What To Do When You Feel Like A Failure

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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. Feelings of failure 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 not only makes you feel bad but can also cause depression and lower your self-esteem. 

A behind view of two women that are walking on a pier near a body of water; they are swinging their arms.
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Feelings of failure can hold you back
Feeling like a failure is not 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 challenging 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. 

There are a few tools you may have at your disposal for doing just that. You might feel like a failure because you have failings, but keep in mind that setbacks and failed attempts do not make you a failure; they make you human.

The potential causes of feeling like a failure

There are many potential causes of feeling like you’re a failure. These are some of the most common. 

Childhood experiences

For many, feeling like a failure is rooted in their childhood. Many children are taught that they must achieve certain things 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 use. Although there are certain steps that may need to be taken in both of these cases, withdrawing love, attention or affection is never an appropriate response.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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. Suppose your peers laughed at your clothes, made fun of your grades, mocked the way you talked, or spoke poorly of your family or friends. In these cases, you might have internalized these negative descriptions of yourself and your situation, carrying this feeling over into your adult life.

Negative self-talk

The way you speak to yourself can also make you feel as though you are a failure. The way you speak to yourself and how you frame your life can be 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 could struggle to view yourself as successful.

A man is sitting at a desk and using a laptop; he has a hand on his head and an upset countenance.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh

The next time you start to think or say, "I'm a failure," you may want to stop and replace that with "I made a mistake," or "I failed at this, this time". Both of these statements can give you room to feel sad or frustrated with a mistake without internalizing it and making it a part of your identity.

Comparison

It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy. When you look around and see a wildly successful pop star, for instance, who has 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, though. On top of that, many people have found that success at that scale is not actually a pleasant experience.

You might also feel like a failure if you look around and see that all 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 likely won’t be able to appreciate where you are if you focus your attention on what you lack. Relationships are difficult, and families can be filled with drama and dysfunction. It may be beneficial to remember that you don’t need a partner to be a worthy and meaningful human being or live a purposeful life. 

Perceptions

Feeling like a failure can be a mere matter of perception. You might feel as though you are a failure because you are an entry-level lawyer, for example, while all your siblings are top-tier doctors. To someone outside the family, your situation would likely be an enviable one. You may feel like a failure because you are a wife and mother to two young children, but all your friends are attending concerts, visiting highbrow events, or climbing up the career ladder. Still, many women envy the ability to have a family to call their own. It can often be people's own perceptions that hold them back, rather than actual failure or worthlessness.

Moving on from feelings of failure: Tools for success

You are not a failure. You might have had an adverse 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 from the notion of being a failure to the idea that you are a person who has failed, there are some practices and habits you can cultivate and adopt. These will help you change your line of thinking and may even change your perception of the person you see in the mirror each morning:

Practicing gratitude

A gratitude practice is a powerful tool to have. 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 small, and that's okay. Simply expressing gratitude for a beautiful flower you saw on your walk to work can begin to shift your mindset.

Practicing self care

Taking care of yourself may be more important than cramming in another hour of work, forcing yourself to complete another round of studying, or staring at yet another social media post. Practicing self-care means making sure you are sleeping plenty of hours each night, eating as many healthy foods as you can, and getting your body moving in some way or another. Practicing self-care means making your health and well-being a priority and keeping it firmly atop that list.

Working toward your goals

Working toward your goals does not have to mean spreading yourself thin to the point of exhaustion. Rather, it can mean 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 still accomplishments, and they can help you work toward your goals and build up your courage and tenacity.

iStock/Kateryna Onyshchuk
Feelings of failure can hold you back

Seeking help

Although working on improving your feelings toward yourself can be done on your own, sometimes you might 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 underlying causes leading to your low self-esteem such as negative childhood experiences, parental influences, or traumatic events, for example. Working through these things can help you move away from the defeated moniker of "failure" and move toward the hopeful moniker of "work in progress".

Therapy has been proven to help patients work through self-esteem and self-worth challenges. However, while you’re still feeling these negative emotions, it can be hard to reach out for help in person. You may feel undeserving of treatment, for instance, or you may not feel confident enough to talk about your feelings in a traditional, office-based setting. In these cases, you might feel more comfortable with online therapy. An internet-based setting may feel like a safer space to talk about your feelings. As an added benefit, online counseling can be less expensive than in-person counseling as well. 

Current research suggests that internet-delivered therapy is an effective mode of treatment for individuals experiencing mental health challenges like low self-esteem. For example, one study, conducted by Brigham Young University researchers, found that technology-based therapy is as effective as traditional in-person therapy and offers other added benefits including “lower cost, no travel time ... no waitlists, and trackable progress”.

BetterHelp’s online therapy can support you

If you’re experiencing self-esteem challenges, a BetterHelp therapist can help you explore your concerns and work toward healthy habits. BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors is available to you from the comfort and safety of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Appointments are conducted by phone or videoconference, or you can communicate with your counselor by email or in-app messaging. 

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues:

“Shawn has helped me gain a positive perspective on my life and change my focus from shortcomings or failures to my strengths and achievements. He really examined my problems carefully and provided worksheets to help me identify my goals and triggers for my anger issues. This greatly helped me to increase self-awareness”.

“I appreciate Phillip’s expertise. I don’t feel like a failure or a crazy person when I express my problems. He gives me practical ways to deal with some of my issues. I never feel as though my problems are too big or too ridiculous and that he will get tired of hearing them. I feel welcomed and I feel heard whenever I speak with him and I appreciate that. We are not of the same race or culture but I feel very comfortable expressing to him problems and things that I face daily”.

Takeaway

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.
You are deserving of positive self-esteem
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