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Feeling Like a Failure

Blog by: Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.) Clinical Psychologist

As a therapist failure is something that I commonly get asked about, both directly and indirectly. Feeling like a failure at times is a normal human experience. We can all feel like we are letting ourselves, or others, down at times throughout our lives. Here are the most common questions regarding failure that I get asked both inside and out-with my clinic.

Is it easier to see the good in others than yourself? Why are we not as impressed by our own accomplishes as we are by others?

Human beings have an intrinsic “negatively bias”. This negativity bias refers to the asymmetrical way in which we process negatively and positively weighted information. Simply put negative information has a greater psychological impact than positive information does. This automatic tendency to notice and focus on negative experiences or information, instead of positive or neutral ones, means that we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to seeing good in anyone (either ourselves or others!) This negativity bias is a product of our evolution. From the very beginning our survival as a human race depended on our ability to quickly detect and escape from danger. Our brains therefore developed systems which actively looked for danger. This is the same system which acts on our brains today, making it all too easy to notice negativity and failure in ourselves whilst adding to our struggle to acknowledge our strengths.

Comparison is another natural human trait, one we are all prone to. Comparison however can be a double-edged sword as it has the capacity to build us up or knock us down. Unfortunately, when we compare ourselves, our accomplishments, and ultimately our lives with others we do not do so fairly. We have a tendency to compare our internal worlds with other peoples external worlds. This means that we can, quite unfairly, judge ourselves more negatively in comparison with others.

The ease with which we see the good in ourselves, or others for that matter, also has a large amount to do with our self esteem (your perception of your value as a person) and self confidence (the belief that we are capable). These are formed from birth and are moulded by our experiences, role models, relationships, and so fourth. Those people who have lower self esteem have a tendency to focus more easily on their weaknesses and often see themselves as less capable/able than others. How they view themselves therefore and the way in which they perceive their value as a person can mean that they find it easier to see others as better and more accomplished than themselves.


Can social media contribute to the feeling of being a failure? Why/ why not?

In short yes absolutely! On the surface of it social media provides us with a platform to connect, re-connect, and find information. It can even go as far as to give us a global voice. Social media however is cleverly constructed to be addictive. By building in feedback loops which encourage people to come back again and again it consumes our time and attention, often without our even recognising it. When we hear the familiar tones of a notification on our phones the brain releases dopamine into our systems making us feel happy and validated. We can quickly loose ourselves in this social validation feedback loop.
Social media however is not real. It is a platform on which many post the highly edited and filtered version of their lives. It is a space from which we can present a side of ourselves rather than our whole selves. It can also encourage us to live to report our experiences rather than living to experience them. Social media forces us into a dance where we can find ourselves comparing our reality to the edited reality of the people around us, compelling us to share further images of perceived perfection in order to compete for attention and validation. When a picture doesn’t get as many likes as we had hoped, or the comments we received were not as gregarious or positive as we needed, this can cause a negative psychological and physiological response. Social comparison steps in and we can quickly and easily find ourselves feeling isolated, envious, and stressed.


How does a sense of failure and success change as we grow older?

When we reach retirement age we have had a considerable amount of time and experience from which to consider and consolidate our perception of ourselves, other people and the world around us. Some of these beliefs are entirely justified, whilst others are assumptions based on nothing other than our own biases. Retirement is often a time for pause and reflection, on what has gone past as well as our expectations of what lays ahead. Whilst there is no life arenas that one typically might feel that they have failed in at this stage in life, it is very common to reflect on areas such as family, career and so fourth. Through this process of reflection we may of course experiences a sense of accomplishment or failure. One of the aspects of life that changes significantly we we grow older is of course time itself. As you grow older and reflect on your successes and whether you have reached your goals you become infinitely more aware that there is less and less time to work towards your goals. A sense of failure therefore can feel very different in your sixties than in your thirties where you perhaps still have the time you need in order to work towards your goals.

Interestingly however happiness and general life satisfaction have a tendency to follow a U shaped curve over the course of our lifetime. That is to say that there is considerable evidence that people report a high degree of happiness in their late teens and twenties, which dwindles over the next thirty decades, hitting an all time low somewhere around our early fifties. From there happiness and satisfaction have a tendency to rebound into retirement and old age. So there is evidence to suggest that we are at least happier and more satisfied as we enter into retirement age than we were in our fifties!


What can make you feel like a failure?

It was Shakespear’s Hamlet who once said “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. This clever little quote reminds us that it is our own thoughts that create our reality. We can let most anything make us feel like a failure if we think about it in the right way. Of course the reverse of this is also true. Our judgements, opinions and responses to events and situations that happen around us is what pull our emotions into the direction of failure. If we can learn and train our brain to refrain from automatically making negative interpretations we can liberate ourselves from unnecessisarily experiencing negative emotions and thoughts such as failure.

For some of us however our sense of failure is rooted in our childhood. What we experience as as babies and children acts as the foundation of what to expect as we grow. The beliefs and assumptions that we develop in our childhood can therefore strongly influce our experience of our adult world. A child who has experienced some form of traumatic abuse, be it physical or emotional, may see themselves as being inherently flawed and a failure. Research however demonstrates that you don’t have to have suffered abuse as a child to feel like a failure as an adult. Children who experienced well-meaning criticism from their parents for example can lead to a pattern of learning to be self-critical and feelings of failure as an adult.


What can one do to feel more successful?

Feelings of success, achievement, happiness and satisfaction whilst all related are subtly different and everyones path there is equally different. Research shows that connection, exercising, giving, seeking meaning and having goals for example all increase our life satisfaction and ultimately our happiness.

When it comes to feelings of success in particle it is important to reflect on and consider your own personal definition of success. For some success is measured in financial wealth and how much money they have in the bank. It is important to remember however that there are other types of capital, such as social capital and intellectual capital that we can use to measure our impact on the world. There is a considerable gap in this modern day and age between how we value our own success and how society encourages us to feel successful. This is where the idea of societal “success” can become quite confused. When we reflect on our lives we rarely console ourselves with our bank accounts, but rather it is the relationships, people and experiences that we think of. Financial capitol can therefore at times feel like less of a success story than society might lead us to believe.

When we consider the role of social media where all kind of “success stories” are freely shared it is difficult to avoid the question of whether we feel “enough”. Whilst we have undoubtedly seen a move towards a greater acceptance of alternative pathways to “success” society requires some tie to adapt to these pathways and to consider the weight it gives to each. In the meantime we need to chart our own course and define success for ourselves.

Ultimately though my experience has taught me that the greatest obstacles in “feeling successful” is ourselves. We often find it difficult to let go of our mistakes and in some cases we allow them to define us. We focus and percolate on what went wrong, forgetting to give as much intensity and energy to learning from the experience and moving forward. Once you have learned from your past mistakes constantly replaying past failures in your own mind is no longer helpful and serves only to consolidate feelings of failure.

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