“Go within every day and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.” -Katherine Dunham
“We can easily forget a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” -Plato
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” -Vincent Van Gogh
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
We all know Milton Hershey as the founder of Hershey’s chocolate which is one of the best known candies in America. But Hershey actually built up 3 candy companies ending in complete failure before his ultimate success. As a young entrepreneur, Hershey set up his own candy shop with $150 in Philadelphia will little success. Over the next few years he started over again in New York and Chicago but failed both times. Not giving up and convinced he could succeed, he set up the Lancaster Caramel Company and within a few short years, he finally had a thriving business which led him to start the Hershey Chocolate Company which we know and love.
Despite his failures, Hershey used his resilience and belief to carry on and achieve his dreams. While many would have been tempted to give up, drowning in the negativity that failure can bring, Hershey shows how determination, learning and improving is the real recipe for success.
No matter who you are, what you do for a living, how many graduate degrees you’ve earned, or how often you successfully guess the answer to those trivia thingies that they play before the trailers at the movies, there are going to be times when you feel like a failure. The good thing is that feeling like you’re falling behind in your career isn’t a sign that you actually are. And even if you are not where you want to be professionally right now, you’re not doomed to be stuck there forever. The bad thing, of course, is that when you’re in that “I’m a loser/failure/general drain on society who should go accept my fate and live in cave where my crappiness won’t rub off on anyone else” headspace, it’s extraordinarily hard to believe that there’s any better future on the horizon.
There are times in our personal and professional lives where we feel like a loser. The roots of this heavy-hearted feeling may stem from varied directions – from feeling like you are falling behind, from a perceived rejection, failure or mistake, from a circumstance outside your control, or an internal existential storm.
However this feeling has formed and placed itself within us, there are times it can grow toxic.
Writer Honor Eastly describes this feeling at its most heightened as ‘toxic loser syndrome’. The term is borrowed from Angus Hervey of Future Crunch, and puts into words what happens when we believe our creative work and ourselves to be “absolute garbage”.
“I’m always trying to find language that feels more human – playful even – for dark times and when Angus described toxic loser syndrome, I thought yes!” explained Honor.
There is a lightness to naming our dark feelings as toxic loser syndrome, or as Honor uses interchangeably, ‘sabbatical to Doom Town’, the ‘Forest of Doom’, or ‘major hangs with Doomey Dave from Doom Town’.
But for some, the tongue-and-cheek terms are also a way to speak about serious mental health challenges.
“For me, toxic loser syndrome and mental health stuff are the same thing – I use the term to talk about periods in my life that I’ve been feeling hopeless and suicidal,” admits Honor.
Toxic loser syndrome is when our thoughts tip over from a general anxiety or sadness into something much more grave.
“Generally I can be a bit of an anxious person, but for me toxic loser syndrome is significantly different to that. It’s usually a period of two to six months of feeling like I might have maybe totally ruined my life and I’m a complete failure. It’s not a fun time.”
In her new podcast series No Feeling Is Final, Honor invites the listener into that dark time through a six-part narrative memoir about her experience of being suicidal.
It’s confronting to hear Honor’s self-critic be brought to life, but perhaps what’s more revealing is how it drives you to reflect on the own harsh words you tell yourself and your own experience of toxic loser syndrome – how it hurts you, and your creativity.
Advice for dealing with loser syndrome
For some, loser syndrome requires professional support and what works for one individual won’t necessarily work for everyone.
In No Feeling is Final, Honor shares details of her experience with the mental health system. After spending fifteen years in and out of therapy, hospital programs and intensive group therapy, Honor shares some advice on how to deal with loser syndrome, here is what she shares:
- Hanging out with “high win ratio” friends
“With toxic loser syndrome I get super anxious around people, and then get really anxious that maybe I’m terrible with people. And then that maybe I’ll never be able to speak to a human being again! So I try to be conscious of hanging out with folks who are “easy wins” aka, a high likelihood that I’ll leave feeling like I am good at humans and that life isn’t a flaming pile of dog poop.”
- Pursuing ‘easy life wins’
“Things I can be like ‘I’m going to do that thing’ and then I go and do it and then I get the opportunity to be like ‘see I’m not a pile of garbage, I did that thing’.”
- Routine planning, reflecting and cheerleading
“To get those ‘easy life wins’ you have to plan them so that you can later do them. This sets me up for success. I would do an A4 page each morning of “good things in my life”. I’d reflect in the evening on what’s going well.
- Seeking person-centered approaches
“One thing that took me ages to figure out is that I am very sensitive to shame when I’m in that space, so I try to avoid approaches that I feel can add to that shame. That means that overly medical treatments or professionals can exacerbate my feelings of hopelessness. I much prefer humanistic, person-centred approaches, and my current therapist is really good in this respect.”
“Makes you feel good and strong, even if it’s just walking.”
- Prioritizing sleep
“This sounds basic but is so important. Last time round with toxic loser syndrome, most days I would wake up in the middle of the night or early morning with a panic attacks. Prioritizing sleep and finding ways of managing my anxious brain so that I could get enough sleep was super difficult, but also super effective!
In closing, it’s also worth remembering that you are absolutely not alone in these feelings. Take that as a comfort and do not punish yourself for feeling like a failure or having low moods from time to time.
It is perfectly natural to have emotional responses, so you’re not doing anything wrong by having these feelings.
The important thing is to focus on a future where these feelings are less intense and less frequent, and we hope that these suggestions are the first of many positive steps in that direction.
Still not sure how to silence that nagging feeling that you’re a loser? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process.