Updated: May 7, 2021
What to say, think, and do when the feeling of failure takes over your life.
Is it impossible to escape the feeling of failure? After all, don’t we feel we fail more in life than succeed? You’ve probably heard plenty of famous quotes about failure. “Giving up is the only way to fail.” “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.” There are literally hundreds of famous quotes on failure. They point to it being an inevitable truth of existence. And how turning failure into a learning experience is what successful people do. There is truth in all of those famous quotes. But knowing useful ways to think about failure is one thing. Understanding how to actually do it is an entirely different thing.
In this article, we’re going to take a journey that unpacks everything that comes with the thought - “I feel like a failure.”
We’ll discover where that thought and feeling originates. Who has those feelings? What you can do to recognize the root cause of failure? And how you can turn the feeling of failure upside down to make it do all the great things those famous quotes say it does.
How Do You Know if You're a Failure?
You know you’re a failure when you feel there’s a lot of judgment on you that either you or others have placed. You also will notice you have low self-confidence. You don’t feel great about where you’re going, what you’re doing, how you feel about yourself, and you just feel stuck. Maybe you think your life is dull, lacking meaning, and when you look to the future, you don’t see happiness.
The truth is you’re not a failure; nobody is a “failure.” By definition, we’re actually succeeding way more every minute of life than we’re failing. Think about all the hundreds of micro-tasks you do every day that end in success. When was the last time you failed at brushing your teeth? How about putting your socks on?
We tend to call ourselves failures after missing the big goals like getting that new job. Making a relationship work. Getting that raise you know you earned. You come up short, then assign yourself the title of failure, as if you fail at everything, not just the most difficult things, that maybe you have never even tried before.
The first thing you should know is that’s not fair. And it’s not even a thing. Yes, you failed to achieve your goal or get something you wanted. But does that one thing define who you are? No, because nobody is defined by one thing. We are way too complex.
Failure is not a thing that you are. It’s a belief that you control internally.
Can a Person Be a Failure?
You probably already know the answer to this. No, a person cannot be a failure. A belief or way of thinking can, however, fail to get a desired result. It fails in the sense of stopping your momentum from getting what you want. The system you’re using to navigate your world is the failure - not you.
The truth is, many people fail to meet their goals or achieve their dreams because they never even try. They don’t believe they can, so they never take the first step. When you don’t believe you can achieve something, you’ll never try, and why would you if you knew the outcome would be a destined failure? If you “know” you’re a failure, it would be a waste of energy to try. And this becomes a win to you because you made a wise decision about knowing you would fail. At least that’s how you rationalize it when you feel bad and are trying to make yourself feel better. But of course, it never lasts. Good news is, you don’t try and you then experience the possibility of failure. Bad news is, you don’t try to and then experience the possibility of success.
Who Told You To Believe That?
We have these long-standing beliefs about who we are that have been with us for most of our life. By age three, 80% of your beliefs about yourself in the world have been established. So if you have this “I feel like a failure” dialogue in your head, it’s been there for most of your life.
If you know anything about brain development, you’ll know a three-year-old’s brain is a long way from being fully developed. Is your three-year-old brain coming to a logical conclusion using reason and evidence to assign itself the label of failure? That’s a firm no. Your three-year-old brain has been assigned the failure label by its experiences within its environment. And it’s almost always the interactions with your parents that shape that early identity that stays with you until you realize you can be your own author and assign your own identity.
As long as you hold on to your assigned identity, you’ll forever be experiencing your existence through that filter. If something good happens or a new opportunity arises, the default feeling of I’m a failure, so I can’t have that emerges. Then you act on your beliefs, so your actions match your paradigm.
Oh, they're having fun, but I can't have fun. I cannot be successful. I am a failure. And when you have that permeating through your whole experience, it makes it impossible to create success because if you succeed, you betray the most sacred belief you hold about who you are - and cease to exist. In a real sense, acting on what you believe has kept you alive, and it would be very dangerous to deviate. At least that’s what the reptilian or survival layer of your brain keeps telling you.
