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Healing Space | Learning how to lose

Good sportsmanship tells us we must lose with grace, and learn to celebrate the winner with as much enthusiasm. In the moment we resent the other. How do we change this?

October 31, 2021 / 05:44 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

Whether you’re a cricket fan or your son just came last in the 100-metres at his school sports day, or your colleague got a promotion, or a rival won a project, you have probably faced some form of resentment when someone else won. Children who are not taught to celebrate others' victory can throw tantrums, toss pieces of their game or toy, and become violent. As we have seen recently, so can adults who have never learnt to take loss in their stride.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthOften, this behaviour has been reinforced by parents who ‘allow’ the child to win at family games. Which is why the Cadbury Bournvita advertisement in which the mother races her son and says ‘when he defeats me I would have won’ is such a great example of knowing how to lose on both ends.

Yet, we all roll our eyes at children’s sports events in which primary schools declare ‘no one wins’ and ‘everyone gets a participation certificate’ too. Because that’s just not real life. Just as we can’t win all the time, neither can we never win.

This is because we are also hardwired to win. Psychology professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College, London, studies winning and has claimed “All species have hierarchies and your position in the hierarchy will determine your health, your mental function, your mood.”


Research tells us that we can relate mood disorders directly to winning, its impact on serotonin levels and increased testosterone. Positive wins motivate us to drive ourselves harder. Studies have shown this is true of primates and birds, that loss and defeat can lead to depressive symptoms. This is how researchers Schjelderup-Ebbe coined the term ‘pecking order’ by observing fowl, to indicate who wins and loses is not in fact just a game, it has survival value.

Loss can make people hostile and dysphoric. Over time and civilisation, sport has become one of the mechanisms by which human beings have ritualised wins and losses - through a choreographed process of what is known as escalation and de-escalation. The rules of the game are agreed on beforehand, and it is agreed that the one who loses the game de-escalates their aggression and submits to the winner, who escalates their aggression now through increased self-esteem and social esteem, demonstrated through whoops, cries, victory marches, parades, anthems, even song and dance. This is known as the Involuntary Defeat Strategy (IDS) and the Involuntary Winning Strategy (IWS) because they are triggered by the reptilian forebrain. Typically, these last momentarily, and subside by the time the opposing teams sit down to lunch together. Hypomania is the abnormality that occurs when the sequence fails to be terminated. That is, when we remain stuck in our defeat and our win. Typically, success begets success by riding on the wave of enthusiasm and defeat begets defeat by riding on the wave of loss.

So it’s often not sufficient to tell people ‘it was just a game’. When the defeat reaction has been triggered and sustained, it requires an intervention, such as positive reinforcement, to let the defeated party know that his state of defeat will not last forever. That it can be terminated, and reprogrammed, such that with encouragement, s/he can also win in the next round. It helps people know they don’t actually hate the person who defeated them, but they are hard-wired to feel stuck in their defeat reaction.

Constant training through multiple games in which one sometimes wins and sometimes loses helps a child understand how to terminate their IDS and activate their IWS. They learn that they may lose at some things even consistently (such as a child who does not have an aptitude for sports) but can equally win at other things (such as music). Teaching ourselves how to lose and how to stop feeling the loss are among the most important skills we can learn.

IDS: Involuntary Defeat Strategy IDS: Involuntary Defeat Strategy
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of 'Sit Your Self Down', a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and 'Anitya', a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
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