“I feel like a failure.”
How many of you have said these words, either to your closest confidante or just to yourself, when no one else is around?
Feeling like a failure can be a stab in the gut, and if nothing is done about it, it’s a wound that can persist your whole life.
But how do you get over the feeling that you aren’t good enough, that you should just never bother, that no one around you wants you to participate or even try?
There is a way out, and it starts from looking within.
In this article, we dissect the psychology of feeling like a failure, the modern implications and manifestations of failure, and the steps you can take to overcome your negative feelings permanently.
Understanding the Psychology of Failure
There are few emotions worse than feeling like a failure.
What might seem like a trivial or insignificant hiccup to someone on the outside can actually feel like a major disaster to the person involved.
The weight that comes with the feeling of failure isn’t caused by the reality of the failure itself, but by the personal perception of that failure, and what that means to the person.
You might experience the feeling of failure when…
– You scroll through social media and see other people landing new jobs, traveling to cool places, doing fun and interesting things, and you compare yourself to them and realize you haven’t done nearly as much
– You stick your neck out and try to do something that you were worried you might not be able to accomplish, only to find that your anxieties were real since you ended up failing
– You find yourself rejected by someone who you really wanted to impress or attract, and recognize that you have a pattern of being rejected by those around you
The burning feeling of failure isn’t always triggered by a significant life event.
Sometimes a trigger can be as simple as forgetting to pay a bill on time, or missing an overdue assignment at work or school.
The amount of hurt we let ourselves experience due to failure is not proportional to the failed event itself, meaning we can’t think of it as a rational, statistical pain.
Instead, feelings of failure depend more on what is going on inside the person rather than what actually happened to them. So why exactly does failure hurt so much?
Feeling Like a Failure: A Modern Spiral Caused by Unmet Expectations
It’s no surprise that depression is on the rise all around the modern world, particularly among the younger generations.
And one of the most commonly cited causes for depression can be traced back to feeling like a failure: the lack of accomplishment, the lack of personal meaning, the lack of a reason to wake up every morning.
We all want something for ourselves.
Some of us might want to start our own business; others might want to pursue higher education.
Maybe you want to write a book, learn a new language, or get to your ideal body weight.
Our dreams and goals often require daily persistence.
It requires the internal desire to fight the default mode of the brain, which is to preserve energy and stay in a state of rest, only to rise when the body needs to fulfill a basic need.
For all of human history up until the last few decades, it took tons of work to stay alive – hunting, farming, working from sunrise to sunset.
Accomplishing tasks was part of day-to-day life, simply because not accomplishing them meant losing your farm or your job or your house.
And every time we accomplish a task, no matter how big or small, our brain feeds us a reward hormone, or a dopamine kick.
That’s why it feels so good to do something, as long as that something feels like a positive contribution to your environment.
But the modern world has changed all that; as long as you have savings or friends and family to support you, you can live a life where you accomplish nothing for weeks, months, or years, and still survive quite happily.
Food, water, and shelter are readily available to most parts of the world, especially if your family has the money to afford it, and we trick our brains into releasing the feel-good dopamine hormone with video game victories, social media likes, and TV show bingeing.
Simply put, we trick our brains into believing that we are living a rewarding life, without actually living it.
Ask Your Brain: What Have You Accomplished?
The brain eventually wakes up in a state of unrest.
All our needs are satisfied, including the hormone that regulates our positive mood, but a voice in the back of our minds is still saying: but you haven’t done anything, have you?
This puts us in a trap where a person only has two options: fight against your personal status quo and go achieve the goals you want to accomplish, or let your brain rot in a state of mild satisfaction and overwhelming distraction with the tools of the modern world that keep us superficially content.
The truth is, the foundations that make up our urges and desires are still animal. No matter how much we pretend otherwise, it is easy to forget that the human brain is rooted in animal evolutionary biology.
Civilization and technology can’t change the fact that it was just a few ten thousand years ago that we were living like cavemen, instinctually filling our base needs.
Evolution has yet to catch up, leaving our brains at a crossroads: What is the purpose of working if we already have what we need to survive?
When we give up and let the lazy parts of our brain take over our personalities and our choices, this is when we are most prone to feeling like a failure.
Fending Off Failure: Modern Psychological Manifestations of Feeling Like a Failure
So in what ways do these feelings of being a failure manifest in us? The simplest and most common manifestation is sadness and depression.
