It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Everybody knew you were supposed to be the one relishing that victory lap, high-fiving your teammates, hanging your nameplate on the door of the corner suite, tossing back a few in celebration. Instead, your team's been drubbed and you're left on the bench, stone-faced, chin in hands, nursing thoughts less charitable than when your date tossed a drink in your face.

It's bad enough that you lost, but on top of that you had to fall to those people, a bunch of jerks who don't have half your team's wit or talent. And now you're going to have to watch them strut for way too long before you get another crack at sending them back to the minors where they belong.

Maybe it's just us, but somehow lots of people in town seem to be feeling that way.

Let's face it, losing stinks -- whether it's on the field, on the job, on the road to love or at the ballot box. And losing to a hated rival -- Yankees vs. Red Sox, Apple vs. Microsoft, Redskins vs. Cowboys, Tony Soprano vs. Johnny Sac -- multiplies the pain.

But experts who regularly counsel competitive athletes, job candidates and others struggling to get ahead in the world say there are ways to ease defeat's sting and not let yourself sink into a prolonged funk. Losers can use their bitter experience to grow stronger -- and give themselves a leg up in the next big contest.

Tell that to Cindy Curtis of Reston. Curtis, who campaigned in her community for Sen. John Kerry, had one word last week for how she felt: "Awful."

"I'm in mourning," Curtis said. "I really am quiet, angry, introverted. I feel very defeated. . . . I won't turn on the TV or read the paper for a while; it's just too much. You've got to be able to swallow something and digest it, and then take the next step."

According to psychologists, Curtis is on the right track. Whether you're a defeated presidential candidate, a voter who got outvoted or an unsuccessful bidder for a job, a lover or a title, you've got to first process the pain before you can put your loss behind you.

"Grief is cathartic," said Joseph Mancusi, president of the Center for Organizational Excellence, a consulting firm in Sterling that helps businesses handle teamwork, leadership, stress management and other issues. "You need to feel down and get it out of your system."

That done, advise experts, it's time to move on. Easy for them to say. Paul Baard, a motivational psychologist at the Fordham University School of Business in New York, admitted this takes a lot of self-discipline, especially in the immediate aftermath.

"You need to ask yourself, 'How quickly can I recover and get on with life and make the best of it?' It's an opportunity to work on your psychological health," said Baard. "You can't keep playing the game after the last inning. You have to take 'no' for an answer."

Equipment Check

Some of us, say psychologists, are better equipped than others to turn loss to our advantage.

One of the characteristics of successful losers, so to speak, is the ability to compartmentalize, said Colleen Hacker, professor of physical education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and consulting psychologist to the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team and other elite athletes. The trick, she said, is to "keep [the loss] confined to the appropriate space and time" and to "separate what happened to you from who you are as a human."

Hacker also cites hardiness, a "personality trait that helps people buffer against adverse events, and resilience, the ability to successfully adapt and maintain a relatively stable and healthy ability to function, physically and psychologically, even in the face of loss, stress, difficulty or trauma."

The athletes with whom Hacker works already usually possess hardiness and the ability to compartmentalize. That's part of how they rose to the top of their fields, she said. The non-elite rest of us, alas, have to work hard to cultivate those qualities.

Hacker, who once delivered a speech to the National Institutes of Health called "Failure as Fertilizer," challenges her defeated clients to use loss to build their skills. "What action steps can you take in the future based on lessons learned from this adverse event?" she asks.

Jerry Isaac of Suitland, who was hoping for a change in the White House, has asked himself that very question.

"It makes me rethink what I need to be doing for the next four years, what I need to do to help people look at issues through a different prism," he said. "I was not an active participant in this campaign. Maybe these results will make me more active in the future."

Productive Failure

You know the old saw: What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. In psychology-speak that phenomenon is known as "productive failure."

Mancusi says the key to productive failure is optimism.

"An optimist says, 'We're not dead, we lost an election' and goes on to look for positive things still to do."

This approach is far healthier, Mancusi said, than withdrawing, feeling victimized or taking the loss personally.

"Joe Gibbs is an optimistic coach," Mancusi said of the Redskins' newly returned leader. "He doesn't permit gloom and doom. He looks for people who respond to adversity with a renewed sense of challenge. He can say, 'I've been through this before; we're going to get through this.' "

Unfortunately, Mancusi said, it's hard for pessimists to convert to optimism, especially in the face of a nasty loss. But, like Hacker, he said losers can improve their game by building resilience. Mancusi's suggestions:

* Ask yourself: "Where have I been before? Haven't I survived?"

* Identify and realistically assess your own strengths.

* Ask yourself: What could I change so I don't go on defining myself as a loser?

* Focus on the challenge ahead, not the mess behind. Keep your eye on the next hole, not the one you just played.

* Rehearse -- don't just list -- the changes you want to make.

* Construct an optimistic world in which you can draw on a number of these things you've worked on when something bad happens again.

"If you're going to count Babe Ruth's strikeouts," Mancusi said, "you'll never see the home run in the person. And you won't be able to hit the ball when it's coming at you at 95 miles per hour."

Say It Like You Mean It

Curtis, who says she works "in a Republican environment," found it hard to pull herself out of bed and into the office the day after the election. Once she got there, she said, the silence was deafening.

"Nobody's gloating," she said. "They're just not talking."

Time was when no one would have thought anything unusual about that, when it was considered impolite to discuss politics (or sex or religion) in public. Back then, said etiquette expert Peggy Post of the Emily Post Institute, "you really didn't talk about politics. These days it's part of our culture."

Given that, Post said, exchanges between victors and the vanquished should follow a few basic rules: Show respect, kindness, consideration.

"Hopefully a lot of people learned when they were kids to be a good winner and a good loser," Post said.

Last week's post-election speeches set good examples for the nation's winners and losers, and demonstrated that the candidates had learned those elementary lessons: Each acknowledged the opponent's strengths and goodwill. Kerry gracefully conceded and offered his congratulations; President Bush refrained from crowing and rubbing salt in Democratic wounds. (In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deviated from the model. Asked if he would consider budget-balancing proposals from Democrats, he replied, "Why would I listen to losers?")

Isaac said he and a Bush-supporting colleague have followed the more generally approved model.

The colleague, he said, "praised [Kerry's] concession speech. Even though I think [the colleague] made the wrong decision, I respect the fact that he did make a decision based on his own beliefs -- and he got out and voted. Our discussion wasn't about what happened, but what can happen in the future."

Not every encounter will be so congenial. If you find you're at a loss for words, consider this tip from Post:

"It is gracious to fall back on principles of etiquette," she said. "To say 'congratulations' is good -- if you can do that."

As for the winners, Post admonishes, "Don't gloat. That's not constructive."


Jennifer Huget is a frequent contributor to the Health section.