Failing is hard enough, and feeling like a failure is nothing short of awful. You might feel like you’re drowning in guilt, shame, sadness, or general distress.
And no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to shake it.
Good news: even though your brain is built to play tricks on you, there are concrete ways to stop feeling like a hopeless failure.
In this article, we’ll show you exactly how to stop feeling like a failure, and how to feel comfortable with your mistakes – instead of ashamed of them.
Our self-destructive thought processes
Consider the difference between these two statements:
“I failed to finish today’s work.”
“I feel like a failure for not finishing today’s work.”
You’ll notice that one is an objective truth, and one is a subjective interpretation. One is about something you did, and one is about who you are.
State vs trait thinking
This is called “doing” vs. “being,” or “state” vs “trait” thinking. With a “doing” thought process, you see the failure as just resulting from something that you did. You’re still smart and resourceful – you can just change what you do next time to avoid failing.
In the other, “being” thought process, you see the situation as indicating something that you are (a failure). Being a failure isn’t as easy to change as behaving in a way that caused you to fail.
When you feel like a failure, you take each failure as evidence of a personal fault, rather than just seeing it as a mistake or simple bad luck.
So why do we think this way? Why do we feel like failures when we’ve just messed up?
The reverse self-serving bias
People typically experience something called the “self-serving bias.” This means that when we succeed, we believe it is because of our own efforts (internal cause). In a self-serving bias, when we fail, we believe it wasn’t our fault — that something outside of our control caused it (external cause). This protects our self-esteem.
If we typically have self-serving biases, why do we so easily take failures personally? Feeling like a failure seems like a self-destructive bias.
Well, like the jerks they are, depression, anxiety, trauma, and low self-esteem can work to reverse the self-serving bias. Successes become luck, and failures become personal faults.
When we already believe we’re worthless, hopeless, or dumb, we’re likely to interpret everything as proving those beliefs. This is because the brain is built to reduce cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort we feel when our beliefs don’t match reality.
We become unable to notice the external factors contributing to our failures (lack of time, interference from other people, a bad night’s sleep, etc.). And we become much more willing to believe our failures are just results of our personal faults.
This reverse self-serving bias becomes a habit, which then leads to another problem.
The self-fulfilling prophecy
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, our beliefs about ourselves influence us to act in ways that confirm our original beliefs.
So, if someone thinks they are going to fail, they begin to act accordingly; they put in less effort, set low expectations, and quit early. Then, no surprise, they do fail.
However, the failure isn’t due to an innate flaw within the person. Rather, it happens as a result of a negative cycle that includes believing we’re hopeless and then acting in ways that make that belief come true. This chronic pattern leads to feeling like a failure.
Breaking the cycle
To stop feeling like a failure, we have to reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy, fix the self-serving bias, and separate reality from interpretation. Here’s how to do it.
Reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy
If believing we will fail leads us to act in ways that lead to failure, we need to believe we will succeed.
Believing that we can succeed will encourage success-related behaviors, such as increased motivation and effort, which in turn makes success more likely. You won’t even have to think about it. However, it’s difficult to believe in your success when you feel like a failure.
How are we supposed to succeed when it seems like all we can do is fail?
The answer: a growth mindset. People who have a growth or “incremental” mindset believe that intelligence and ability are not predetermined at birth — that they can be grown, incrementally, through practice.
When a person with a growth mindset encounters failure, they try again and try harder. And they often do better, eventually succeeding.
The opposite, awful-feeling approach is the “fixed” mindset. When people have a fixed or “entity” mindset, they believe that intelligence and ability are fixed and cannot be increased with effort.
When a person with a fixed mindset encounters failure, they give up. When this process is repeated, they end up feeling like a failure.
To switch up the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, we have to believe we can succeed. And if we take a growth mindset to our failures, we know we can.
The reverse self-serving bias
You’re working on adopting a growth mindset and believing in your abilities. Next is to tackle the reverse self-serving bias. We need to find a way to stop feeling like our failures are inherently our fault.
One relatively simple approach to changing our perspective is to address our attributional style. Our attributional style is how we think about the causes of what happens — whether (and how) we attribute events to ourselves or outside factors.
When we feel like a failure, it tends to be because we have an internal, stable, and global attribution style. This means we think that the failure is all our fault (internal), that we will often fail (stable), and that we will fail at most things (global).
By contrast, someone with an external, unstable, and specific attribution style will respond to failure by thinking: “It’s not all my fault (external), I won’t always fail (unstable), and I am successful outside of this specific circumstance (specific).”
How am I supposed to change my attribution style, if I don’t mean to think that way?
You can’t change your attribution style with a snap of your fingers, but you can practice purposefully changing your perspective with each failure — until you’ve got it down to habit.
Here’s how that works:
Internal → External
- Consider all the variables besides your intelligence/ability.
- Did you have a limited amount of time?
- Did you feel physically/mentally at your best?
- Did you have other more important things that you needed to do?
Stable → Unstable
- Consider how things may change in the future.
- Will you still fail if you learn new skills?
- Will you still fail if you get someone else to help?
- Will you still fail if you try again when you’re in a better place?
Global → Specific
- Consider all the things you usually do well.
- Are you a good friend?
- Are you doing well at your job?
- Are you health- or environment-conscious?
Feeling like a failure is so problematic because it’s all-consuming. Taking time to remind yourself of your other current and future successes can stop you from getting stuck in a pattern.
Reality vs. interpretation
Lastly, we need to talk about how to stay objective in the face of failure.
Cycles and patterns of feelings aside, even a single failure can devastate us — especially when we let it snowball out of proportion.
The difference between failing and feeling like a failure is often specific cognitive distortions. These are ways in which our minds selectively view failure in an extra-negative lens, and they are neither accurate nor helpful.
Here are some examples of common cognitive distortions and how to counter them:
“I failed once, so I must be a failure.”
INSTEAD: “I failed once, but there are still plenty of things I don’t fail at.”
“I failed the test, so I’ll probably fail the entire class and have to drop out of school.”
INSTEAD: “I failed the test, so I’ll need to study harder for the next one and pass the class.”
“I just know I won’t get any interviews.”
INSTEAD: “It’s likely I get at least one interview, and if not, I can always apply to other places.”
Discounting the positive
“Even though I got a B in the class, that’s still not as good as an A.”
INSTEAD: “I got a B in the class — that’s awesome!”
With practice, you can isolate your failures down to what they really are — single events with no bearing on the rest of your life. Even “colossal failures” usually don’t end up mattering much 10 years down the road.
One last thing: Be compassionate to yourself. Treat yourself how you would treat a loved one if they failed. What would you tell them?
It’s definitely difficult to shake feeling like a failure, even if you know the steps to take. But by noticing your own biases, keeping things in perspective, and believing in yourself, you can turn “I feel like a failure” into “I failed, and sometimes that’s just fine.”