We feel small, weak, and inadequate. We feel like we should just stop wasting our time and let the world continue spinning without our involvement.
What we don’t realize is the other side of these feelings: we are being told to give up, so that we can go back to resting and being blissfully unaware and content.
But there are many kinds of “feeling like a failure” manifestations that we must be aware of and tackle appropriately as we face them. Some of these include:
Learned helplessness – Learned helplessness is an internalized feeling of failure that is brought upon by someone forcing another individual into a state of helplessness.
When the victim eventually learns that they have no personal control over their situation, they submit to their own helplessness and become unable to work towards any kind of improvement.
This is one of the most dangerous kinds of internalized failure, and it is usually seen in abusive relationships.
Imposter syndrome – Have you ever stopped, looked around you, and felt like you didn’t belong in your job or station? Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud, that you lack the qualifications or credentials to be the person you are.
This social phenomenon has multiplied in recent years due to the rise of social media, and people negatively comparing themselves to their peers.
Glorified victimhood – There are some people who thrive in their “failure” characteristics, and instead of trying to escape it or push themselves forward, they instead glorify their own states of victimhood.
This is a negative byproduct of the otherwise progressive identity culture of the last few years, and can be observed when people try to one-up each other in proving who is the bigger victim.
While a complicated issue, one theory for the rise of self-glorified victimhood is that it acts as a defense mechanism against feelings of failure, without forcing the self to leave its status-quo causing the feelings of failure.
Instead of confronting your internalized failure and working to improve on it, you convince yourself as to why you are inherently incapable of overcoming your failure, thus removing the responsibility of improving your life from your own efforts.
Main Learning Points to Overcome the Feeling of Failure
Overcoming your feelings of failure mean adjusting certain foundational thoughts on the inside.
This means that we have to change the way we look at the concept of failure, our place in the world around us, and our ability to positively manipulate our own path.
There are three main learning points you must begin with to start getting over your anxiety, your worry, and your feelings of failure. These are:
1) Your Mind and Body are Connected
For thousands of years, the human body was just as important as the mind, if not more so. While the mind helped us invent and create, our world demanded physical activity on a daily basis.
But as stated above, the modern world has changed all that – many of us live sedentary lives, and the most physical activity we engage in is walking from the home to the car, from the car to the store or the office, and so on.
The entirety of our free time is spent feeding the mind – watching TV, scrolling through our phones, playing video games – all while the body wastes away.
To live a truly happy and fulfilled life, it is important that we satisfy the needs of both our mind and body, because your identity is more than just your head, but every part of your physical presence.
If you find yourself feeling like a failure and you have no idea how to climb out of your pit, the first step you can take is just going out for a run. Start from there: reconnect with your body before anything else.
2) Thoughts and Words are Powerful
For this, we must refer to the ancient quote from Lao Tzu:
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
For many people today, self-deprecation is a social tool. We use it to break the ice, or to appeal ourselves to those around us, or to be ironic or funny or a number of other things.
But when we put ourselves down so casually, no matter how much you tell yourself that your words are harmless or are just jokes, you affect your psyche deep inside.
Protect the thoughts you think and the words you say.
Hold yourself to a higher standard, and say to yourself: “I won’t say those things anymore.” You are better than ironic self-hating jokes, and bigger than the need to resort to them.
Once you teach yourself to start protecting what comes out of your mouth, you will see that your actions, habits, and entire character slowly change for the better.
3) Failure and Feeling Like a Failure Do Not Necessarily Come Together
Failure is a part of life. We all fail, and there is no getting around it.
The road to success is never a straight arrow from one point to another. There are twists and turns, curves and missteps.
The most successful people are also those who have experienced the most failures, but what makes them different from everyone else is a single realization: that failure and feeling like a failure are not necessarily entwined.
The failure is the failure, but how you feel about the failure is up to you. You must learn to embrace failures instead of letting them get you down.
Once you master the art of falling down without staying down, you will start falling down more often; but each fall will get you closer to who you want to be.
How to Turn Failure Into Positivity and Productivity
It’s easy to use praise, affirmation, and rewards to push yourself harder and climb higher mountains.
But when it feels like you’ve reached the end of the road, it’s difficult to muster the courage to find your way back and start over.