How Can We Avoid Failure?
We’re always going to fail or miss the mark when we’re aiming for something big. But the more adjustments we make, the closer we’ll get to the target until we eventually hit it.
Think about how we learn as humans. When you were two-year-old learning to walk, you’d take a step and plop down, but you didn’t get upset. You’d just get up and try again and again, make the necessary and appropriate adjustments, and eventually, you were walking and on to your next goal.
Your brain creates neural pathways, which are basically survival mechanisms to get safely to the next moment. When you uncover how your unique pathways were created, you’ll discover where your belief structure of “I feel like a failure” is being held. Once that root cause is uncovered, you can unpack the whole structure and make a new offer to your now fully mature brain. You can ask important questions like “Is it okay to feel different?” “What will happen if I replace this belief with a new one?”
NLP or Neuro-linguistic programming is a tool that can help you discover that root cause and create a bridge from your current belief experience to your desired future. We’ll talk more about the power tool NLP is and how it works later.
NLP teaches the value of reframing. Simply saying things differently can have a powerful effect on how you experience something. So if you say, “I would like to feel more at ease,” or “I would like to feel happier,” rather than saying, “I don't want to feel like a failure,” you create a different picture in your subconscious mind. When you say the word “failure,” what pictures are you going to create in your head? What experiences are you going to create when you keep hearing the word failure? It’s all negative. Reframing the words and phrases that you're giving yourself or changing the words you're saying to be more positive actually has a physical effect on your nervous system.
Your subconscious mind is always in the current state. It's not thinking about the future, and it's not thinking about the past, only the present. So when you say things as they are now, even if they aren't really, it's a way to trick your brain to imagine things are already existing or that you are really feeling a certain way. The result is your brain is forced to analyze this, and effectively you’re changing your brain’s filter to see the world through a different lens. Over time and through practice, you can change your brain's old neural pathways to refocus and experience events the way you tell it to. “I feel like a failure,” can become, “I felt like a failure, but I’m already feeling better, and actually learned a lot from that experience. I feel safe now and am excited to make new choices for myself that will get me to where I now want to go.”
How Do You Stop Failure?
Asking how you can stop failure is like asking how you can stop gravity. It’s an inevitable outcome of trying anything difficult. It’s baked into the process of growing and learning. The better question or, the more useful reframe is, “How can I invite success?” The word success is positive, uplifting, and the thing we’re aiming at. We’re not aiming at failure, so let’s not even mention the word. There’s no value in putting your focus on that word. Let’s force our brain to focus on what we want rather than what we’re trying to avoid. Now your body will start responding to what your brain is focused on, and as a result, you substantially increase the chances of getting what you want.
Why am I such a Failure at Relationships?
Again, let’s see what happens when we reframe that to, “Why am I so successful at staying alone?”
A lot of people stay alone and isolated because that was the best option long ago and far away in some really brutal experience. Often it goes back to some childhood experience where the best option was to isolate yourself because the other options were not so great. At the time, it was a great strategy because it minimized you getting hurt emotionally or even physically.
What you Survive is What you Recreate
There’s a rule or survival instinct we all experience as children that often stays with us and outstays its usefulness. As children, we can't really make our parents wrong. When we make them wrong with their choices and decisions or the way they talk to us, it might dismantle our whole belief system about them. It could result in us knowing that these people who are responsible for my survival and well-being are really not great people and not helping me, but rather hurting me. That's a terrifying realization, and so we work hard to convince our young brains that we’re the problem, not the people who are supposed to love us. And you have to convince yourself that there's some good coming out of the relationship because they're caring for you with food and water and, you know, shelter, schooling, and clothes, and so forth.
