What to Do When You Feel Like a Failure

What do you do when you feel like a failure?It’s hard to know what to do when you feel like a failure. Your failures seem insurmountable. They’re the bullies at the playground. They’re the opponents who outweigh you by one hundred pounds. All you can see is the size of the failures. All you can hope is that your feelings are wrong and that they won’t last forever. All you can do is stumble your way through them.

You not only stumble and hope your way through them, you fight them. You fight the voices that say you should raze what you’re building to the ground. You fight the voices that say you suck at your job. You fight the voices that say you’re going to be fired because of your ineptitude in your role. You punch and kick those voices until your knuckles are bloodied and raw, and your shins are black and blue.

You then curl into yourself. You try to make yourself as small as possible, and you cry. Not whimpers, not a tear or two rolling down the cheek. Gut-wrenching sobs, the kind that make you feel as though you’ve done 237 crunches in a row. The kind that make you stuff your face into a pillow so that – even though the only creature living with you is a cat – no one can hear. No one needs to hear cries like that; at least, that’s what some of the voices whisper.

Whispers like those are dangerous. They must be handled quickly and decisively. No prancing around the boxing ring. No practicing of forms. Go straight for the jugular. Sweep the whispers off their feet. Once they’re on the ground, don’t let them catch their breath. Choke them until they fall unconscious, then escape with your life. Escape with what little hope you still have. Run until you can’t breathe anymore. Stop to catch your breath. Take a deep breath. Take another one. Be grateful for that small space in which you can breathe before the doubts and failures rise again, before they’re chasing you down an alley, before you have to turn and fight, fight, fight.

Photo: Chapendra (CC BY NC 2.0)


  1. To me, failure is a mindset. Live the life of sales for awhile and the what have you done for me lately mentality and it will challenge you in more ways than one. Some days your confidence can be at an all time low and you feel like you just suck at your profession. Then you get a little bump and momentum, some good things happen and it’s rock-n-roll again. I try to stay even-keeled and know with each new day dawning is a new opportunity to be just awesome as hell. Kind of like golf, you can be scruffing around and then you hit that one shot that turns everything around. The key is to stay in the game so you will at least have the opportunity to take that shot.That.is.all. 

    • bdorman264 Great response! Yes my sales career has contributed to my thick skin I imagine (as did my 3 older siblings…). I remember that I should not take it all personally- there are so many factors at play that I cannot see. 

      • RebeccaTodd bdorman264 I, too, have worked in sales. I would like to think that that life and all my other work and school experiences (and life in general) have helped me to develop a necessary toughness. If I haven’t, I’m not going to last very long.A lot of things contributed to this particular post. I suppose I tend to take failure personally, too. It’s one of those perfectionist things.

    • bdorman264 Thank you for the encouraging golf metaphor. 🙂

  2. Thank you Erin for another personal post! The elementary teacher in me wants to point out that we all need opportunities to feel successful. When I feel a little less than my usual sparkly self, I set these opportunities up for myself.  For me, yoga helps- the opportunity to see positive mental and physical growth in myself. Do something- anything!- that you are good at and know you are good at. Set yourself up for success over and over again. One of my favourite education mentors told me he views his relationship with each student like a bank account- you have to make enough deposits so that when you do have to make a withdrawal, the balance will still be in the black.  I feel this is even more important in our relationship with self- deposit enough success funds in to your own account so that when you do have to make a failure withdrawal you won’t go in to the red. I also find focusing on the lesson I learned from said failure rather than focusing on the instance itself helps me maintain perspective. 

    • RebeccaTodd Perhaps I’ve written one too many checks lately?I can’t even say I’ve failed in any real sort of way. It’s just a feeling I have, much of which may have more to do with external rather than internal circumstances.

      •  Erin F. RebeccaTodd Then let’s set up some opportunities for success, whatever that may look like for you. Get you back into the red. Another analogy- stress is like water in a teacup. Once the teacup gets full, any thing can make it spill over- even just a tiny drop. So while you have had lots of good stress in your life-hello new home!-it still counts as water in your cup. Now we must empty the cup some, and get you back in the red.  Luckily, both can be accomplished simultaneously! 

        • RebeccaTodd Yay! I’ll have to think about where I can set up some opportunities for success.

        • Erin F. RebeccaTodd When I feel super dorky, I put a bunch on a physical list so I get to shout “check!!!” as I do them. Very rewarding! 

        • RebeccaTodd I love physical lists. I totally misread your comment at first, though. I thought you meant a checklist when you’re exercising, which made me think of the instructor who made us do burpees on Monday. She put a smiley face in the “10” – as though that made a set of ten burpees any better.

  3. This is such a beautiful, wonderful post. I can relate and I am glad I am a fighter; no one and absolutely no one will drag me down. For me, running on the treadmill helps. Actually by the end of 30 mins on that machine, I am panting and so out of breath that I can hardly think of anything else! Also, like RebeccaTodd I do the yoga sometimes and it helps me. And yes, the more you think of yourself as a failure… the crappier you feel. You need to work on how you think!

    • Hajra  I’m glad to be a fighter, too. Why else would I keep going if or when I do feel like a failure? :)Running helps me, too. I need to get back to doing that regularly. Also, you’re right. I do need to work on how I think. I should recognize my own thought patterns by now and the vicious cycle that they can become.How’s school going?

  4. timbo1973 Rebecca’s idea is great. Bill’s point about the mindset is true, too. Once we give even an inch to those whispers, we’re likely to be sucked into the failure vortex. It’s one of the reasons why I say to fight. I have a long-standing history with battling failure and feelings of failure; I’m something of a perfectionist, so battle plans are essential.

    • Erin F. timbo1973 The last year or so has been taxing to say the least, so I have developed a bunch of strategies. I draw a lot from TED talks- Shawn Achor’s talk on Happiness taught me a few concepts. I have also learned more about how our brains work.  We actually grow and develop neural pathways for thought, so once we get stuck thinking negative thoughts, our brains actually wire themselves to continue such detrimental brainwaves. The good news is we can consciously develop positive pathways instead. John Ratey’s book Spark about the relationship between exercise and brain development also opened my eyes. Going to yoga or for a run or whatever it is you like to do actually primes the brain to learn and work. So when you are feeling frustrated or low, taking a break to do something physical can actually help to grow these new, positive neural pathways. Just like there is a real downward spiral, there is a very real upward spiral as well- once the mind becomes more trained to think positive thoughts instead, eventually it happens without conscious guidance. 

      • RebeccaTodd I only know a small part of your story, but what I do know is that the past year has not been an easy one for you. Your movement forward is a testament of the resilience of the human spirit. Cheers, miss! (Said in my best but always awful British or Scottish accent.) timbo1973 

      • Erin F. RebeccaTodd timbo1973 Thanks lady! We have a saying in our family- Built Todd Tough. Lucky I’ve had my family and country girl strength. But it’s all about the upward spiral these days! Have a lovely day. 

  5. Way to go Erin. This post failed to fail. I would say I fail constantly, except that would imply that I’ve reached some point of conclusion, and accepted it. Like they say in Hollywood:  I’m the one who says when this fight is over. The only one who can confirm failure is yourself. And you never have to let that happen.  

    • barrettrossie The irony of writing about failure when being or feeling like a failure isn’t lost on me. 🙂 Do you know yuvizalkow? He and I seem to be kindred spirits at times when it comes to failure.