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Failing at something sucks.
Sure, there are hundreds of fluffy memes out there encouraging people to just let failures roll off them and get back on the horse. But they don’t really help when you’re feeling like a useless piece of crap, do they?
When a failure (or perceived failure) happens, most people are cruel to themselves. There’s an immediate sense of disappointment and despair, even a sense of loss.
They’ve put a ton of time and effort into this endeavor, only to be deprived of the achievement and gratification they’re hoping to get from it. This disappointment is understandable, but it can also be damaging.
Let’s take a look at some ways to deal with the immediate emotional response to failure. This way, the next time something goes wrong, you’ll have a set of coping mechanisms to help you through it.
1. Avoid labeling yourself.
Generally, when people fail at something, their immediate response is self-loathing. They’ll berate themselves for being idiots or losers because they didn’t succeed at their attempt. Instead of thinking “I failed at this,” their inner voice says “I AM A FAILURE.”
Try to avoid these kinds of negative labels. We are not what we do. Rather, we do a variety of different things over the course of each day. Most of them are successful, but they aren’t who we are.
If you drop your toothbrush onto the floor, you are not A Toothbrush Dropper. Nor are you a clumsy oaf, or any other colorful insult you can come up with. You may have been distracted in that moment, or the toothbrush may have had some soap residue on it that made it slip from your hands, etc.
Things happen, but they don’t change the fact that you are a brilliant, capable creature who has succeeded in countless things over the course of your life. And will continue to succeed in other attempts.
2. Allow yourself to hurt.
Are you familiar with the expression “lean into the pain”?
Most people try to shut down any experience they perceive as negative because they don’t want to feel hurt by it. As a species, we try to avoid pain, disappointment, and sorrow whenever possible. So, when it happens, we try to brush it off or run away from it.
That’s fairly counterproductive. Running away means that we don’t develop strategies for dealing with similar situations in the future. And there will be plenty of them over the course of our lifetimes.
Instead of running away, take a moment to look at the situation honestly. Admit that in this moment, you feel like fool or a loser. And that’s okay. You’re allowed to feel these things. By owning your emotions, they lose their power over you.
In her book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön suggests the following:
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of sh*t and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
It’s only by taking a look at how we’ve failed at something that we can determine how we can improve and do better next time. Instead of negativity being allowed to bury its hooks into us, we take charge of the situation.
“Yes, this sucked, but I am learning from it. Next time, I will do better.”
3. Attempt to find the humor in the situation.
When we fail at something or are defeated in an attempt, we often feel a great deal of frustration. We feel a lot of things: sadness, anger, a lack of self-worth, etc.
One of the best ways to diffuse this storm of negative self-talk is to find something funny about what’s happened.
Let’s say you’ve attempted to cook a dish for the first time. You’re fairly experienced in the kitchen, but this dish defeated you. Either you’ve burned it, or left out a vital ingredient, or perhaps it’s exploded in the oven. Whatever happened, it’s an inedible mess that even the dog would whine and run from.
In that moment, you might feel like a totally incompetent tool. What normally happens next is an avalanche of mental self-abuse. Every insult leveled at you from teachers, elders, etc. who were disappointed in anything you’ve ever done will find their way into your head.
The best way to silence these voices is by laughing. Look at what’s happened and try to remove your own emotional connection to it. Imagine how you would react to this thing or situation if you weren’t the one who had messed it up.
Is there molten cheese on the ceiling? Did the cute hedgehog cake you tried to make for your partner end up looking like a terrifying travesty?
Have a good laugh about it. 99 times out of 100, laughing will diffuse the self-bashing enough that you can clean up and order pizza instead.
4. Figure out what went wrong so you can do better next time.
Let’s use the cake example from the previous tip.
Once you’ve shifted the personal narrative away from “I AM A FAILURE” to “wow, I failed at this cake,” you can move on to figuring out what went wrong. Focus on a mantra like “I will do better at this next time because ____ ” and fill in the blank.
Work backwards step by step to help you determine why this cake did not end in success.
Did you add every ingredient? Was the oven set to the right temperature? Did you use the right kind of cake pan? Did you let the cake cool completely before adding the icing and fiddly bits?
Okay, so you started the cake a bit later than you wanted to. This meant that it didn’t have enough time to cool before you started decorating it. As a result, the icing slid off and its eyes are now flowing off the end of the table.
What have we learned from this failure? We’ve determined that in order for this cake to be ready for 6pm, it’ll need to be started at least three hours earlier than this one. That way, there will be plenty of time for the entire process to be completed.
Wasn’t that productive?
When a failure happens, we tend to be so obsessed with our perceived shortcomings that we deny ourselves the very answers that lie in front of us.
5. Recognize that success requires practice, failures, and further learning.
When you were first learning to walk, did you do so perfectly? Or did you toddle around and fall an awful lot as your muscles and balance were developing?