You must learn to identify beliefs that result from survival situations and recognize that you’re no longer in a survival situation. When you fail to recognize this, your mind stays with what’s been working for the past 20 or 30 years you find yourself continuing to emotionally or physically isolate yourself when it no longer benefits you.
Why do I Fail at Everything?
I would venture to guess that you are more successful than you realize that you get up every day and you can feed yourself, and you can take care of yourself in all ways that you already do. So what are you really feeling that you are failing at? And let's get more specific because I would bet there are at least 20 things that you are already successfully doing that you're not giving yourself credit for.
Again, the idea of creating a blanket statement is a way to successfully not give yourself credit for being powerful and being able to manifest what you want. It's a good way to prevent yourself from imagining that you can make change and progress in your world.
How Do You Embrace Failure?
A failed attempt at something does not create your identity. It is simply a moment or a choice in time that didn't work out to your liking. The beauty of life is it gives you a million new opportunities to try again until you get your desired outcome.
Reframing your experience to “I had a failed choice” or “It didn't work out the way I wanted” allows you to move onto the next opportunity rather than getting “stuck” in failure. Allowing yourself to stay in that growth mindset key to success. When you say, “I am a failure, I can't,” no movement is possible. You’ve set the rules, and your mind must obey. Never forget how much you have grown in all the successful choices you already made from age zero to now. You’re obviously capable of making successful choices because you're not in the streets without any food, without a job, without friends.
Embracing a failed attempt isolates that experience to one moment. And not every moment in every feeling that you have. And then with that, you can be more optimistic about making a different choice that might work out better for you.
What Causes Chronic Feelings of Failure?
Chronic feelings of failure are, again, those overarching umbrella belief systems that were installed when you were young. They were likely the result of a continual effort to make someone else feel better like a parent and to make yourself feel safe. It’s easier and, sadly, just a good survival strategy to make yourself wrong rather than a parent wrong. When you can address the issue of why you are taking on all of the pain and suffering for other people, then you can start to find out that you're a pretty awesome person.
What to do When You Feel Like a Failure?
What actions can you take when you’re in the moment and feel like a failure? Journaling is one of the most powerful things you can do. Writing down how you’re feeling forces you to shine a light on it and look at it. It transforms the feeling from a thought to a physical admission on the paper. Something powerful happens when you acknowledge your pain, and journaling is a powerful tool to help you see your feelings.
And then you can do an exercise where you can look at how big that feeling is, what the color is, what the shape is. It allows you to be more objective about the experience and your feelings about the experience. With that distance, you can already begin to notice that your association to this experience can be shifted, now that it is outside yourself. You now realize you are not your experience. You realize that it is not you, but it is something that you are experiencing and that subtle shift, and that separation will help you then be able to know that it can be changed because if it's something outside of you, it can be manipulated.
So imagine looking at those feelings and changing the color, changing the shape of it, maybe make it smaller, make it bigger, and then step into how that actually makes you feel. It's a powerful exercise that shows you that you can actually make a change with your feelings. Your feelings are not just automatic. You have the power to shape them.
How to Stop Feeling Like a Failure
Try to visualize what you would like to feel instead of how you are feeling. When you get stuck in your current situation, you kind of keep spinning like a stuck record. Just visualizing how you would like to feel and how you might create that feeling can have a physical effect on your nervous system. After that, your brain’s focus will shift. And you will literally start to see new opportunities and new doors open that never would have with the old filter.
What sorts of therapy help with ongoing feelings of failure?
Neuro-Linguistic Programming, as I mentioned earlier, is one of the most effective tools for overcoming ongoing feelings of failure. It helps you get to the root cause of your feelings of failure. It untangles the structure you created for yourself that has kept you stuck in that now harmful and useful belief system.
It's like swinging on monkey bars. If we don't see that new bar ahead of us with the potential future we want awaiting us, then we're never going to be able to grab onto it. NLP gives you the courage to put on a new set of lenses so you can see what is already within your grasp. It frees you to have the future you were born to have and have it now.