Feeling like a failure is not a new concept.
However, as we’re moved increasingly into a culture that values attainment over fulfilment, the fear of not measuring up has become something of its own pandemic.
But the thing is, failure is only relative to the experiencer of it. We largely decide whether we’re a failure or not.
As a society, we are very much our own biggest critics, and there is an even greater need than ever before to be kinder to ourselves as we embrace ‘failure’ as an opportunity for growth.
Feeling Like a Failure in Modern Society
We live in a success based society where status is oftentimes based on what we have done more so than who we are as people.
Failure is largely defined by the conditioning of what success has been portrayed as within our peer groups within our respective cultures.
The comparison mindset has become so commonplace within the vernacular of our experience, we tend to live very outside of ourselves.
Always placing our idea of success in the hands of others’ hands.
But this sense of comparison is precisely one of the things that sets us up for failure in the first place.
Because we are trying to live vicariously through other people’s life design.
The joy of discovering our self becomes a journey of imitation.
Why Do I Feel Like a Failure?
However, there is more to the conversation than comparison.
Feeling like a failure is symptomatic of a myriad of experiences that have led up to the current narrative of not feeling good enough, feeling unworthy and hopelessness.
Some of these include:
Past Criticisms: Conditioning created from negative feedback or harsh words from parents teachers are peers during our formative years.
Previous Failures: Previous mistakes, failures can contribute to a narrative that one is incapable of achieving success – whatever that looks like for them.
Unrealistic Personal Expectations: Setting unrealistic expectations for oneself, which can never be attained can result in continuous internal shaming.
Family Dynamics: If one grew up with siblings, especially older siblings and were forever eclipsed by their achievements, this can also lead to a sense of unworthiness.
Conditioned Beliefs: Equally, growing up in an environment where success is very narrowly defined can lead to a limited view of what success looks like.
Feeling Like a Failure in Different Life Roles
Life is a complex tapestry of multiple different roles we play.
Whether it be as a partner, parent, professional or student.
Each one of these comes with a unique set of expectations. All of which if we fail to live up to can leave us feeling like a failure.
Feeling Like a Failure as a Parent
Parents traditionally always want to do better for their children than their parents did for them.
So there is an automatic pressure to achieve, which can add unnecessary strain to the joy of raising one’s children.
And in the age of “perfect parenting” portrayed on social media, it’s easy to feel like you’re always falling short – feeling like a failure at every misstep…
But reality, there is no such thing as being a perfect parent, as the feeling of failure is perfectionism in disguise.
Let’s take a closer look.
Feeling Like a Failure as a Mum
Despite the undoubted joys motherhood brings, it can be extremely demanding, due to the unique set of pressures, which contribute to the self-perceptions of what it means to be a mother.
For many first time mothers, transitioning into this new role can be so tumultuous, leading to feelings of inadequacy, guilt and even identity loss due to the fear of failure.
Here are some of the unique challenges that contribute to the feeling of failure in Motherhood.
Postpartum Depression (PPD): Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that can present after childbirth in some women, which can lead to feelings of persistent sadness, mood swings, and even detachment from their new child. Due to the societal expectations placed on mothers, it can further contribute to feelings of failure.
Attachment Concerns: Maternal nature dictates that all mothers want to do the very best for their children. And so, if this bond isn’t as immediate as they would like – or expect – it can lead to concerns and anxiety about how they might perform as a parent. Their avoidant or indifferent tendencies may lead to anxious attachment tendencies.
Pressure to “Bounce Back”: In modern western society, there can be a huge emphasis on women returning to the workplace and back to the way they were pre-pregnancy almost immediately. However, this does nothing to acknowledge what a huge marker point motherhood is and what a toll it takes on the physical, mental and emotional being.
Feeling Like a Failure as a Dad
Modern fatherhood also comes with its own unique set of challenges and although the challenges are different to those faced by mothers, there is a similarity in that they also fall within the bracket of conformity through deeply ingrained societal expectations.
Here are some of the unique challenges that contribute to the feeling of failure in fatherhood.
Provider Pressure: Historically, men have always been the primary breadwinners in most cultures. And while this can be empowering in a certain sense, it can also bring with it stress, which can lead to overwhelm and the feeling there being no opportunity to let down and take care of their own needs.
