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What to do when you feel like a failure

Nov. 15, 2017
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I am no stranger to feeling like a failure. In fact, it’s a feeling I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the years. I have felt like a failure in almost every aspect of my life—and not just once or twice, but multiple times. And usually when I feel like I’ve failed in one aspect of my life, I’ll fail in another. 

However, notice that I said I feel like a failure, not that I actually am a failure. This wording is crucial: rarely have I ever actually faired. Typically when I feel like a failure, it just means that I did not succeed in a given task—that doesn’t mean I can’t try again or will never know success. True failure is definite, permanent, and unyielding. There are very few things in life at which we don’t get a second or third or hundredth chance. 

Here’s the issue: when I do not succeed, I feel like a failure, which leads to a decrease in confidence, which leads to my not wanting to try again or work hard for success, which results in a continued lack of success. It’s a vicious cycle. However, I do not think I’m alone in this snowball effect, hence why I wanted to write this piece—to remind everyone who feels like a failure that you don’t actually have to become a failure if you don’t want to. 

1. When you feel like you’ve failed financially…

Everyone has been here at one point or another. Even Bill Gates, one of the richest dudes in the world, has experienced financial failure! Maybe you don’t have an income, or maybe you lost your income, or maybe you spend every dollar you get the second you get it (I’m very guilty of this), or maybe you made the world’s dumbest investment and lost all your money, or maybe you made the world’s smartest investment and then lost all your money—whatever the cause was, the effect is that you feel like you’ve failed financially. But remember: unless you are totally bankrupt and are incapable of ever making money again, you have not failed. 

So things are going to be tight for a while, possibly even very tight. That’s okay! Plenty of people live on very little for a very long time. The important thing to do is learn from whatever financial faux pas you made. Add on a part-time job, or two, or even three if you need to. Sell some clothes or belongings you don’t care about anymore. Get a book or take a (free) course on how to save or invest money. If you’re in a position to read this, chances are you won’t be broke forever.

2. When you feel like you’ve failed in your career…

I’m struggling with this one right now. I have some amazing part-time gigs but no full-time job that is helping me to progress my career forward in any noticeable way. I have the education, I have the experience, I have the drive, and yet every single job I apply to eventually leaves me looking at that rejection email with tears in my eyes. After about six straight months of this, I feel like the queen of failure. I have definitely felt like giving up on countless occasions and just trying a new career path. But that, my friends, would be failure. I would have failed at chasing the career of my dreams. 

I understand that many people have to stop chasing the career of their dreams due to severe financial issues or because of familial obligations or any other number of reasons. That’s absolutely not failure; that’s reality—and if you can come to terms with it, you will have accomplished what very few can, so major props to you. However, I am not currently experiencing any of those mitigating factors. I’ve gotten some rejection letters. Big whoop. There’s no excuse for me to quit! I just need to remind myself that I won’t always be living with my parents, writing a million cover letters every day, with only a few bucks in my pocket. I will get my opportunity, but it’s not going to be easy to get. So to everyone else out there who feels like they’ve failed at their career: you haven’t. You will get another chance; you will get that once in a lifetime opportunity. But in the words of the almighty Britney Spears: you better work, bitch. 

3. When you feel like you’ve failed at a relationship…

Whether it’s a friendship, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a marriage, or a family relationship, this type of failure is probably the most painful. It has launched a million songs, an untold number of books, a lot of chocolate-eating, and too many unhealthy coping mechanisms to count. It’s hard to not think of yourself as a failure when you feel like the wind has been knocked out of you with a machete, like only a broken heart can. But unless you and the other party are both dead, you haven’t failed. 

I like to think of this one quote from How I Met Your Mother that perfectly articulates how the end of a relationships isn’t synonymous with a failed relationship. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the whole show!) In one of the last episodes of the series, we find out that Barney and Robin are getting divorced. When they tell the rest of the gang, Barney says, "This isn't a failed marriage; it's very successful marriage that only lasted 3 years." I love this line. It exemplifies that not all relationships need to last forever in order for them to be successful. The idea that relationships do need to last forever in order to be successful is not realistic and is actually probably the cause of many break-ups. 

I think that if you’ve loved someone and if they loved you, no matter what type of relationship, it’s a success. You had great experiences, great memories, and probably learned a lot of lessons from this relationship, and you will always have that, even if it does come to an end for whatever reason. If the relationship that ended was romantic, that means you get to try it again, only this time you’ll have more knowledge, more experience, and it will be with someone who is better suited for you. If it was a friendship that ended, my guess is that it ended for a reason, and now you both can move forward with less toxicity and stress in your lives. And if it was a family relationship, those don’t end lightly, so when they do it typically has to do with self-preservation of some kind. 

4. When you feel like you’ve failed at being happy…

Ah, happiness: what an elusive little sucker. Every time you think you might have it in your grasp, it squiggles free, only to wind up farther away than it ever was before. This is probably because humans have this idea that, once they reach happiness, it will be this everlasting emotional state of contentment. People spend their entire lives trying to be happy, to reach that permanent state, only to realize that happiness, like every other emotion, ebbs and flows and changes with time. 

We think that if we check off certain goals throughout our life, then we will experience this emotional nirvana. If we have money, and a fulfilling career, and the perfect partner, and the perfect family, and the perfect belongings, and the ability to have any experience that we want, then we will be happy. Well, that certainly sets a lot of us up for failure, doesn’t it? 

People focus so much of their attention on accomplishing this checklist that they don’t even realize when they actually are experiencing happiness, no matter how fleeting it is. The goal isn’t to be eternally happy—that’s a fantasy that will only end in disappointment. The goal is to fully experience happiness when it does occur. So if you feel like you’ve failed at being happy, congratulations! You’re human! And—just like every other human who thought that they would never feel happiness again—it will come back to you sooner or later. Just make sure you’re able to recognize it when it does come back, because it doesn’t always look the way we expect it to.