Tips to overcome feelings of failure

Mental Health

25 September 2020

Who experiences feelings of failure?

If you suffer with feelings of failure – that you should have done better in life, that you aren’t popular or that you’re no good in interviews – you may take some comfort from knowing you aren’t alone.

Feeling different degrees of failure can happen at any age, and for many reasons. Young children may experience this if they find it hard to make friends, and throughout education success is largely measured by exam results. 

For young adults in their 20s to 30s success can be about finding “The One”, settling down and having a family. As we grow older the breakdown of relationships in our sixties and over can make us feel that we have failed, especially if one partner moves on and the other doesn’t. Through our adult lives failure at work and feeling that friends and family are more successful than we are can also sap our confidence and happiness.

Counting the emotional cost

Getting to grips with feelings of failure means recognising you have them and how much they are affecting you. Being passed over for promotion at work, not being picked to play on the team or being left out of social occasions are some of the potential triggers. Knowing your triggers is important to helping you overcome the problem. 

Experiencing feelings of failure is often linked to other health issues, including depression and stress. It’s not surprising when you look at some of the symptoms common in these conditions – having low self-esteem, feeling hopeless, helpless, lost and alone, and having continuous low mood or sadness.  

Physical symptoms can come alongside these emotional symptoms. You may have aches and pains that seem to come from nowhere and trouble sleeping. Other symptoms to watch for are struggling socially, both at home and with friends. Stress and anxiety about failing can also affect your performance at work. 

How to help yourself

Those feelings of failure can creep up on us in many situations. The good news is that you can take steps to tackle them before they get out of hand. It may take a little practice before you stop negative feelings in their tracks, but these tips should help you feel more positive.

  • Keep control of your inner voice: Saying to yourself “You should have tried harder, you’ve made yourself look stupid”, is what we call a faulty dialogue. When you start giving yourself these negative messages just say, “STOP”, and throw the thought out. Managing your inner voice is a life skill.
  • Congratulate yourself: Believe in the power of positive psychology. Say you took a risk, having prepared yourself in the best possible way, but it didn’t work in your favour. Take some time to look at what you’ve learned. It’s going into your pool of life experience, and you’ll have that experience to call upon.
  • Never label yourself as a failure: Labels tend to be self-fulfilling. If you believe you’re a failure you won’t buy a lottery ticket because you’ll know there’s no point, you’ll never get lucky. And that’s the best way to assure you never will.
  • Ban yourself from saying ‘I knew that would happen’: It’s a phrase only ever associated with perceived failure. 
  • Open up about your feelings: Bottling up negative feelings is likely to make things worse. Talk to someone you like and trust, and explain why you feel as though you’ve failed. The feelings of affection and support that come back to you should lift your spirits and help you feel more positive about yourself.

What next?

For some of us, feelings of failure may have taken over our thoughts to such an extent that we need some extra help. For instance, have you ever had a friend or relative list all the good things in your life, yet you’ve still been unable to see them as positives? 

These can be the kind of failure thoughts that are stress-associated. This means that you might need help to deal with your stress levels to get those failure thoughts to vanish.

If you find that you view even positive things and achievements in your life as failures, then it would be wise to get professional help for any potential stress or depression first.

Talk to your GP and see what they suggest. One option could be to try talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is often used to treat anxiety, depression and stress.

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