All of us fail at one point or another in life. Even the most successful people fail now and again. Successful people often tout failure as a prerequisite for real success. It’s one of the most effective ways to learn. With the right mindset, failure is a valuable opportunity to grow and develop as a person. The problem comes when we start to think ‘I’m a failure’.
When too many things have gone wrong or are not going your way in life, such as losing a relationship or not getting your dream job, you might want to give up. You might begin to feel like a complete failure and lose confidence in yourself and your abilities. You might even come to believe that you’ll never succeed no matter how hard you try.
If you feel like a total failure today, believe that you don’t have to feel that way forever. Sure, a series of failures and mistakes might knock your confidence, motivation, and determination to succeed. Still, with the right mindset and perspective, you can turn your failure into valuable lessons and use them to help you grow as a person.
This article will explore what it means to feel like a failure and what causes and exacerbates this negative self-evaluation. Later in the article, we’ll offer some practical tips to help you boost your confidence, shift your perspective, regain motivation, be kind to yourself, and use your past experiences for good rather than self-blame and self-destruction.
Why do I feel like I’m a failure?
What makes you feel like a failure?
Failure is a fact of life. You can’t succeed at everything you try (unless you’re superhuman). It’s something we all experience from time to time. So, why is it that some people can fail but bounce back and keep going, while others fall apart and feel overcome with negativity and self-loathing?
Often our relationship with failure reflects our relationship with ourselves. Some of us grew up in a healthy and functional family dynamic with caregivers who could consistently meet our needs and teach – both physical and emotional.
These healthy caregivers may have taught us to effectively self-regulate, become emotionally resilient and mentally fit by teaching us that we have intrinsic worth and value regardless of external failure or success.
Many of us, however, were not as fortunate. Many people grow up in a less healthy, less functional family dynamic with caregivers who, sometimes through no fault of their own, we’re unable to teach about resilience and intrinsic worth.
As children, we form an identity and understanding based on the implicit and explicit messages we receive from our parents and other authority figures in our life. If this messaging is consistently themes around criticism, not being enough, or not being worthy of self-love, then that’s how we’ll come to see ourselves.
We absorb our parents’ behavior and attitude because we don’t yet have the emotional maturity and cognitive capacity to think independently and critically. So, even if a parent doesn’t give us verbal messages about not being good enough or being resilient, they might still communicate that to us through their behavior.
For example, a parent who demonstrates helplessness and a lack of agency may teach those behaviors and attitudes to their child. This is known as learned helplessness and is a major obstacle to health and happiness in adulthood.
Likewise, a parent who sends verbal messages to a child about not being good enough or being a failure teaches them to think that way about themselves. Reliant on their caregiver to help them understand themselves and the world around them, the child absorbs that parent’s teachings. They want to connect with their caregiver emotionally and believe what their parents tell them.
Negative self talk
If we never learned to treat ourselves and hold ourselves in reasonably high self-esteem, then throughout our adult life, we might experience a lot of negative self-talk. When something goes wrong, a mistake, or a failure, we might confirm to ourselves that we’re not good enough. We think ‘I’m such a failure!’ or ‘I’ll fail my whole life.’
When we face challenges, we don’t excite ourselves and encourage ourselves but anticipate failure and disappointment instead. We berate ourselves for being inherently flawed and rarely give ourselves a chance to succeed in the first place. We gave our harsh inner critic a lot of time and energy, who does not have our best interests at heart.
Failing vs. being a failure
A failure is just an event; it is not a characteristic. People can’t be failures. – Judge Victoria Pratt
This is the most important thing to understand if you’re feeling like a failure – you’re not. You’re a human being. You’re fallible, imperfect, and you might make unwise and unhealthy choices from time to time, but you are not a failure.
Failure is something that happens. If you tried to quit eating so much unhealthy food and replace it with whole foods, then relapsing into an unhealthy binge would be a failure. Understand that the failure here is the behavior. There was a task not to do something, and you did it, so you failed the task. You are not a failure.
In another example, imagine you’re playing a board game with your family. You get lucky dice rolls and good cards during the game, and you win. You probably don’t think ‘I’m a winner!’ and look at your whole life through that lens. Instead, you probably feel good about winning this time but understand that you might lose another time and don’t identify with the outcome.
There is a big difference between failing and being a failure – being a failure isn’t real. You have intrinsic worth and are a success simply by being here, alive and breathing. What is much more real and is the source of the problem is the feeling that one is a failure.
