If you want to be a success in any part of your life, then it’s likely you will experience failure.
The path to getting what you want is to first not get what you want.
But the problem comes when we start to attach the label of ‘being a failure’ to ourselves.
Instead of seeing the specific failure in our lives as an event, we begin to transfer the feeling of failure to ourselves.
Feeling like a failure is a common experience most of us have throughout our life and career. There is a tendency to be very hard on ourselves and to see our life as ‘not measuring up.’
In this article, we will look at how to stop feeling like a failure in your life and how to think about the failures you have experienced differently.
Why Do We Feel Like A Failure In Life?
How many people feel like a failure in life?
It’s fair to say that most people experience the feeling of failure many times in their lifetime.
Whether it is feeling like we have made a small mistake or whether our life is a complete failure, all of us experience the same negative feelings.
In fact, a 2019 survey of 1500 men in the UK discovered that 53% felt like a failure, and 35% felt that they were ‘way behind’ in life and in their careers.
The problem, it seems, is that we listen to our inner critic instead of perceiving our failure in a healthy way. And on top of this, most of the advice about how to stop feeling like failure feels trite or outdated.
We’ve all heard that Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before inventing the light bulb.
We’ve all heard that positive affirmations help us stay motivated.
What we don’t hear much about is how we create our own intrusive thoughts, and that is what causes us to have such a hard time.
The tendency to feel like a failure comes from three different mental traps:
1. Not Meeting Your Own Expectations
When you have a goal or plan in life that you want to achieve, there is a high chance that you won’t succeed exactly as hoped.
The reality is that life doesn’t usually work out exactly as you plan or hope. However, if you persist in what you’re trying to achieve, you will usually get there.
The problem with not meeting your expectations is that you beat yourself up. Negative thoughts about not meeting your goal can cause you to descend into painful feelings of failure.
2. Comparing Yourself Unfavorably
Comparing yourself to others is a mental trap that causes us to feel envy, resentment, and disappointment.
If you examine the lives and successes of others, there is a high chance that you will find someone who seems more successful than you.
From the outside, it always seems like the lives of other people are much more successful than our own. It is very easy to compare yourself unfavorably to other people who appear to be successful.
The reality is that most people experience a lot more failure than they share publicly. Social media is dominated by people sharing their life ‘highlight reel’ and omitting the times when they fail or fall short.
If you only look at the lives of others as your yardstick for success, then you are bound to feel like a failure.
3. Idealizing Others
Very often, the feeling of failure in life is tied to not achieving a goal or reaching a certain level of success. But the way we choose what success means is very linked to our culture and social groups.
Human beings are tribal by nature, and we want to fit into the norm of what others are doing.
If we see others around us succeeding in some specific way, we desire the same for ourselves.
When our friends or family have good jobs, get married, have children, travel, start a business, buy a home, or achieve something significant, we think we need to be, do, and have the same.
But the reality is that no matter how much we try, we can never meet the idealized version of what society or others expect of us.
Whenever you idealize the life of another person and want to succeed like them, you are likely to set yourself up to feel like a failure.
Feeling Like a Failure at Different Life Stages
Most of us will experience failure at some stage of life. Some people seem to have their life figured out early, whereas the majority of people take longer to get their life together.
It seems there are different worries and fears that begin to appear at different ages in our lives. Feeling like a failure or feeling behind in life is a common experience, no matter what age you are.
Feeling Like a Failure in Your 20s
Many people will begin to feel like a failure in their 20s because their friends have a life plan or are seemingly already succeeding in college or a career path.
The reality is that your 20s are a period of experimentation and learning to live your life in your own way. There is no defined way that you should live in your 20s. Even though some people might jump straight into a career path, that doesn’t mean everyone has to.
It is tempting in your twenties to label yourself as a failure if you don’t have a clear life plan or some sort of career path. Remember, though, that your 20s are a time to learn, grow, and discover what matters to you.
Feeling Like A Failure in Your 30s
Feeling like a failure at 30 is a common experience. Many of your friends and peers may have found settled relationships, might have bought a home, and had some career success.
If you feel like you have wasted your life up to your 30s, then not all is lost. It’s likely that even though you haven’t achieved success like others, you have gained a lot of valuable experiences and insights.
Remember, there is no rush to become a big success. In fact, punishing yourself to get results in your career too quickly can sometimes cause you to feel burned out.
Feeling Like a Failure in Your 40s
Feeling like a failure at 40 years old is tougher because we have had some life experience and think that we ‘should’ have succeeded. Many people have families, have equity in a home, and have risen up the ranks in their careers.
