Real Talk: When you feel like a failure.

We mess up. It happens. Take it from someone who has make one or five colossal mistakes before.

I know you know that, but somehow that probably doesn’t take away the sting of feeling like a failure. I just want to give you a few thoughts to consider during this time.

I don’t want to burst into song, or tell you it’s all going to be alright (even though it really is going to be ok) or pummel you with dumb positive statements.

I’d like to give you some practical things to think about right now, so that you can learn and grow.

Understanding if it’s grief, shame, or both

Are you feeling stuck because you made a mistake or messed up a situation?

Sometimes after a failure, we can feel embarrassed at being in the situation. We can feel super conspicuous; like everyone can see where we’ve been and the mistakes we’ve made. Those feelings are feelings of shame.

But, I think intelligent people (clearly anyone who reads this blog) have it a little bit harder. I think mixed-in with those feelings of shame are feelings of guilt. Why didn’t we do something different, or take different advice, or somehow perform differently under the circumstances when we failed? Why did it have to be us? Why didn’t we see that coming? And now, what lies ahead, if anything? Those are feelings of grief.

With grief, you are mourning the loss of the outcome that didn’t happen, and never ever will happen. You are coping with the rest of your life being an “after” of this event. You are having to figure out how to function in these circumstances.

It’s a life change. It takes recovery. And the good news is, recovery is an excellent teacher.

Set time limits.

How long are you going to dwell in these feelings?

If your self care (hygiene, nutritious food, sleep, time outside) is being thwarted by shame and/or guilt today, how many minutes are you going to spend feeling these feelings before jumping in the shower? An hour? Ok. Half a day or two seasons of a Netflix binge? Decidedly less ok.

But that’s just my opinion; my point is to decide for you. How long are you going to spend on the playground with these feelings today? Decide. Stick to it.

How long are you going to feel your feelings of guilt about being in this situation? An hour feeding pigeons at the park (insert sad piano music)? Sure. Years? Years of never putting your heart out there again because of the guilt you feel? Definitely not ok. You’d be surprised how many people do just that.

You’re not going to do that. You’re going to grow from this.

Use logic.

Here’s the truth about failing: it just is. You just did. Failing is neutral to your emotions. If you were throwing darts at a target, the dartboard is not judging you by whether or not you get close to the bullseye. That sort of thing is the meaning we assign to the task. The dartboard doesn’t care one way or the other. Failing doesn’t try to make you feel good or feel bad. Failing is just what we call not succeeding in a given situation.

Ah, but what you do with it? That changes everything.

What we do not want to do is get trapped by feelings of guilt and unhealthy shame. Think logically about the situation:

What, are you some kind of crazy psycho who meant for this situation to happen in this way? Of course not!

Stop and think, realizing that if you knew how things would end up, you would have made different choices. There was no way to know what would happen. Sure, you might have been able to make a prediction, and other people may have too, but there was no way to know for sure.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy shame

I’m not saying all shame is bad. Hey, if you made a mistake, own it.

If you contributed to the failure in this situation, figure out how.

Understand that if you feel ashamed, there is a limit that is healthy. The right limit of shame is what is going to teach you not to do the same actions again. It tells you what you don’t want to repeat.

Unhealthy shame would be beating yourself up about it or somehow deeming yourself as the scum of the earth, or something.

It would be like getting out of a relationship that failed, and dooming yourself to only go after shallow, meaningless relationships as punishment for the intimate one you failed with. Like you don’t deserve intimacy, or something. That’s just not helping anybody, so knock it off already!

I tend to excuse subhuman things like slugs and sewer stuff from any form of self-improvement. But I’ve got news for you: You are not garbage. You are a human, who makes mistakes, and you are not excused from learning and continuing in your life. You are not excused from improving where and how you are able.

You can get mad at me about that all you want. Go ahead, I can take it.

Accept the process.

We all like to think that we are better than other people at one point or another. We all do it! That’s why it’s so devastating when we mess up–we are shown to be full of baloney, and suddenly we don’t feel better than anyone. We feel like the worst, lowest creatures on the planet!

Well, you aren’t meant to be superhuman. And you aren’t meant to be sewerhuman….meaning sub-human. You are meant to be human.

You are a person. No more, no less.

And so am I. And so was everyone else involved in the situation you’re stuck thinking about.

So if you’re worried about other people talking about your big mess-up? They probably aren’t nearly so concerned about it as you are. It’s a much safer bet for you to just not fret it to death. Accept your consequences and learn from them. Make amends where you need to. Get movin’.

Humans are capable of wonderful things. You’re no exception. It is entirely reasonable (and encouraged) to expect that you would use this experience as an opportunity to learn about yourself, to see that life is beautiful even if it isn’t always easy, and to relate to your fellow man. After all, we’re all in the same boat, doin’ stuff, messing it up, learning, growing, thinking, loving, hoping to do better next time.

I believe it’s all going to be ok. But of course, what comes next is entirely up to you.

Recommended Resources

Here are some books and things from people who are much smarter than I am. I’m including descriptions, and affiliate links–which means if you do happen to purchase anything through this site, Amazon will send me a few pennies to keep writing blog posts with. Thanks for your support!

Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw
I can’t say enough about this book. This book teaches all about healthy shame and unhealthy shame. Reader beware: This is like getting intense therapy, and it’s gonna sting before you get your first breaths of joy-inducing, lifechanging FREEDOM. For anyone recovering from low self-esteem, from so-called “legacy traumas,” or if you constantly find yourself in poop jobs and poopier relationships, give this book a try. The first half is a little daunting, as it describes more neuroses due to unhealthy shame than an entire season of your favorite crime drama. The second half of the book is totally transformative, bringing you out of the darkness and into the light.

Failing Forward by John C. Maxwell
If your brain had a well-trained response to dealing with failure that ALWAYS resulted in more success and growth in the long run, would it even matter if you messed up in the first place? This book is all about making failure a vital part of a growth mindset. Highly recommended for business folks and just us regular folks alike.

The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
The Chicken Soup guy gives us practical advice on how to actually take steps towards your goals. These are rules for life, for work, and for relationships. Eugene and I actually take his advice about having weekly conversations about how we’re doing in our relationship and we’ve benefitted from this for years. It’s never too late to start moving in the right direction in life, love, and work.

The Ten Minute Quit, by yours truly!
I originally wrote this book to describe how I got out from underneath the guilt and shame associated with being hooked on cigarettes. It’s amazing to me: I get feedback all the time from folks who say this book helped them recover from guilt and shame in all kinds of areas, not just smoking cigarettes! Some of my readers never smoked a cigarette in their lives; but they’ve still found comfort and practical actions to take towards better self-esteem, confidence, and freedom. I hope this book can help you too!


Pollyannie – Feel good, think positive, and read about Annie Glenn’s adventures in the Californian hills.
No Body But Yours – News flash: you have a soul, and it is worthy of health and wellness.
Mel Robbins – Everybody needs that voice of reason.


Listen, vent, journal, drive cry, do whatever and feel your feelings.
Mother Angelica addresses when Bad Things Happen
When he struggled with drug addiction, Russel Brand developed a talent for tons of run-on sentences with colorful vocabulary. Now that he’s recovered, he can infuse this language with tons of meaning and good ideas that are worth watching for anyone who ever wished there was someone out there in the world who could relate to their own struggles.
Will Smith has tons of advice regarding failure and success. The best part is that he actually practices what he teaches.
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