How to Feel like a Failure

  1. Listen to, and believe, the voice(s) disparaging you.

That’s it, that’s the list.

Hold up, it can’t be that simple, you exclaim, outraged at the clickbait.

Well… yes. As a perfectionist, I don’t make that claim lightly. And no, I have not vanquished feeling like a failure, I’ve actually been living with this more intensely than usual (every day, without fail, with varying ferocity) for over a year now. I just… had a moment of clarity. A mini epiphany. Minipiphany? It’ll catch on.

Important to note that feeling like a failure ≠ failure (an entirely different topic which deserves more than a blog post). I’m talking about viewing myself as a bonne à rien waste of a human being, which can be a reaction to ‘failing’ something, but generally speaking can arise simply by living your life differently than other people’s, therefore not meeting their expectations.

It’s really a culmination of several different factors, but today’s focus will be on expectations. Also know that I’m having minipiphanies as I’m writing this post – a forgotten side effect of writing.

🔅 Me, Now ℹ️

I have a Thing to do. The day ends, and I haven’t done the Thing (or even a thing). We’ve all been there, yes? Examples of what I tell myself include, but are in no way limited to:

  • “You suck.”
  • “You couldn’t even do this ONE thing?? PFFF, pathetic!”
  • “Really? Not even 100 words? Really?”
  • “So-and-so went through their to-do list, and they had work, what’s your excuse?”
  • “Yet another automatic FAIL!”

The most obvious voice to discount is your own, which immediately makes it the most difficult. It is, after all, the voice that is with you 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s there when you wake up, when you daydream, and when you can’t fall asleep; it doesn’t take a vacation. We really, seriously, are our own worst critics – unless that’s just me?

Changing this dynamic is, like every worthwhile endeavor, a lifelong practice (cue pterodactyl screech).

💭 Me, Editing 💬

Why learn to quiet the voice(s) down? If we only treat the symptoms, the root is still free to grow every day. Understanding where the critic comes from helps identifying where our insecurities/vulnerabilities lie. (In theory, remember the minipiphanying I mentioned, I’m still trialing it out.) A majority of our insecurities are tied to fear (not fitting in, being judged, etc), which are at the core of the human existence (re: evolution).

The fears are real, maybe irrational to others (who have different fears), but very real to you. So to avoid facing that dreadful situation, the critic pipes up and chimes in, over, and over, and over again, earlier than necessary, harsher than strictly necessary, all to prevent the situation from happening in the first place or to protect you by cutting you deeper than anyone else. I have been there, I’m still there – but learning – and it sucks. No one knows your shortcomings better than yourself, especially when you can’t fall asleep and start examining every overlooked detail and botched interaction over the last 10ish years.

panic medal Sticker by Megan McNulty
Everyone gets a ribbon!

It is so easy to succumb to the critic, natural, even. It knows all the shortcuts, all the right buttons to push to get you barreling down the cliff of self-confidence to the abyss of worthlessness.

The question then becomes, how can we change?

An unconventional start might be to actually thank the critic for its concern. (I never said it’d be easy, or make complete sense.) It’s only harsh on us because it cares So Deeply and has such high expectations, right? If it expected nothing… surely it wouldn’t be worth the effort to belittle us constantly?

Some ideas to jump-start your muse (the critic’s antithesis):

  • “Thanks for looking out for me, but I don’t need you to do this anymore.”
  • “I know this isn’t up to snuff but I’m proud to have something written down.”

You get the idea.

If you really want to delve, prepare for the Deep Dive (and the ocean can be scary).

Where do the expectations you currently have come from? Yourself or others (family, friends, culture, media, etc), or yourself because of others (their reaction to something you did made you swing back to the polar opposite)? You’ll notice the “others” is quite an intricate basket of interwoven influences as nothing exists in a vacuum, and all those little things worked in congruence to shape you, and your inner critic, as you are.

If thanking the critic is too much too soon, we can always ask it to rebrand its message(s) in a more compassionate tone, like it would address a friend. I actually tried that a few weeks back, I was feeling quite down, possibly worthless, and utterly alone, and I wondered how I’d help a friend going through this. My response to my own gentleness surprised me. It was immediate, powerful, and cathartic. I bawled my eyes out, and I realized just how desperately I needed that kindness, and how little I accord myself the compassion I grant others.

