Success cannot exist without failure. At least that’s what people tell me: that failure is a crucial part of success and that it is the necessary work you do that helps you grow. That your response to failure is a true judge of character; that it’s not how you fall, but how you get back up that matters.
I fully believe this to be true about other people but it’s much harder to apply that love and compassion to myself. Whether it’s imposter syndrome, a feeling of inadequacy or a negative thought, perceived failure or actual failure, I’m left feeling an onslaught of shame and guilt and embarrassment. Unwanted thoughts filter through my head: Do people think I’m a failure at work? At life? I know I shouldn’t care what others think, but I do.
I struggle with accepting my own imperfection, with accepting that it is inevitable that I am going to fail because I’m human. The negative feelings are pervasive and it is hard to successfully redirect them. So, how do you get back up? What can you do if you feel like a failure — particularly if it escalates to depression?
Get Perspective from Other People
Reach out to people you trust. Failure is part of the human experience and we’ve all been there, so it’s likely you have someone in your life who has been through something similar. Depending on the situation I talk to my partner, friends, coworkers, family, or mentors.
If it’s work-related, I particularly rely on a mentor to get some perspective on how she's dealt with imposter syndrome or a feeling of inadequacy at work. My mentors help in a lot of ways but mainly they normalize what I’m feeling and they usually have some sage advice on how to successfully get past the failure.
I once made the mistake of staying too long in a job where I constantly felt like I could never do anything right. And the truth is, I screwed up and I got into a self-sabotaging pattern.
I made the decision to quit and when I told my mentor she not only validated my decision but pointed out the ways in which I grew from the experience and even reframed some of my failure as a success. She was honest with me - there were definitely ways I messed up — but it was ok and she helped me figure out a way forward.
The point is: find someone to talk to. Things usually aren’t as bad in reality as you’ve made them out to be in your head. And even if they are, sharing with someone you trust can bring clarity.
Sometimes talking to someone else isn’t immediately an option. And if you’re anything like me, you might process things internally first before opening up to others. The best way for me to process - to get everything out - is through journaling.
Pro tip: journal in a stream of consciousness style. Try not to judge yourself; just write what comes in to your head as it comes into your head. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. I recommend writing by putting pen to paper, but if you prefer to type that’s great too.
When you’re done crumple up the pages and throw them away (or delete the word file). Literally let go of those negative, complicated thoughts. Or save them to reread later to get some perspective and insight.
Try not to journal for an audience. I used to do this; I'd write as if people were going to happen upon my journal one day and be so impressed with my intelligence and wit, so touched by my poignant phrasing, that they would have to publish it.
The other bad part of journaling for audience? I used to write carefully, worried that if someone I loved and cared about read my journal, I would hurt their feelings.
All writing for others really accomplished was make me overthink what I put on the page, writing and re-writing entries, thus negating any catharsis.
Your journal is for you and you only - so write for you.
Own Your Feelings
One super helpful thing I tend to do when I’m feeling like a failure is I get angry at myself for feeling the way I do. I basically take a crappy situation and then, by being my own worst critic, I compound and deepen the negativity. Or I use sarcasm to negate my feelings (see this the first sentence of this paragraph).
As much as you can, try to stop your feeling of failure from spiraling: instead, right after you admit to yourself or someone else what you’re feeling, own it. Does it suck? Yes. Are you miserable? Probably. Is your life over? I promise you: it’s not.
You feel like a failure and the world is not going to end. Tell yourself it’s going to be ok. Because it is.
Do Something Small that Makes You Feel Joy
Have you ever had a really bad day and then on your way home, on the train or in line at the grocery store, you saw the world’s cutest baby laughing and smiling and you couldn’t help but laugh and smile too? Do you remember how that small moment allowed you to breathe a bit easier, take yourself out of your despair, and relax? Ah, the little things in life.
If you’re feeling like a failure try to create or recreate those little joyful moments for yourself. Do something small that brings a smile to your face or makes you laugh or helps you relax - especially if you’re like me and have somehow convinced yourself that you don’t deserve happiness.
Listen to your favorite podcast (or a new one!), download some new music, eat some chocolate, take a bath, light a candle, buy yourself some flowers, watch a movie, go for a walk, give someone a hug, watch your favorite show, take a nap, read a new book, re-read an old book, dance around your house, sing loudly and out of tune. Or close your eyes and just breathe.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Other People
When I’m feeling badly about myself, I convince myself that everyone else’s life is perfect and there is clearly something wrong with me. I start to look for confirmation and one of the quickest and easiest ways to accomplish this is by going down a rabbit hole on social media, taking a journey into the carefully curated Facebook posts of acquaintances.
But it’s not real life - it’s the product of an Instagram filter. And while I also find myself portraying life in a soft sepia glow from time to time, it doesn’t do me (or you!) any good to make comparisons.
This goes the other way, too - looking at other people’s lives from a place of judgment instead of envy. You know what I’m talking about - from that “well, at least I’m not (insert snarky negative comment here)” place. I get it. It’s a totally normal impulse that I too, indulge in.
But trust me, the short-term relief usually melts away into a deeper feeling of shame and failure. Comparing myself to others only adds to my pain while delaying the confrontation of whatever truth I need to face. It just makes everything worse.
You know what else helps with resisting the urge to compare yourself to others? Disconnecting. It’s neither a secret nor is it a profound realization that we are inundated with a lot of information. Feeling like a failure is overwhelming enough. Why add to it?
Give yourself a break from the constant noise. Try giving yourself some respite by turning off your computer and putting away your phone for a few hours or (gasp!) a day. Delete social media apps from your phone. If that gives you heart palpitations, at least try turning off notifications.
I know what you’re thinking: I should just leave you alone and let you stay in bed all day hiding from the world.
I hear you. Exercising is the last thing I feel like doing when I’m down. For one, I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. Also, how is it that I walk up the same flight of subway stairs every single day of my life and I’m still out of breath? Does that ever go away? Will I always be lightly sweating no matter what I do?
That being said, getting your blood pumping really does go a long way in helping to clear your head.
Now, I’m not saying that if you’re feeling like a failure you need to start training for a marathon or something. Taking that big of a step might actually make things worse (if you’re like me).
I’m a fan of baby steps. Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Pick up the food you ordered instead of having it delivered. If you’re meeting up with friends, maybe suggest going for a walk together. Do a cannon ball into a pool. Make a snow angel.
Most of all, enjoy the rush of endorphins and the clarity they bring.
Jennifer Koza is a social worker who believes support and empowerment are key to life — and has the data to back it up. By day, she is a research and evaluation analyst, committed to preventing violence against women and studying the value of work and workplaces. By night, she is a painter — or at least she tries to be when she's not catching up on TV/movies (or re-watching The West Wing, Gilmore Girls or The Office).