Inability to be Vulnerable: In traditional roles, fathers are expected to be unshakable stoic pillars of strength that don’t express emotion. However, this societal expectation can lead to feeling like they can’t show up fully, even if this might be an unconscious thought. This can then lead to feelings of inadequacy and the perception of failure.
Bonding Challenges: The inability to show up and be vulnerable can also affect a father’s capacity to bond deeply with a child. If they’re constantly feeling as though they need to suppress their emotions to be strong, it can be difficult to open up and fully embrace their softer side.
Feeling Like a Failure at Work
The workplace, with its intricate dynamics and high expectations, can be a breeding ground for feelings of inadequacy.
The pressures of modern work environments, combined with personal aspirations, can sometimes lead to overwhelming stress and self-doubt.
Here are some of the unique challenges that contribute to the feeling of failure at work.
Lack of Recognition: Everyone seeks validation. And when one’s hard work and contributions go unnoticed or unrewarded, it can lead to feelings of being undervalued or overlooked, questioning one’s worth within the organisation.
Stagnation and Lack of Growth: Feeling stuck in a role, with no clear path for advancement or skill development, can be demoralising. This stagnation can lead to doubts about one’s career trajectory and future prospects.
Not Fitting the Company Culture: Every company has its unique culture and ethos. Struggling to align with these values or feeling out of sync with the social dynamics can lead to feelings of alienation and self-doubt.
Feeling Like a Failure in College
Going to college and/or university is often hailed as a great achievement in and of itself.
Just getting there is worthy of celebration for many.
But with that, it can also bring an immense pressure to perform and make the most of the opportunity, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt.
Here are some of the unique challenges that contribute to the feeling of failure at college.
Academic Pressure: The higher up the academic one travels, the higher stakes are in terms of attainment. Bad grades, or passing mark can be the difference between getting the dream job or not. The fear of not meeting one’s own or others’ expectations can be a significant source of stress.
Social Integration: Not fitting in can make one feel like they can’ do anything right. As much as we shouldn’t seek external validation, we are by design social creatures. And an inability to bond with anyone, especially in a new and challenging environment can heighten the feeling of failure.
Comparison with Peers: The comparison mindset is one of the most sure fire ways to feel worse about your own achievements and/or lack of progress in your life. Seeing others around you excel while you might be struggling can be hard to take in academia, which can lead to feelings of resentment and jealousy.
The Intersection of Mental Health and Feeling Like a Failure
Navigating our emotions and self-worth is a journey, and sometimes, it’s intertwined with deeper mental health challenges. Let’s shed some light on this often overlooked aspect.
Depression and Feeling Like a Failure
Although depression is one of the most commonly experienced mental health conditions and is easily treatable, it’s often more complex than it might first appear to be.
Feelings of depression can often be intertwined with feelings of failure, as the symptoms can often create a sense of distortion which leads individuals to believe they can’t do anything right.
Here are some of the ways depression manifests this sense of inadequacy:
Persistent Negative Thoughts: The almost relentless inner monologue of depression that amplifies the feelings of worthlessness and self doubt is one of the most challenging components of the condition. It can make taking action in your life virtually impossible and progression seem like a distant fantasy.
Loss of Interest: The sense of apathy which accompanies depression can make any sense of engagement feel like the most excruciating experience in the world. Activities, hobbies and pursuits that once brought joy may feel utterly lifeless and empty, deepening the feeling of failure even further.
Guilt and Rumination: Due to the inability to engage with life, those of depression often feel like they’re stuck in a cycle of overthinking. This can lead them to constantly reflect on the perceived wrongs and the missed opportunities that have slipped through their fingers. This constant introspection can reinforce self blame and the feeling of failure
ADHD and Feeling Like a Failure
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which whilst on the one hand, can be viewed as a strength in terms of the symptom set, does present certain challenges.
This can often lead to the feeling as though nothing is working out and is never going to work out.
Here are some of the ways in which the feeling of failure can show up in individuals with ADHD.
