Feel like a failure when a work presentation or first date doesn’t go the way you planned?
If you manage to bounce back in a couple of days (or weeks if it’s something harder, like a breakup), then you probably have healthy amounts of resilience and self-worth.
But if you constantly feel like a failure, no matter what you do? Then it might be a much deeper issue.
What do deep-rooted feelings of failure look like?
Why do I feel like a failure no matter what I do?
Constant feelings of failure can rarely be solved by present-day achievement because they have roots in your childhood.
What we experience when young can leave us with a set of core beliefs (assumptions we think are facts) that mean we see the world from a place where we can’t win. This is why even when someone else points out our long list of achievements, we feel nothing.
What sort of childhood leaves you feeling a failure as an adult?
Childhood trauma is the most obvious cause of feeling a failure as an adult.
Abuse in all forms – sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse – damages self-esteem in ways that are pervasive.
But research shows that childhood can be far from traumatic and still leave us feeling a failure.
My childhood wasn’t terrible. So why do I feel a failure?
A childhood that leads to being an adult who is confident and resilient turns out to be no easy recipe.
So even if your parents meant well, the following can leave you less able to feel successful as an adult:
1.You had a parent who did everything for you.
A 2016 study at the University of Singapore found that ‘helicopter parenting‘ was linked to children who were anxious, depressed, and suffered low self-esteem. Later assessments of the children found that 60% were highly self-critical, with a shocking 78% struggling with perfectionism.
2. You experienced constant criticism.
Even well-meant criticism from a parent can mean you carry on the pattern of criticising yourself as an adult, with an inner soundtrack of self-judgement that blocks ever feeling a success.
3. You were supported, but there were hidden high expectations.
Your loving family might have had built-in expectations that your personality just didn’t match. Perhaps you come from a long line of family men with practical jobs and you are a single artist. It can mean you live with a nagging feeling you’re failing even when doing well.
4. You were heavily rewarded for being good, quiet, helpful, etc.
Was praise heaped on you if you were good? But was the parent you adored then emotionally unavailable if you dared to be sad, or voice an opinion they didn’t like?
This leads to a child who reads cues in order to please others. Which leads to an adult taking their value from guessing and meeting others needs. Of course it’s impossible to please all the others, all the time. The result? A constant sense of not being good enough.
5. You didn’t have proper ‘attachment’ with a parent.
Attachment theory believes that for a child to grow up into a confident adult, the child must be able to fully trust and rely on at least one caregiver. If your main caregiver instead was distracted, emotionally unavailable, or otherwise unable to give you the acceptance and attention you needed, you can grow up with an incapacity to maintain relationships. This can leave you feeling constantly flawed.
6. You had a parent who felt like a failure.
If a parent or main caregiver suffered from low self-esteem and feelings of failure you might have have taken on board this way of being through what social cognitive theory calls ‘observational learning’ or ‘observation and modelling’.
7. You were bullied as a child.
Enough about your parents. Some of us feel a failure all the time as an adult because we were bullied at school. Research carried out at Duke university connected bullying in childhood to anxiety disorders, depression, and panic disorder in adults. Hard to feel a success in the face of such challenges.
When the self-help just isn’t working
As you might be realising, such deep-rooted feelings of failure won’t go away by finding that perfect job or the right partner.
Furthermore, feelings of failure rooted in childhood tend to come alongside very real mental health issues that include:
So self-help books are a great start.
But shifting such deep-rooted feelings of failure, especially if they are causing any of the mental health issues above, is often best done with the support and safe space that therapy can provide.
A good therapist can help you spot your core beliefs and your assumptions and process the feelings attached to the experiences that formed them. He or she can also help you slowly retrain your thoughts to a more positive perspective of yourself that includes self-compassion.
What sorts of therapy help with ongoing feelings of failure?
There are many kinds of talk therapy nowadays that can help you with all this.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy helps you deep dive into how your past has created all your current ways of feeling and acting.
Schema therapy works to identify and change the patterns you live out in life, including the ones that see you constantly recreating failure.
If you want to try a shorter-term psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps you recognise and challenge your negative thoughts, and learn to quickly replace such thoughts and take better actions in life.
And person-centred therapy is a great choice if you just want to talk, on your terms, and have someone warm and understanding listen and reflect back.
Harley Therapy connects you with counsellors and psychotherapists who can help you overcome longstanding feelings of failure. Meet a therapist in one of four central London locations, or over Skype from wherever you are in the world.
Do you want to share your story of feeling a failure with our readers? Or have a question about feeling a failure? Use our public comment box below.