Were you perfect at riding a bike the first time you tried? How long did it take for your spelling and grammar skills to develop?
Most of us have gotten used to instant gratification. While childhood and adolescence were times of constant growth, challenge, and change, adulthood has a much lower learning curve. As a result, we’ve forgotten just how long it takes to learn and perfect new skills.
As children, we got used to failing at things on a regular basis. We hadn’t yet developed the ego attachment to what we do, so when we glued ourselves to our art projects or missed our faces when trying to eat, we just shrugged it off and didn’t make the same mistake the next time. Instead of berating ourselves for being stupid, we carried on and learned from our experiences.
Try to regain that perspective, and consider both successes and failures to be learning experiences.
All skills require years of practice to develop, let alone master. Just because you’ve reached a certain age, doesn’t mean that you’re not still learning. As long as we’re alive, we’re in a constant state of learning and growth.
6. Know that your worth is not determined by your successes.
People who have been raised with a great deal of criticism from others tend to be hypersensitive to the perception of failure. Their sense of self-worth is so wrapped up in achievement that they don’t allow themselves room for anything less than perfection. To them, if they don’t succeed at something, then they’re worthless.
That’s a cruelty and a grave injustice that’s often inflicted on children of narcissistic parents or perfectionists. These kids are perceived to be extensions of the parents themselves, and any perceived shortcoming in the child reflects poorly on the parent. In cases like this, it’s understandable that the child grows into an adult who’s terrified of failing, and places enormous self-worth on their achievements.
All that said, remember that you can do everything “right,” and still fail at something. There are so many variables to take into consideration.
Let’s look at archery as an example:
Your form could be flawless. The bow you’re using could be the best around, your arrows fletched to perfection. But a gust of wind could skew your shot, or the arrow could snap mid flight. You’ve missed the target you were aiming for, leading to that immediate sense of self-loathing and despair.
Remember that just because this did not work doesn’t mean that you failed.
We do the best we can with what we have, but ultimately, how things turn out is out of our hands.
7. Be compassionate toward yourself.
When it comes to failure, many different emotions and thoughts tear through us. If we fail at a personal project, of course we’ll berate ourselves for our shortcomings. When we let other people down because we’ve failed, we’re often immensely cruel to ourselves over it.
It’s in times like these that we need to show ourselves compassion.
We know that failures bring negative emotions with them, but focusing on looped phrases like “I’ve let my family down” or “I’ve disappointed everyone” will just make things so much worse.
In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the people you think you’ve let down will be far more gentle and compassionate toward you than you are to yourself.
Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If the people you love experienced what you did, would you hate them for “failing” you? Or would you show them compassion, support, unconditional love, and appreciation for their attempt?
8. If the failure was with a person, accept that and let go.
One type of “failure” that many berate themselves for is in connection with other people, particularly when it comes to dating.
The dating dance is excruciating, and difficult to navigate at any point. When someone makes attempts at a romantic connection with another, and those attempts fail, that person can be absolutely devastated.
Rejection and failure in this type of scenario can spiral downwards from instantly questioning self-worth, to fear of being alone and celibate forever.
It’s often difficult to know how to feel or what to do when this happens. After all, everything that is inanimate (hobbies, physical fitness, recipes, construction projects), can be worked on, rationalized, and dealt with. Like the cake situation earlier, we can figure out the variable(s) that went wrong so they can be improved upon next time.
When we fail with other people, it’s a whole different ballgame.
There are countless variables to take into consideration when approaching others romantically. The most important one to remember is that you’re not dealing with a project; you’re dealing with another person. This isn’t a thing that can be tweaked and adjusted until you get the result you want.
If you’re approaching a potential dating partner with the same attitude as you would approach a car that needs fixing, then failure is pretty much inevitable. That’s a really unhealthy way to approach someone you want to be intimate with.
If you get the feeling of failure via your attempts to connect with and seduce a person, that may not be a failure per se, but an incorrect pairing. Chances are that if you’ve tried several times to connect, and failed every time, then they’re just not interested in you.
At that point, it’s important to recognize that the end result here is less about you “winning,” and more about respecting the other person’s will.
Treat this scenario with love, compassion, and respect for both of you. Accept that sometimes we just don’t connect with others the way we want to. Perhaps there’s stuff going on with them that we don’t know about, or they’re just not into us, or it’s not the right time, etc.
That’s not a failure: it’s life.
As such, if you feel like you’ve failed or been rejected by a person, and you feel that rush of self-loathing or self-recrimination rising up, take a deep breath. In fact, take a few deep belly breaths.
Then, send good wishes to that person, and turn your attention elsewhere. You’ve given them your attention and it didn’t work. Time to move on.
Still not sure how to deal with your failure? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply click here to connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com.
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