Yes our inner critic is harsh, and yes it takes time to change our automatic response, but it is possible. You only need three handy ingredients in small quantities: a generous pinch of self-introspection, a dash of self-awareness, and 4 cups of practice – everything’s practice until it’s automatic. I’m still working on it, and it varies in different areas of my life (writing is not yet part of the change – the keyword being yet).

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Be like Steve, if you get knocked down, get right back up! (Source)

The other voices, which are tied to the expectations feeding your inner critic, might be a liiiittle easier to tune out. JET’s motto comes to mind, one which is truly applicable to all facets of life: ESID (Every Situation is Different). What comes easily to you will be harder for someone else, and vice versa. And that’s okay, such is being human! 🥳 (Says the high achiever, who has trouble accepting that in specific life areas. Ahem.)

Would it be easier to refute the outside voices disparaging us if we get an inkling as to our inner critic’s sparks? Possibly, though at the moment I can’t imagine feeling less vulnerable when receiving conflicting feedback on my writing, which is thrilling until it isn’t. I expect my skin to keep thickening with practice, but if I’m attacking myself from the inside out, it becomes much easier for outside voices to confirm my worst thoughts (I’m not good enough, my writing is garbage, etc). Pretty rude of us to constantly hinder ourselves, don’t you think? We’d think so of anyone else doing the same and stop talking to them altogether.

Star Trek Voyager GIF
That’s correct! You don’t. (Source)

I have to remind myself that I’m not lesser for not following other people’s ideas of what my life should look like (which is very much still under construction). I’m a people-pleaser, and it’s still hard to do things that might displease them. I think I’ve gotten better over the years, but it’s a struggle because I just want everybody to be happy (and please-don’t-hate-me-I’ll-bake-you-cookies)! At the end of the day, we get one life, and what’s the point of living someone else’s vision when you have a perfect one right there in front of you?

On the other hand, we all have a need to fit in and to be accepted (the human condition?), and the overwhelmingly accepted result is conformity, whether in clothes, life choices, or media consumption. “Normal,” if you will. My usual response to someone telling me I’m weird (besides “thank you!”) is “define normal.” Can you? I have trouble pinning it down, but normal, in that sense, feels nearly synonymous with plain – lacking personality and essence, assembled in a factory to fit in a predetermined, neatly labeled box showcasing What and Who you are. Vanilla’s nice, but if I get a chance to mix chocolate, coffee, and caramel? You bet that’s what I’m gonna do!
Wait, if you’re me and I’m you… Who am I?? (Source)

Nothing wrong with fitting in a box, as long as it’s a box of your choosing and/or making. But humans aren’t made identical to be displayed in a glass vitrine like cakes and patisseries, our very differences are the spice of life! Linguistically, emotionally, culturally, aspirationally… How bland would our world be if we were all in the same predetermined 1–? boxes. The real boxes are like possibilities:

Not to sound like Elle Woods, but let me talk about hair. 👩‍🦱 I used to hate my curly, fluffy hair. I didn’t know what to do with it, I’d brush it and look like a lion (still true). I wore it in a ponytail for the longest time, so much so the only curl left in it was from the hair tie. Then, halfway through middle school, I learned how to wear it naturally, and lo and behold, I started liking my hair. It’s not perfect, I still have days where I hate dislike it because it’s frizzy, unruly, and I just don’t know what to do with it, but overall I appreciate my hair and the pretty curls it sometimes gives me. It’s very me (sometimes neat, sometimes knotty, usually fluffy and doing its own thing).

The grass is always greener on the other side, but I’m glad I never started straightening my hair. I don’t want to spend that much time ironing out my own self every morning to blend into a box I literally wasn’t born in. My friends joke they always spot me in a crowd by my hair, but it’s no joke, they do. 😉 We always want what we don’t have. Sure, I’m still jealous of straight hair and people who can flip it to either side multiple times a day and still look good, but do I still want straight hair? No; except maybe as a prank. (Fine, or as a special occasion, but it feels so weird!)