That’s where the real issue lies because it’s a matter of attitude and perspective. Once you can shift both of those, you can make changes to the feeling.
‘Rather than beating yourself up over a failure, learn from it and keep going.’ – Tony Robbins, life coach and motivational speaker.
How to stop feeling like a failure
Feeling like a failure can quickly lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. It can get in the way of your motivation and enjoyment of your life, which has a knock-on effect on your relationship, work-life, and social well-being.
Still, failure can also be your key to success. Not necessarily financial or social success – those things are less important than the type of success we will discuss. Failure can help you achieve inner success – the most important kind and the fundamental prerequisite for other, external types of success.
While failure can make us feel horrible about ourselves, it also presents an invaluable opportunity to look within. With curious self-investigation and exploration, we can uncover what failure triggers inside us. We can revisit past failure, rejection, and even subconscious messages that made us believe we’re not good enough, and with the right tools, deconstruct and rebuild our deepest values and core beliefs.
Real success in life is not about becoming this or that, but rather unbecoming all of the things you’re not, but which you were led to believe were true. It’s unfair that life can teach us to pressure ourselves unnecessarily, be overly self-critical, and treat ourselves as a complete failure, but no one said life was supposed to be fair in the first place.
Even if you experienced a difficult childhood, it’s possible for your adult self today to take responsibility for how you live your life and the perspective you choose to take. You can overcome those negative self-beliefs and echoes of unhealthy messages, but you first need to agree with yourself to try.
Below we’ve outlined a few things you can try to help you shift your perspective away from feeling like a complete failure and towards one of growth and development. They include confidence-building tips, ways to feel connected with others, and how to treat yourself like a dear friend rather than an enemy.
1. Examine your core beliefs
When failure happens, what do your thoughts look like? How do you talk to yourself and treat yourself when you fail at something? If your self-talk is negative and you affirm that you were destined to fail anyway, try to examine where those negative thoughts come from.
Is there evidence to support your inner critic’s bold claim? Or could it be that you were led to believe that you’re a failure as a result of the implicit and explicit messages you recovered as a child?
No matter who you are, no matter your level of success or failure, it’s always beneficial to look within and examine your deepest values and core beliefs. Still, understand that doing so might uncover some challenging, uncomfortable, unresolved past feelings and painful emotions, so be prepared to deal with discomfort, especially if your relationship with failure is unhealthy.
Even though it can be daunting to look within at our core beliefs, it’s an important part of growing and developing as a person. In the process, make sure you have trusted loved ones and sources of support nearby or a phone call away in case things get a little too emotionally overwhelming.
Keep a self-awareness journal
Get out a journal, or buy a new one specifically for your self-examination. In your journal, write your thoughts about how you feel about yourself. Try to translate your inner dialogue and narrative into the page. It might feel like it’s going nowhere or that you’ve got a mental block, especially if you’re not used to writing, but stick with it.
Whether once a day or once a week, write in your journal and set aside some time to look back over what you wrote. Reading back over your journal can help you gain insight into what kind of thoughts are running through your mind, with which you can decide to challenge them and make some positive changes.
2. Shift your perspective
By whose standards are you a failure? Are they your standards, or have they been set by an overly critical parent, a toxic friend, or an emotionally abusive partner? Do they stem from within, or have they been created by culture and society that praises material success and financial gain over our inner success and well-being?
3. Identify your strengths
Failures and mistakes highlight our shortcomings and weaknesses, so balance that out by identifying your strengths. If you’ve experienced a particularly emotionally painful failure, then there’s a chance you’ll focus heavily on your flaws for a while. It’s always important to reflect on what went wrong when we’ve made a mistake or failed at something, but don’t confuse that rumination with harsh self-criticism.
Take some time to identify your strengths. Think about what you’re good at and what you always bring to the table. Consider if this instance of failure was your responsibility, or you were strong and tried your best, but something happened outside of your control.
4. Work on your confidence
If you feel like a failure, then you probably experience low self-esteem. Self-esteem – confidence in oneself and one’s abilities – is a crucial ingredient in living a healthy and happy life in which you’re emotionally resilient and willing to try new things.
If you struggle with low self-esteem, then your self-view is negative. You don’t feel confident in yourself and assume that you will fail before you even try. Low self-esteem is a strong sign that you should seek support, social or professional help, and work on improving.