Hyperfocus Pitfalls: Whilst hyperfocus can be an attribute which is extremely useful in getting things done, and also lead to losing track of time. This can lead to poor time management, and falling behind with other tasks, leading to stress and the feeling that, “this always happens to me.”
Organisational Difficulties: Due to the difficulty in focusing, organisational tasks can also be a challenge for those of ADHD. This can lead to living in a constant state of disarray. Over time, this can erode one’s confidence, leading to lack of self-confidence and contribute to a perception of being “less than” or out of control.
Perceived Underachievement: Because living with ADHD comes with having to navigate certain behavioural challenges, it can make achieving one’s goals appear to be more burdensome or slow-going than most other neurotypical individuals. There can be a sense of always being one step behind the curve, which can lead to feelings of failure and frustration.
How to Stop Feeling Like a Failure
When it comes to knowing how to stop feeling like a failure, the antidote is both simple yet difficult to apply. You need to cut yourself some slack.
Since feeling like a failure is so much a part of our internal narrative, that change needs to come from within.
Every time you catch yourself saying, “I’m a failure,” contradict it. Answer back. Use your discernment. Think back to all of the times where you have succeeded.
Even the smallest of victories. They all count for something. Celebrate your wins, no matter how small and remind yourself of them whenever the “failure narrative” resurfaces.
6 Ways to Stop Feeling Like a Failure
Here are six practical approaches you can use to help you let go of the narrative of feeling like a failure so you move more into an expression of security and contentment.
1. Change Your Mindset, Change Your Life:
Since feeling like a failure is wrapped up so much in the narrative we continue to play out internally, changing the mindset which sponsors that narrator is vital. Our outlook shapes our perception of the world and how we perceive our place to be within it. So when we change our thoughts, we change how we fit into the world. We create more security for ourselves. Life becomes easier. Every failure does not indicate inadequacy, but simply a stepping stone to success. That’s the difference between a pessimistic mindset and a growth mindset.
2. Positive Morning Affirmations:
Positive affirmations may have somewhat of a reputation as being spiritual or “woo woo,” but from a practical point of view, repeating the things you want to anchor into your life over and over again, is a highly effective way of reprogramming your subconscious mind.
Here are some examples tailored to different roles explored above:
Mother: “I nurture with love, patience, and understanding.”
Father: “I provide strength, guidance, and support to my family.”
Workplace: “I bring value and unique skills to my team.”
College Student: “I am on a journey of growth, discovery, and resilience.”
3. Self Care Journal:
Journaling is an incredibly therapeutic way to express one’s emotions, track progress and reflect on some of your ongoing mental processes, which may benefit from being witnessed externally, so as to gain greater insight and clarity.
Here are five journal prompts to guide introspection:
- What are three things I’m grateful for today?
- How did I overcome a challenge I faced today?
- What is one thing I learned about myself this week?
- How can I better support my well-being tomorrow?
- What are my current goals, and what steps am I taking to achieve them?
4. Embracing Failure as an Opportunity for Growth:
Although the word “failure” comes with a lot of charge for many people, it is actually an unavoidable experience on the road to success. When you think about what success actually looks like and what it takes to get there, people generally don’t have a run of first time/first attempt successes in everything they do in life. It requires continually going back to the drawing board, looking at what went wrong and going again. That’s what it means to embrace failure.
5. Emotional Intelligence and Resilience:
Emotional intelligence (EI), is the ability to recognise, understand, manage our emotions. It’s one of the more underrated skill sets that is innate to us as human beings. By increasing our emotional intelligence, it helps us in understanding our needs, triggers and responses. The self-awareness, in turn, then allows us to approach life’s challenges with greater ease and grace – greater resilience and empathy. For instance, if faced with criticism, someone with high EI might reflect on the feedback’s validity and use it constructively rather than reacting defensively.
6. Setting Healthy Expectations:
While ambition drives us forward, it’s essential to set realistic and achievable goals. For instance, if you’re starting a new fitness regimen, it’s more sustainable to aim for three workouts a week rather than daily intense sessions. In the workplace, instead of aiming to complete a month-long project in a week, set milestones and celebrate small achievements along the way. By setting healthy expectations, we set ourselves up for success and reduce the risk of burnout and disappointment.