Just because others have achieved some conventional success by the age of 40, that doesn’t mean that you have to have done the same.
Success is a relative term, and it means something completely different for every person. The risk of labeling your life as a failure at 40 is that you have another 40 years (or more) ahead of you. Even though you haven’t succeeded in the ways you hoped or that others have, that doesn’t mean you can’t win in the years ahead.
The Label of Failure
It took me a long time to understand the difference between a failure in my life and feeling like a failure.
Here’s the distinction:
Failures are life events where you don’t achieve what you aim for.
Feeling like a failure is putting a label on yourself.
The reality is that feeling like a failure is a personal choice we make. At some point, we decide to label ourselves as a failure or not measure up in some way.
Think about this: have you ever seen a baby that felt like a failure? Of course not.
Babies and young children live in the present moment and don’t have the ability (yet) to judge themselves as being ‘a success’ or ‘a failure.’
Every setback we experience can easily become a perceived failure and create a negative emotional spiral, and affect our mental health.
Other People Don’t Feel Our Failure
Even though we think others see us as a failure, the reality is that we are the ones perceiving them as thinking this way.
We are projecting our feeling of failure onto ourselves.
Living in a society that values success, achievement, and status means that we often think others are looking at us as not measuring up or being a failure.
However, most people are too concerned with what others think about them to spend much time thinking about us.
When you begin to realize most people are not judging you or labeling you as a failure, it gives you the freedom to go easier on yourself as well.
How Do You Stop Feeling Like a Failure?
To stop feeling like a failure, you have to begin to look at your life more objectively. You have to see the reality of your situation and remove the emotions that you feel.
To help you stop the feelings of failure, there are several reframing exercises you can do.
Write Out Your List of Failures
Ask yourself the following questions:
- How Many Times Have You Failed?
- Did you Actually Cause all the Failures you Experienced?
Take some time and list out all the failures you have ever experienced. It might be a long list, or it might not be very long at all. The key here is that when you write out your failures, you can begin to see them more objectively.
Next, once you have your complete list, you can ask yourself if all the failures were your own fault. It is likely that a lot of the failures you experienced were due to you doing or not doing something.
However, there will also be a portion of your failures that had very little to do with you.
The good news here is that if you did cause the failure, you can learn from it. If you didn’t cause it, you can let it go and forgive yourself.
Choose One Area To Strengthen
When you feel like a failure, it can feel like everything is hopeless. You might not want to keep trying or make more effort.
This feeling of being demotivated or apathetic is normal after you experience failure. Especially if you have put in a lot of effort towards a goal or ideal, failure can make you feel angry, resentful, and even depressed.
One key way to move past the feeling of failure is to look at an area where you have some small successes. This is one of the most practical ways to build back your motivation and mental health.
It might be an area of knowledge, a skill, or a strength that you have as a person.
Take some time each week to focus on this area of strength and to build upon it further. This might mean learning more about your area of knowledge. It might mean improving your skills. It might mean attempting to achieve something new in that area.
By strengthening your strength, you will feel more powerful and in control. You will begin to see yourself as successful, even if it’s only in a small way.
How Do You Know If You’re a Failure?
The only way to truly be a failure is to stop trying to achieve what you want.
As long as you have a goal, and you keep persisting towards it – no matter how slowly – that means you cannot be labeled as a failure.
Consider this: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls lost three consecutive titles in 1988, 1989, and 1990. The team then went on to win the NBA Championship three times in a row in 1991, 1992, and 1993.
If Jordan and the Bulls had labeled themselves as failures in the early years, they wouldn’t have kept pushing and improving themselves for their eventual success.
The truth is that you only become a failure in life if you stop.
If you stop trying, stop caring, and stop hoping, that means you are likely to continue failing.
Your internal belief that you are a failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Dwelling on a perceived failure can lead to low self esteem, fear, anxiety, and depression.
But even if you keep growing in some small way, learning from each failure, that means that you cannot be labeled as a failure.
Failure Is At The Core of Character
Perhaps the most important thing you can learn from failure is who you truly are.
Nobody who succeeds in any area of life has it easy. Any successful person has experienced hundreds or thousands of setbacks on the way. Their accomplishment or status as a high achiever has only come after a lot of emotional distress and recovery from their past failure.
Sometimes people choose to see their failure as a reason for giving up. Others choose to use the experience of failure as a lesson.
The choice of how long to keep trying and how to look at a failure is really up to you.
People who succeed do so because they have strong character. And it’s only the adversity of failure that can build the resolve, confidence, and wisdom to become someone great.
Feeling like a failure is always a decision.
But the choice to keep going is what decides who you are.
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