It’s been consistently linked to depression and anxiety as both a causal factor and a symptom. So, it’s vital and entirely possible to work on and improve your level of confidence and self-esteem.
How to improve self-esteem
We gain confidence and self-esteem through positive experiences. We succeed at something, and that motivates us to keep going and try more things. When we fail consistently, we start to believe that we are incapable of success.
This belief takes shape in the brain because we think it so often. It forges a neural pathway that gets more and more defined the more we use it. (Neurons that fire together wire together)
The brain is neuro-plastic. It adapts and reshapes according to how we use it. The more we use it to think positive thoughts, such as affirmations, thoughts of kindness, and self-compassion, and focus on curiosity and learning rather than rumination and self-criticism, the easier it becomes for the brain to do that automatically.
You can teach the brain you’re capable and worthy by engaging in healthy habits that make you feel good about yourself. These habits could be anything from going to the gym or running to writing to painting to simply going for a walk in nature.
These are do-able, positive, and healthy habits that can help you build a sense of peace and confidence within yourself and go a long way in overcoming the belief that you’re a failure.
5. Cultivate self-compassion
How would you treat a friend who told you that they feel like a complete failure? Would you agree with them? Probably not. Instead, you’d probably remind them of their successes and their intrinsic worth. You’d help them remember that external failures are not a reflection of their inner worth, and you’d feel in your heart a wish for them to regain their sense of worthiness and well-being.
When we practice self-compassion, we become our friends. We don’t feed the negative inner critic but instead allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel with care and compassion. In Self-Compassion, the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Dr. Kristin Neff writes of self-compassion:
“Whenever I notice something about myself, I don’t like, or whenever something goes wrong in my life, I silently repeat the following phrases: This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to me at this moment? May I give me the compassion I need.”
Neff also reminds us that we’re human and that we don’t need to strive for perfection. “Being human is not about being any one particular way,’ explains Neff. ‘It is about being as life creates you—with your particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.”
6. Connect with people
Failure, and the self-loathing that often accompanies it, can make us feel lonely and isolated. It can feel like everyone is capable of success in living a good life except for us. If failure is making you feel lonely or down, don’t hesitate to reach out to others.
Connect with a trusted friend or family member to whom you can share your feelings and concerns. If they’re like most people, they’ll likely share with you some of their concerns and instances of failure that made them feel low too.
When you reach out and connect with others, try not to focus on your negative feelings too much. It’s healthy and beneficial to share your feelings with someone you trust, but remember that you don’t always have to focus on negativity.
Consider if there’s an activity that you both enjoy or one that you would like to try, and do it with that person. Don’t deny your feelings, but don’t forget there is so much life to be lived and feelings to experience that it’s a shame to focus solely on your negative feelings.
7. Practice self-care
Feeling like a failure is not only unhelpful; it’s unhealthy. This type of thinking can lead us into a cycle of negative thought and behavior patterns that jeopardize our health, increasing our risk of social isolation, substance abuse, and stress-related physical and mental health issues.
It’s always important to practice self-care, no matter how you feel about yourself. Self-care isn’t about luxury and indulgence, but rather prioritizing your wants and needs and meeting them as much as possible to be the best version of yourself. Self-care practices look different for everyone but generally, they include:
- Eating healthy, whole foods
- Exercising regularly
- Forming and maintaining strong social bonds
- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours a night)
8. Ask for help
Even though failure is a normal part of life, it can impact our emotional well-being and lead to a cascade of difficult feelings, including depression, anxiety, negative self-talk, and self-loathing.
If you struggle to cope with failure and you’re beginning to feel helpless, or like you want to give up, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Depression and anxiety are common and highly destructive and can significantly reduce your quality of life.
The good news is that effective and informed treatment and support are available. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a counselor or therapist if your feelings concern you.
A mental health professional can help you address your relationship with failure and help you build practical tools and techniques to cope with your negative feelings.
To sum up, one of the most important things to remember if you feel like a failure is that you’re not, despite what your negative inner critic claims.
Thinking you’re a failure is a maladaptive way of thinking and helps no one, and can make you lose sight of your inherent worth and purpose. It’s often a learned belief and can have a powerful influence over your life until you finally break free from it.
Though in the throes of negativity and perceived total failure, you might not even believe that things can get better; they can. However, they won’t get better if you don’t decide to make a conscious effort to shift your perspective and attitude, moving forward and commit to living a healthier, more positive life and better future.