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The Psychology of Defeat

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There is an abundance of research out there on the psychology of victory, winning, leadership and all things laden with positivity. What about the psychology of defeat? The psychology of losing and defeat is much less talked about within the realm of psychology and mental health. This may be a reason why relapsing, losing ground in recovery to breakthrough symptoms, and other obstacles in a person’s path to healing, continue to disrupt people and take them by complete surprise.

I’m a big believer in learning from both mistakes and our history. Having said that, there is no greater historical representation of defeat than the collapse of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Even less talked about is Operation Clausewitz, depicted in the film Downfall, which centred on Hitler’s final 10 days, cut-off from the world and awaiting imminent defeat.

Operation Clausewitz was the German solution to the military situation in Europe in 1945, weeks before the collapse of the German armed forces and largely during the Battle of Berlin, the final major conflict of the war

Let’s take a closer look at this operation. The military high command of German armed forces, the SS and Nazi party leaders, all knew the war was hopelessly lost. So why did Germany fight on? Why make one last horrific last stand in the name of vengeance and pure hatred of their enemies? For just that reason, I suspect.

Have you ever been headstrong, single-minded, and convinced you were right in some argument you’ve had in the past? In doing so, have you ever persisted in your righteousness, that you ignored the implications of being wrong, or misinformed, or even lost respect because you were blinded by your own lack of insight into a situation? For most of us, the answer is yes. For the German war machine, and the Nazi leadership in 1945, the answer was also yes. But with an exponentially worse outcome for the country, its citizens, and the population of Europe.

This shouldn’t be too shocking, but given the repetitive nature of history and our gnarling capacity as humans to forget and unlearn from our mistakes, I want to suggest that we should be spending more time focusing on the psychology of defeat. Even from this historical example that I raised, the implications fundamentally changed the course of world events, shaped and reshaped the geopolitical lines of so much of the globe, and altered history forever.

Do you also realise that if you had a fundamentally better understanding of how the psychology of defeat operated you might have also taken a different course in your life?

If you don’t believe me, think about: a job you might have lost or resigned from; an illness you let go untreated; a relationship that went awry – or any circumstance that you wanted to improve upon and couldn’t identify a way to do it. All of these intersections of defeat can be impacted by how you go about ‘throwing in the towel’ when life goes awry. Sometimes, accepting the worse outcome possible in life is the first step to rebuilding an empire.

If my historical example doesn’t cut it, how many other examples are there in world events and history which speak to what I am suggesting here? How about your personal life? Have you ever just said: ‘I give up,’ and later on, as a result of doing so, discovered a better plan or solution to your problem? In doing so, did you ever realise that we just don’t want to admit defeat? You might never have been successful in future endeavours if you hadn’t consigned to failure? If you haven’t, this may be the root of all your misgivings and misfortune and the beginning of a life poised for something bigger.

Max E. Guttman, LCSW  is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.


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