I Keep Asking Myself: Why Am I Such A Failure?
Updated March 24, 2020
Reviewer Lori Jones, LMHC
You may find yourself thinking that you're a failure because you did something wrong or because something bad happened to you that you believe is your fault. Maybe you got in trouble at work, or your significant other criticized you. It could be that your family is putting those ideas in your head by telling you things they think you should be doing with your life. It can even be caused by critical comments from strangers on social media. However, failing at something does not make you a failure. Focusing on your failures will not only make you feel bad, but it can also cause depression and lower your self-value.
Feeling like a failure is not terribly uncommon; at some point, even the world's greatest success stories dealt with failure, setback, and frustration. Although failure can feel like a sinkhole that is impossible to get out of, you can improve the way you see and feel about yourself, and you can work toward alleviating these feelings of failure. To give yourself some perspective, there are a few tools you may have at your disposal - most of them are contained entirely within you, without the need to access anything material or concrete. You might feel like a failure because you have failings - or there are things in which you have failed - but fortunately, setbacks and failed attempts do not make you a failure, they make you human.
Feeling Like a Failure: Childhood
For many, feeling like a failure is rooted in their childhood. Many children are taught that they must achieve certain heights in order to be seen, worthy, and loved. While the ideal is for every parent to love their children unconditionally, this is often not the case. Instead, many parents withdraw attention and affection when their children make mistakes, whether those perceived mistakes are small, such as a low grade on a report card or more substantial, such as a long-standing battle with substance abuse. Although there are certainly steps that need to be taken in both of these cases, withdrawing love, attention or affection is never an appropriate response.
You might also carry over feeling like a failure from childhood if your teachers or peers treated you in a way that suggested you were a failure. Teachers who are punitive toward struggling children can have a powerful, painful, and traumatic effect on the formation of a child's brain and emotional state, as can the judgment and bullying of peers. If a teacher ever mocked you, treated you poorly, compared you to other students, or humiliated you in the middle of class, you may have carried a sense of failure into adulthood. If your peers laughed at your clothes, made fun of your grades, mocked the way you talk, or spoke poorly of your family or friends, you might have internalized these negative descriptions of yourself and your situation, carrying this feeling over into your adult life.
Feeling Like a Failure: Self-Talk
The way you speak to yourself can also make you feel as though you are a failure. Again, making mistakes does not make you a failure. All it means is that you have failed, not that you are a failure. The way you speak to yourself and the way you frame your life are both extremely important in determining how you handle setbacks, how you tackle frustration and pain, and how successful you will be in moving forward, reclaiming your life, and making better choices. The way you speak to yourself is how you create your identity, and if you speak negatively and unkindly to yourself you will not be able to view yourself as successful, or even with compassion.
The next time you start to think or say, "I'm a failure," stop yourself and replace that with "I made a mistake," or "I failed at this, this time." Both of these give you room to feel sad or frustrated with a mistake without internalizing it and making it a part of your personality.
Feeling Like a Failure: Comparison
It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy, and failure is an important part of that. When you look around and see a wildly successful pop star, for instance, who have mountains of money, heaps of acclaim, and countless fans spanning the globe, all before the age of twenty, it can be difficult not to look at your own surroundings and feel as though you are somehow inadequate, unworthy, or that you have failed. Not everyone achieves success at the same rate or scale. On top of that, many people have found that success at that scale is not actually a pleasant experience as some might expect.
You might also feel like a failure when you look around and see that all of your friends are in relationships, are getting married, or are having children, while you are single or are just starting out in a relationship. Again, you cannot appreciate where you are if you are focusing your attention on what you lack. Relationships are difficult, and families can be filled with drama and dysfunction. It is essential to remember that you are no less worthy, and no less meaningful a human being when you do not have a partner by your side. Comparison is never an effective way of measuring where you are or where you should be because every single human being who is living and who has lived is wholly and entirely unique.
Feeling Like a Failure: Perceptions
Feeling like a failure can also be about perception. You might feel as though you are a failure because you are an entry-level lawyer, while all of your siblings are top-tier doctors, but to someone else, your situation is an enviable one. You may feel like a failure because you are a wife and mother to two young children, and all of your friends are attending concerts, visiting highbrow events, or climbing up the career ladder, but many women envy the ability to have a family to call their own.
This is to say that everyone has something of value that can be observed and can be seen as something to be valued by other people. It can very often be people's own perceptions that hold them back, rather than actual failure or worthlessness. Your perception can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a millstone around your neck, that holds you back from recognizing what you do have, and what wonderful traits you can claim as your own.
Moving On From Failure: Tools for Success
You are not a failure. No matter what you've done or where you are, you are not a failure. You might have had a damaging childhood that has shaped your life and encouraged you to make unhealthy choices. You might have experienced massive setbacks - perhaps due to chance, or perhaps due to your own negligence. Even if the latter is the case, you are not a failure; you've only just experienced failure and you've endured.
To help shift your mindset and move on from the notion of being a failure, rather than being a person who has failed, there are some practices and habits you can cultivate and adopt that will help you change your line of thinking, and may even dramatically change the person you see in the mirror each morning. These include:
1) Practicing Gratitude
A gratitude practice is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal. Studies show that consistently identifying the things in your life (or in yourself) that you are grateful for reduces feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration, and inadequacy and helps cultivate feelings of peace and contentment. Your gratitude practice may need to start infinitesimally small, and that's okay. Even just expressing gratitude for a beautiful flower you saw on your walk to work can begin to shift your mindset.
2) Practicing Self Care
Taking care of yourself is more important than cramming in another hour of work, forcing yourself to wrench your eyes open for another round of studying, and staring (in pain) at yet another social media post showing your friends and their seemingly superior lives. Practicing self-care means making sure you are sleeping plenty of hours each night, eating as many healthy, whole foods as you can, and getting your body moving in some way or another. Practicing self-care is far from throwing on a face mask; self-care is making your health and well being a priority and keeping it firmly atop that list.
3) Working Toward Your Goals
Working toward your goals does not have to mean spreading yourself thin to the point of exhaustion, rather it means taking at least one step toward your goals every day. If your goal is to set aside enough money to purchase your dream guitar, even putting a few extra dollars in a jar is working toward that goal. If your goal is to open your own business, idly doodling ideas for your logo is working toward your goal. Even small accomplishments are accomplishments and can help you build toward your goals, as well as building your courage and tenacity.
4) Seeking Help
Although working on improving your feelings toward yourself can be done on your own, sometimes, you need the help of an outside perspective. In these cases, meeting with a counselor can help you create healthy self-talk, routines, and habits. Counselors can also help you identify any underlying causes of your belief in your failure, such as negative childhood experiences, parental influences, and traumatic events. Working through all of these things can help you move away from the defeated moniker of "failure" and move toward the hopeful moniker of "work in progress." BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors is available to you from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Douglas helped me in a time of crisis, and I am very thankful for him. He is very good at helping in times of chaos, as he is able to help refocus energy and redirect thought. He listens well and has a very calming nature. I would recommend him to anyone who is looking to sort out stressors and negative self talk."
"I've been working with Kathleen for about two months. The thing I love most about Kathleen is that she celebrates with me in my success and finds things for me to celebrate in what I call my failures. Kathleen has definitely helped change and shape the way I think about myself and others."
Why You Are Not a Failure
It is important to remember that experiencing failure does not make you a failure; it makes you a human being who has failed. Practicing gratitude, self-care, bringing in the help of a counselor, and continuously working toward your goals can all help you leave behind a "failure" mentality and step forward into a fulfilling and rewarding life. Take the first step today.