Because at the end of it all, the reason why it’s so hard to move forward is because you’re afraid you are going to be stuck in the same pit again.
Failure isn’t about lack of strength; it’s about lack of trust.
Failures can feel like the biggest thing in the world, not because you’re a weak person, but because it can undermine everything you have believed in and worked for.
But failure doesn’t have to feel like the end of the road.
Start building your confidence by taking control of how you perceive failure, both real and imaginary.
In times where you feel too frozen by fear or doubt, daily affirmations can pave the way to self-confidence.
Repeat these things to yourself everyday and internalize the message to give yourself a proper boost.
“I’m taking two steps forward, one step back.”
The first failure is always heartbreaking, but the one good thing that could come out of that is learning how to do better next time.
Maybe you told yourself you would try harder.
By the second time you’ve failed, you realized sheer force isn’t going to be enough; you decide to be smarter and evaluate what could be leading to your failure.
The point is, every single time you fail, you’re learning something that will propel you forward. Just because you reach a low point doesn’t mean you’re at the starting point once again.
“What I’m feeling is proof that I have what it takes.”
If you fall short on a smaller goal, or take a little too long to achieve a small victory, these instances can lead to feelings of doubt and failure.
If you’re feeling disappointed in what you’ve achieved, no matter how big or small, it’s more than enough proof that you have the drive, work ethic, and ambition to do things most people won’t.
“There are other things within my control, and I will focus on that.”
Failure isn’t always a sign that you didn’t do your best – sometimes it’s just a reminder that not all facets of life are within your control.
Are you feeling like you’re lagging professionally? Don’t let it eat you up inside.
Find other sources of success and achievement within your personal life. You can set physical goals (going to the gym, eating better, achieving a better physique) that you can actually control.
The point is to find different avenues in your life that you can actively influence.
By doing so, you mitigate other losses, while improving yourself in one way or another.
“Failure is temporary, and it only becomes permanent if I don’t do anything about it.”
Your failure will only define you once you let it control who you become. You could easily spend a month wallowing in embarrassment and fear, or you could use that month to work on what you’re lacking and get back on the wagon again.
Remember: failure only becomes permanent if you never try again.
“I’m not a failure, I just need time.”
Sometimes it’s not about who’s better or who wants it more. A better way of looking at success is through timelines.
Anyone who’s better than you has had more time to develop what they are currently good at. Don’t say I’m not good enough, say I’m not good yet.
Everyday Habits of Successful People
1) Lessen Your Social Media Use
Social media has easily become the world’s most accessible procrastination drug.
If the problem is that you’re not motivated to do anything in the first place, it’s a clear symptom that you are overdosing yourself with online dopamine.
Stop making tweets, shares, and good Instagram photos the basis for your achievement and self-worth.
The most important (and effective) way to train your brain into looking for real-life basis for success is to cut yourself away from social media.
You don’t have to go cold turkey – just use less of it every single week until you have found a better, more productive ways to spend your time.
How To Make It Happen:
- Install an extension like Rescue Time that will automatically blocked specified web pages.
- Give yourself a daily limit every week, and make it 30 minutes to an hour shorter the following week.
2) Fix Your Sleeping and Eat Healthy
Humans may be the smartest animals alive, but we’re still animals nonetheless.
This means that our bodies, as complex as they may be, rely on good sleep and proper nutrition to keep moving.
In fact, researchers have found that the benefits of healthy sleep and nutrition go beyond the physical; a study found that negative sleep habits can negatively impact self-control, leading to more compulsive behavior, poor decision making, and decreased attentional capacity.
The next time you’re feeling less creative and productive, make sure you’re getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep and eating three good meals a day.
The brain uses about 20% of the calories you consume everyday, so don’t neglect to feed your thinking machine.
How To Make It Happen:
- Aim to have a “no screen” policy by 8 to 10 PM, until morning.
- Don’t fall for fad diets and hip new fitness regiments. The rule of thumb is to consume 45-65% of your daily calories from carbs (processed and whole grains), , 10-35% from protein (chicken, tofu, eggs, beans), and 20-35% from fats (vegetable oils, dairy)
- Take 0.5g of melatonin, a naturally-occuring sleeping aid, every night to help you fall asleep better.
3) Accomplish Something Every Day
Make productivity a habit, not a trait.
