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November 16, 2020
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

Losing — Why Does it Hurt so Bad?

November 16, 2020 15:49 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW  [About the Author]

 There is a theory called “loss aversion”.  Not every one agrees with this theory or, necessarily, believes that loss aversion is entirely to blame when one feels the sting of loss.  Put simply, humans pay more attention to “losses” than to “wins”. In fact, each of these responses affect both brain and body.There are facts as well as speculation on the origin of this phenomenon.

It has been proposed that the predisposition toward the negative starts at a very young age. The reason?  The brain, and thus, the body, expend more energy in response to loss than to gain. At times the human’s response is organic, i.e. unconscious. Both of these reactions are a part of the autonomic electrical system. Because of the complexity of this mind/body “dance”,it can be hard to pin down exactly what this uncomfortable sensation is about.  

An effect of the increased intensity when things go wrong is an electro-dermal response.  The situation, literally, gets under one’s skin.This leads some researchers to say that we are bad losers down to the bone.

A painful result of the intense response to perceived failure or loss is that the individual loses twice.  Carrying that feeling of incompetence hurts from both an anatomical and psychological level. 

In a society, such as ours, being “best” is highly valued.  But, what does that really mean?  If Jack wins the spelling bee but is an insufferable winner, does that make Jack the “best”?  What about Laura who is suffering from a broken ankle but shows up anyway and places second?  Is Laura less good than Jack?  Is fortitude less praiseworthy than a win?  A win may be a one-time thing.  Fortitude is a part of one’s  character.  An inexorable focus on winning may lead to very little time to savor other of life’s gifts. 

Another fallacy that accompanies an uncontrollable drive to win is that only the winner deserves respect. Recently there was a news article about a talented runner who stopped during the race,which he was winning, to assist another runner who had fallen.  Doesn’t the helper deserve respect?

This brings us to another concern.  Why does someone have to be this or that to “deserve” respect?  Not only does contempt wound the recipient, it also has a negative effect on the individual who doles it out (unless that individual is a sociopath who has many additional problems).  There are those who believe that every living thing deserves honor simply due to the fact of that individual’s, or animal’s, or plant’s very existence.

A more troublesome situation occurs when it is impossible for an individual to hold on to self-esteem unless some fabricated victories are conquered. When approval from the outside is what is craved, it impedes the development of one’s own set of values.  It is impossible to be true to yourself when you don’t even know who yourself, independent of others, is.

As a rule, both winning and losing are temporary.  Will Jack always be the smartest one in his group?  What about college or graduate school?  What about work? What about Deidre, who is an awkward dancer? If it is important to her she can take lessons.  If Deidre doesn’t care (truly), she can put her efforts into other endeavors.  Unless, for some reason, Deidre, has equated success at dance with being personally worthwhile, she can begin to take a look at all the achievements she has already acquired.  A group may insist that one talent is more important than another, but, for sure, the entire world will not agree with that judgement. When one considers that winning and losing are temporary, it is reasonable to conclude that, over time, both are meaningless.

A common reaction to “losing” is anger.  Why anger?  Some theorists believe that anger, which allows a feeling of control and energy is a mask for a more uncomfortable, painful awareness.  The more skewed an individual’s belief system is toward“the win”, the more likely the eruption of anger.  The underlying despondency has to do with the feeling of shame. 

Accompanying  that shame, hiding below the surface,  is a feeling of helplessness and worthlessness .This is usually accompanied by the dread that the future will, inevitably, be dark and disappointing.  Mad feels better than sad. It us useful to be mindful of this when dealing with oneself and others.  

To short circuit this reaction, an individual might reassess his/her value system.  Is any particular loss to define an entire life?  The more the one who is fighting off desperation allows him/herself to dig through the pain that has triggered these feelings of defeat, the more that person will recognize that the judgment is subjective.  It may have been absorbed from parents or early caretakers.  It might be just what everyone in that person’s family and social circle believe.  Just because people believe something doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Understanding that the assumption has emerged from a capricious point of view can go a long way to relieve the pain. Remember, there was a time when all but one believed the world was flat.  As some counsel, “You have to care but not too much”.

It is not useful to compare oneself to others.  That is easier said than done.  If it is true (which is not, necessarily, accurate)that all of life is part of a competition. The basis of that belief is that there is not enough to go around.  Indeed, in some instances and cultures that is true. Once the feeling of being overwhelmed  is diluted, it is possible to consider that there is plenty (of whatever it is), and the endgame is to understand how to preserve oneself.  It is important to be able to separate the difference between wish and reality.

If there is not enough to go around, the best course of action is to figure out what the essentials are. So many of the material objects that are treasured are a part of the faulty idea of competition, and, can easily be relinquished.

“Winning’ is about the contributions we have made during our lifetime.  Size does not matter, as everything triggers a ripple effect  iI is impossible to know where and when a simple kindness can improve the life of another.

Again, “winning” is about knowing yourself and what you value.  When living up to one’s code, life will still present stumbling blocks, but it will be a life that you can assess with pride.




(05/15/2017) “We Get Angry When we Lose Control of Ourselves


(07/29/2020) “Loss Aversion: Why we Hate Losing More Than we Like Winning” the


Allan, P (06/16/2015) “How to Avoid Being a Sore Loser at Competitive Games”


Firestone,L (11/11/2020) “Low Self-Esteem: What Does it Mean to Lack Self-Esteem psych alive.or


Sandler, D((06/17/2015) “Ten Ways to Successfully Handle Defeat” 


St.Clair, J(01/20/2019) “So You Blew The Game. Here’s How to Get Over it And Win”


Thorpe, J (02/15/2016) “Why is it so Hard to Deal with Losing?”

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

I bring with me +30 years of experience as a clinician. My Masters degrees are from: Assumption College, Worcester, MA, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling/ and Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, MA, an MSW in Clinical Social Work. This is the 11th year I have written a monthly newsletter that is sent to approximately 500 individuals. The archive can be found on my website,

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