances in which they would ever feel them.

So when you're on the receiving end of advice about failure, you're also tolerating the fact that someone has opinions about your failure, which can be, again, embarrassing or difficult. But even in the advice giving, it's a window into how that person thinks about those distressing feelings. A comment like "You should develop a thick skin" is a classic strategy of telling you that you should avoid the pain and that it shouldn't matter to you and it shouldn't hurt. All of which are not true. All of which in our experience with failure are proven to be not true. It does hurt and it does matter. But when we get that advice, the person is basically telling us you should avoid those sad feelings, those angry feelings. And usually, again, that's because that person has difficulty with those feelings. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Yeah and so often do people revert to those phrases in the face of failure, you know, "Build a thicker skin!" "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off!" without giving any real direction or validation to our struggles. What are some psychological strategies, then, that we can use to metaphorically pick ourselves up?

DR. AARON KRASNOW:

Well, I guess the question for me is what does it mean to pick yourself up? Because if it means to pick yourself up and act like it didn't matter, that's different than continuing to move forward with your life. So I would say that to continue to move forward in your life would be the healthy version of pick yourself up.

That, if you experienced a failure or a setback, it doesn't doom you to a permanent condition, but it allows you to say to yourself, "This was terrible. It feels terrible. The results might be terrible. The consequences might be terrible. And I can still find a way to live my life."

And there's a keyword in what I just said. I said "and". Because when we say things like "but" — like, "This bad thing happened, but I can try again." — we really are pushing away the reality of the bad thing. But when we say "and," we're communicating to ourselves and others, that two things can exist at the same time: I can really feel badly about how something went — maybe even grieve the lost opportunity of that failure — and I can continue my life and keep trying to do whatever it is that I wanted or pivot in a new direction. It's the "and" that allows us to have these two things at the same time, and that is what's proven to allow people to move forward. But when we say "but," we push down those feelings, we know it's false. We can't share those feelings with ourselves even let alone others. And we end up just kind of closing off a major part of us, which ultimately in the end, usually rears its head in some other way because we never adequately felt the feelings we needed to feel when we failed. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Absolutely. And how then would you suggest individuals combat those finite, "this is the end" type of thoughts?

DR. AARON KRASNOW:

Well, awareness of the fact that you're having thoughts that are very black and white is a first step. And that is common when we're in distress. It's a symptom of the distress: very black and white thinking. "I'll never be able to do this." "I'll never be able to do that." "This is my only chance." That kind of like forever thinking is a hallmark of those intense feelings. So just recognizing [that] sensitizing ourselves to that dynamic of thinking like that is the first thing. And then, accepting that you're having a hard time and sitting with those feelings will allow someone to move through those feelings faster than fighting them.

But again, back to the distress tolerance idea, it's so uncomfortable that people don't want to do that, even though the amount of time for most times that you feel something badly would be shorter if you felt the feelings in full than if you tried to fight them — the intensity is something that people shy away from.

And so this takes practice. It takes intense self-talk practice. It is why therapists are in business. Therapists are not in business to give people advice. Therapists are in business to be able to help someone reconcile the things that I'm talking about, which is you have these intense feelings, you need to feel these things, I'll be there with you while you feel them so that you can recognize that the feelings themselves can't hurt you. 

They hurt, but by themselves, they aren't dooming you to a lifetime of pain or foreclosing on your opportunities in the future. They feel very, very badly. And when you feel those, as they are, people tend to be able to move through them faster. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

So, rounding this out, how detrimental do you feel the perpetuation of dismissive and invalidating attitudes in the face of failure are to the socio-cultural conscience as a whole? 

DR. AARON KRASNOW:

I feel like the impact of people invalidating people's feelings has a major impact on all of our lives. I think for the most part, people are not doing it intentionally. They're not trying to be malicious in their disregard or actively trying to malign or disempower people. I think, again, it comes down to: "Can I do the thing that would be helpful for this person, when what I need to do is painful for both me and them?" And that is not really how we're oriented culturally. We tend to be oriented towards solutions and quick things, and, you know, getting out of problems and "picking yourself up" as you described, or rugged individualism and things like that that are hallmarks particularly of American culture.

And those don't do a lot of good for people who are struggling because it tends to communicate that your struggle is yours alone, you need to just be tougher than it, and if you were tougher, you wouldn't be feeling this way so you must not be tough. You must not have resilience or grit. And the reality is, even with those terms like resilience and grit, the hallmarks of it are not never failing or not being affected by failure. The hallmarks of it is that you recognize that the failure is built into the progress of your life. 

So people who are gritty or resilient are not failure avoidant. They recognize that failure is part of it. That by itself — if people just communicated to others that they're sorry that they are having this difficult time and that I believe in you, and when you're ready, I'll believe in you for whatever is next in your life — that by itself would be healing for most people who are struggling with that invalidation. But that is not common. It's certainly not culturally supported yet. But I have hope because many, many elementary schools and middle schools have adopted a curriculum focused on growth mindset — this idea that "I might not know something, but it's not because there's something wrong with me. I just don't know it yet," or "I might not have accomplished something, but it's not because I'm not capable. It's just, I haven't done it yet." And there's lots of research to support that increases the chance of not just succeeding, but also the impact of failure is less intense but more realistic.

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

So, there you have it. Failure and our reactions to failure aren't black and white. There's some serious reckoning to be done within the socio-cultural conscience to allow for vulnerability, validation and acceptance of our shortcomings as a collective.

For the State Press, I'm Stefano Contreras.


Reach the reporter at scontr16@asu.edu or follow @contrerastefano on Twitter.

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