Frieda: What's the good of having naturally curly hair, if ...
Still building my Frieda confidence (minus the arrogance). (Source)

Blah blah, what’s hair gotta do with feeling like a failure, you ask.

Great question! But everything we compare to others, from outward beauty (thank you photoshop and unrealistic beauty standards), to education, careers, and lifestyles really gravitate around expectations. Expectations which come from the outside in, if we consider how children are raised and schooled, and how society functions as a whole (yet whole other discussions). We get graded and compared to other kids in school, and we grow up having been taught expectations without really knowing where or who they come from half the time, and more importantly why they’re there at all.

  • Why do I always feel the need to get straight As or I’m worthless?
  • Why am I not allowed to make a mistake when doing homework/cooking/working?
  • Why am I terrified of finishing something (and possibly making a mistake doing so) and oh hello procrastination my old friend.

It’s really enlightening to catch those thoughts and wonder “where the heeeeck did you come from?” or “well hello there, what the heck is this??” The answer(s) can be quite illuminating and freeing.

With so many subtle, constant expectations from the get go (exercise, get groceries, don’t be rude, make dinner, don’t complain, clean everything, be productive, suck it up, do your best, do better, always, etc), it’s quite easy to fall short on any number of them and end up feeling like a miserable failure.

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That’s one more thing to the pile, I guess?

My expectations have revolved around three main activities for the past year: write, read, apply for all the jobs, with a pinch of “exercise/be healthier.” And when I don’t do any of these (and that is more often than I care to admit), I go straight down to the bottom of the ocean of despair.

20 Fail Memes That'll Keep You In A Good Mood ...
How does he knowwww? (Source)

And yet. I have good days when none of it matters because “tomorrow’s another day.” Sometimes that suffices, sometimes it falls quite short.

🔆 Me, Next 🆕

Ever heard the famous quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent?” I know it’s hard enough to do when facing your whole outside world (outside of yourself, that is), but I wonder what would happen if we quieted our inside world first, come to terms with our inner worrywart and insatiable critic.

Would that mean having more confidence? Recognizing our own limits and stop labeling shortcomings as utter failures? (Again, a whole other discussion.) What would that look like?

  • “So I didn’t read anything today, but I made bread.”
  • “I didn’t write for an hour, but I finished this blog post.”
  • “I spent too much time on my phone, but I did spend some time thinking and developing my story.”

I wouldn’t call my days balanced (yet), but they’re not wholly unproductive either, I just fail (hah!) to recognize the seemingly insignificant things I did do, which happened not to be on my list.

In a world so hell bent on binaries – good or bad, black or white, success or failure – it leaves little room for everything else, the in-between subtle flavors. Isn’t life built on the myriad of combinations of flavors? The pain, sorrow, and grief of leaving a home, a friend, or a good book, but it all mixes with the excitement of the new discoveries ahead, most of which aren’t pinging on our radar because they’re surprises! Sometimes not the best, but sometimes just the right kind.

We can’t always know what expectations others have of us, and even if we did, they could be contradictory to our needs and our growth. Our expectations of other people are really a reflection of our own expectations (and possibly a lack of clear communication). I’ve increasingly been wondering why I react the way I do when interacting with others, and it boils down to expectations I hadn’t realized I held. I could keep those expectations as they are and communicate them more clearly, or I could find where they come from and why, and adjust from there. (Not listed: plenty of other options.)

I’ll be heading down the road of acknowledging falling short of my own expectations, and, having no one else to blame, I’ll take it up with myself. I’ll baby-step my way to a gentler inner critic until it’s no longer a critic but a companion and a guide.

Be kind,

P.S: Of course as soon as I finished writing this, I listened to a podcast with psychotherapist Bruce Tift who talked about having reactions triggered by others (making us feel what we don’t want to feel), and how “feeling I did something wrong” isn’t actually a feeling but an interpretation. Consider me interested in reading his book, but my post is long enough so food for thought for you! A really interesting discussion, if you have time to spare give it a listen. 🙂