When you’re used to ticking things off your list every single day, your brain starts to get used to that rush of dopamine.
This is a fantastic way to build momentum and reinforce a solid work ethic.
The more you work every single day, the easier it will be to find the energy to continue doing work. Set a couple of hours of distraction-free productivity every day to get your brain accustomed to focusing on a task and finishing it.
How To Make It Happen:
- Keep your to-do lists short and realistic. Avoid setting yourself up for failure by aiming to do two big tasks and a number of smaller tasks a day.
- Distinguish between tasks and chores. Ever find yourself cleaning when you’re supposed to be working on that 3,000-word report? Chores can easily be an avenue for procrastination.
4) Celebrate Small Victories
Celebrating small goal posts are just as important as reaching the end of the race.
Turn one big goal into a series of micro-goals that you can track individually.
Treat those as milestones so you have something to look forward to every week or month.
Doing so will keep you motivated, and, more importantly, allow you to understand just how far you’ve come VS how far you have to go.
How To Make It Happen:
- Gamify aspects you find most challenging. Trouble losing weight? Give yourself a reward every time you reach a new power record or hit a new milestone. Not finding work enjoyable? Buy yourself something nice every time you sign on a new client or complete 10 big projects.
- Set clear definitions on what you consider a “victory”. Preserve the special and unique feeling associated with your small successes by limiting it to when you actually achieve something.
- Celebrate qualitative and quantitative victories equally. If you notice improvements in your behavior, work ethic, and disposition towards progress and failure, keep a mental note for those as well.
5) Define the Weak Points
Instead of perceiving failure as one big event, dissect it as a series of variables and processes.
Try to determine what caused the failure – was it personal? Situational? Was it skill-related? Time-related?
By doing so, you make the failure feel less personal and turn it into a problem-solving opportunity.
Even if you can’t do anything to undo the situation, you will always have this experience in your arsenal.
The next time you experience failure, you will feel more in control because you know how to deal with it logistically and mentally.
How To Make It Happen:
- Consider outside opinion whether you’re working on personal or professional goals. Sometimes other people can prove more honest and straightforward when assessing our weak points and shortcomings – use those to reevaluate yourself.
- Study every single variable possible. Yes, that includes you. It’s easy to blame your team, “the process”, the algorithm, or just about anything else when it comes to failing. Remain objective and treat each and every valuable with equal discretion.
Accepting Failure: Redefine it as Growth
As we said above, failure is a part of life. You can’t learn to stand, walk, and run without falling down. And yes, falling down brings pain and discomfort, which we are taught to avoid at all costs.
But the most successful people are those who have failed the most. Because failure isn’t truly “failure”.
Not achieving your goals is only failure if you allow yourself to think of it as a failure. If you let your inner voice criticize and put you down, and if you let discouragement be the biggest takeaway from your attempt at self-betterment.
In truth, every failure we have is an opportunity to learn and grow.
And only through growth can we become the people we want to be, until we are so far away from the initial failures that we can only look back on them and wonder: why did I ever let those things bother me?
Grow, learn, and fail. And finally, succeed.
How this one Buddhist teaching turned my life around
My lowest ebb was around 6 years ago.
I was a guy in my mid-20s who was lifting boxes all day in a warehouse. I had few satisfying relationships – with friends or women – and a monkey mind that wouldn’t shut itself off.
During that time, I lived with anxiety, insomnia and way too much useless thinking going on in my head.
My life seemed to be going nowhere. I was a ridiculously average guy and deeply unhappy to boot.
The turning point for me was when I discovered Buddhism.
By reading everything I could about Buddhism and other eastern philosophies, I finally learned how to let things go that were weighing me down, including my seemingly hopeless career prospects and disappointing personal relationships.
In many ways, Buddhism is all about letting things go. Letting go helps us break away from negative thoughts and behaviors that do not serve us, as well as loosening the grip on all our attachments.
Fast forward 6 years and I’m now the founder of Hack Spirit, one of the leading self improvement blogs on the internet.
Just to be clear: I’m not a Buddhist. I have no spiritual inclinations at all. I’m just a regular guy who turned his life around by adopting some amazing teachings from eastern philosophy.
You may also like reading:
Sign up to Hack Spirit's daily emails
Learn how to reduce stress, cultivate healthy relationships, handle people you don't like and find your place in the world.