What is disappointment?

I know it now.

Having failed my oral Animal Behaviour membership exam the feeling is of huge disappointment. The word is not being enough.

We are driving in the Byron hinterland when my friend calls my mobile to tell me my result. Immediately on hearing her voice, flat and lifeless, I know the call is not what I want. It is a moment of disbelief. I have spent most of my time imagining what it might feel like to pass. Imagining how relieved and elated I will be. Instead I am feeling that spiraling, hideous feeling of chagrin. There is shock too. There is disappointment.

Graham pulls the car over on to the verge of deep winter green grass. Two women, out on a morning stroll, peer into the car to see me in tears, hauling myself through the gamut of negative emotions. Perhaps they think the man and the woman are fighting. Perhaps he is revealing an affair. No one can see the 12-year-old boy in the rear seat. He has collapsed down on his belly with his head in his hands and is sobbing too. It seems I have wrecked everyone’s dreams in a moment.

So how can I explain what went wrong? A subject I love, and have taken into my soul, and have studied endlessly, was not able to be revealed to the two examiners seated beyond the table with the navy blue tablecloth. We are on the 21st floor of a Gold Coast Hotel. The sun is over the water and shining into the room. It should be a view to savour.

My brain becomes a series of ill-fitting cogs. It jams with a wooden block, allowing it neither forwards nor backwards movement when confronted by a question that no longer makes sense. The examiners continue to ask for the same information over and over again. Time warped. All I can do is repeat the question back to them – making no sense of the words, like a new arrival trying out a foreign language. There is a question on the welfare of circus dogs and despite my knowledge of canines and welfare I suspect I don’t give them the answers they want to hear. Why else are they repeating their interrogation? Haven’t I just answered that? Nightmarishly repetitive. They hammer away, driving the block deeper, with each successive repetition. There is a question on cockatoos invading a grain field and the way to control them, and despite knowing much about feral animal control, the picture of the swarm of birds lodges the block even further into the mechanism of retrieval of memory. Asked about the disadvantages of lethal methods it is as if the word lethal has never been heard before. Suddenly I have become a non-English speaker. When asked about drugs to help an old dog sleep I talk about benzos. They want more, and despite knowing other drugs, I give them nothing.

My hands are sweating and I am balling up tissues in my palms, as I try to get my brain to move forward out of the cog it is stuck in. I try joviality and humour. I mention my lucky shirt. I am dying on stage like a comedian with no jokes. Like turning the key in the ignition and hearing the dead sound of a car that won’t start. Still I keep trying. Repeating the questions seems to take the answer further out of reach. Answers flutter out through gaping holes never to be retrieved.

What is it about stress that sees it screw with my mind?

Having studied behaviour we all know that stress destroys the ability to remember. But I had never expected to become a blank page.

The tears come again, recalling what a dunce I must have appeared.

In the lead up to the exam my partner and child make up behaviour questions to test me. It is fun in the kitchen by the stove revealing my knowledge to them. Jasper asks me to tell them what I would do with an orca that is attacking the other orcas in his pool. In his eyes I am a behaviourist. Graham asks me for my treatment for a dog who is anxious travelling in the car. I practice to myself too. Nothing is the same as the way it is in the Hotel room.

One day after hearing the news of my failing the oral I am alone in the hut on a coffee plantation in the Byron hinterland. The boys have gone hiking. There is sun on the hillside and cattle in the distance. It is hard. I want the opposite feeling to what I am experiencing. I need not practice more resilience. I want to be making plans for my future as a behaviourist. Instead I am imagining being here again next year and again awaiting news of pass or fail. How can I change my brain to cope better under the stress next time?



21 Replies to “Disappointment”

  1. Nicole, I am so sorry this has happened, please don’t give up though as I think you would be an amazing behavourist. hugs my beautiful friend. anthea


  2. Nic, your frank words and honesty at such a disappointing time are beautiful and bravely put. The fear of failure prevents a lot of us from challenging ourselves to tackle anything new. The spectre of inadequacy sometimes appears in dreams that come to us at night, warning us that we are not good enough, a sham that will be discovered and exposed for all to see. However when we are awake we realise that these are just the thoughts of a questioning mind and a fear of complacency.
    I really like the block caught in the cogs of the mind analogy.
    How do you prepare for an exam with questions that were posed to you? Circus dogs…Cockatoos invading a field…. honestly? is that really allowing you to fully express what you have learnt or what you can offer? Can they be responded to using first principles? Questions such as those can only be answered by some previous exposure to the situation or by locating a seed somewhere within that can sprout an idea to fend off such lateral questions.
    Next year you will have the comfort of knowing that you have done the groundwork, you know the exam routine and the preparation to know that anything could come out of left field. Then you can draw from the well of knowledge within.
    Well done Nic (100% Animal Behaviouralist)


  3. You and I know from our professions that the reptilian brain is a beautifully designed instrument to keep us safe but it can also render us helpless and mute when we feel threat. Our perfectly competent selves abandon us. Stay faithful to your cleverness and your passion, my friend, and do it again next year…. Love you…


  4. Big, huge hugs from Barnett St. Oral exams are such a hideous exercise. Don’t lose your self belief – you are an excellent behaviourist! Lots of love xx


  5. Hey Nic. You are a behaviourist. Pass. The ability to express these stories is proof of your skill. Hotels are toxic. Take those examiners down to Sea World. Stroll with them in the water sparkled sun as you might with any scientific colleague untangling a conundrum, along the sharp edge of animals providing entertainment for humans.

    An examination should not be a test, it should be an exposition. The sooner the sea claims Surfer Paradise Gotham City and they move the discussion to the front seat of a kombi van exploring the coastal hinterland, the better.


  6. Oh Nicole, I’m so sorry – that is heartbreaking after all that work and the emotional investment. I think our ability to deal with stress seems to diminish with age, I certainly seemed to cope with it better in my twenties than in my forties. Well done for putting yourself out there although I’m that is small consolation at this point. Hope you can enjoy some of the rest of your holiday – it is a beautiful part of the world x


  7. Nicole, so sorry to hear your news. I think you are the bravest person I know. You have done so many things in your life and challenged yourself well beyond what I have ever been prepared to do. Many of us aren’t even prepared to begin to try for fear of failing. You may not have ticked all the boxes in the exam, but that is not to say you know nothing. Exams are about match practice and repeatition – so hard to step up to one after not doing any for years. I am sure next year you’ll kill it!
    XXXX Tania


  8. A courageous (and beautiful, eloquent) post Nicole – it’s not easy to talk about failure, particularly when it’s new and the pain is raw.

    Stress does that to one – turns us into blithering fools, unable to think properly and articulate lucidly.

    All I can say is have another go but I don’t want to sound trite about it. It will mean putting yourself through the situation again, but you’ll be a bit different, a little more experienced and less daunted, hopefully.

    I recently had a manuscript rejected that a publisher had been appraising for 6 months after an encouraging response – it wasn’t nice…I know where you’re coming from.



    1. yes writers know disappointment – manuscript rejection is a whole other pain I know too…take care love N


  9. Fail is such a crappy word. It’s a word that is often used harshly and when we are being too hard on ourselves. I don’t think you have failed at all. You worked hard and gave it your best and on the day, the circumstances, the examiners and a bunch of whatever happened meant that you did not meet their standard or provide what they were looking for. I have been a behavioural animal trainer since 1998 and sometimes, today included, I wonder if I failed to provide the right information or explanation to produce an outcome that may have been different. I guess we fail lots, but often we don’t know because nobody tells us. You have information and knowledge and you can use it to reach your goals. I am sure you will pass and be brilliant! Take care.


  10. I am so sorry you didn’t pass, Nic. Your description of the exam and your feelings is brilliant though. I know the feeling and you encapsulated it in your writing x


  11. Very sorry Nicole, just love how you express your feelings! Sometimes our disappointed thoughts are much worse then failing a test, next year you know what to expect and you will breeze through it!
    Enjoy your Holiday XX


  12. Oh so sorry about the exam Nicole. I too want to congratulate you for stepping up and taking on the challenge of the fellowship.
    You mustn’t see yourself as a failed behaviourist. Many, many excellent practitioners in various fields have stumbled at the threshold of their exams – because the exam format doesn’t come even close to replicating daily practise. It’s a poorly devised game and the most deserving candidates are not always the winners. It’s not fair.

    Don’t give up. I think you will make an excellent behaviourist.


  13. Dear Nicole, so they pass judgement on a jammed brain..when, to me, you are such a winner – Vetinarian! Author! Mother! Wife! Cook! Friend to many! And Murphy looks up to too…along with all your clients. Bet the examiners don’t have that much cred? Sad for you. that brain lock is why I am doing the ‘career’ I have. xxxBlessings.


  14. Hey nic….when I was on the public / corporate speaking circuit I would blank out before hitting the stage. My heart rate sky rocketing and my mouth as dry as can be. So I started making up a little routine in my mind that would take 30 seconds to get me into an audience control situation……for the the first minute turn the tables and ask the examiners questions and put your self in the the reverse position. Have the questions set like concrete, make your voice strong because this will calm you……and next year it will be a more confident you……also try practising blindfolded………and imagine that room with more intimidating examiners and not your beautiful man folk cooking up a storm in the kitchen………and please always remember I think you are amazing…..Sami xx


  15. Nicole, what you experiened is,I think, exactly why you are so good with animals, lots of of any sort of emotion can cause all sorts of reactions, you have always understood this which is I think why you are so good with your job.
    Go for it!!
    All the best , Lucie


  16. Hi Nic

    You need to remember that you passed both written examinations of this subject with flare and expertise. So you have two out of three sections under your belt. The oral component of this examination is challenging and I have observed many competent and highly capable candidates fail to demonstrate their knowledge in the oral examination. I think you are clearly capable of passing and just need to practice the art of delivering the answers in this format.

    You have set a precedent in being brave and courageous and will do so again. Let me know if you think I can help in any way

    Love Mandy


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