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How to Cope with Feeling Like a Failure at Work

Sometimes we all feel like failures at work. Over the past week, I heard or experienced myself all of the following and more:

Stop feeling like a failure

I stink because I do not have enough expertise in my field

I stink because I have lost connection with my team

I stink because I could not recognize that my team member needed my support

I stink because I cannot meet my deadline

I stink because I cannot manage all my work

I stink because I cannot learn fast enough

I stink because I have no freaking idea what I am doing

No matter how good we are at our jobs, there are moments when we cannot perform the way we or others expect us to. And if we are dedicated and engaged with what we do, this may provoke strong emotions and shake us up considerably. And while I have already discussed how to address our failures with individuals and teams, today I would like to talk about our own experience of defeat and manage it.

Take a Step Back

Failures can be significant or small, real, or perceived. Some we take in stride, but others may connect with past experience or our existing insecurities and grow to extraordinary proportions in our minds. They can overshadow all the good things that we are doing and all our successes and achievements.

In these situations, it helps to take one or more steps back until we come out from underneath our failure’s gloom and can see the full picture. More often than not, this different vantage point will show that apart from the shadows of failure, your work landscape also displays the peaks of success, the valleys of cooperation and lots and lots of fields of opportunity. This perspective will reveal that while we may have failed in one thing, we are not in fact A failure.

Talk About Feeling Like A Failure At Work (and hear what the others tell you)

At times, the cloud of our perception of failure is so big that no matter how many steps back we take, we cannot come out from underneath it. The good news is that there are others around us whose vision is not so obscured and who can help us see more clearly.

Many people find it hard to share emotions in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) for fear of seeming vulnerable or unprofessional. If you have already read any of my other posts, you will know that for me vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness. Therefore, I have no issue with sharing that I feel stupid, inadequate or unsuccessful. The part I find difficult, though, is hearing what the other party is telling me in response.

At the moment, when feelings of insecurity and failure shroud me, any attempts at encouragement and shifting my focus to a more balanced view of my overall performance may fall short. But some of it inevitably sticks and over the next hours or days, it helps shift my viewpoint and get to a more stable emotional state faster.

Ask for Help

We are not alone in the workplace. We have peers and managers and teams that can help bring a different perspective or lend a hand in managing the task or meeting that deadline.

I have observed that frequently the most talented professionals have the most challenging time asking for support. It is sometimes due to a fear of showing vulnerability, but often they are just so used to being able to handle anything on their own that it does not even occur to them that they can reach out for help.

But this is not a winning strategy in the long run. You can be the most outstanding expert in your field or the best leader that has ever walked the corporate hallways, but inevitably a moment will come when you get stuck and that “I stink” feeling comes sailing in. So put a post-it note on your monitor or reminder on your calendar that does not let you forget this ultimate mantra for survival in the corporate world: “I can ask for help.”


Cognitive reappraisal refers to our ability to change the way we perceive a situation. In his book “Your Brain at Work”, David Rock provides strategies to do that.

According to him we can:

  • reinterpret the event by receiving or searching for additional information, which brings new aspects to the picture and may change our emotions.
  • normalize a new or unexpected situation, bringing down the levels of stress and anxiety.
  • re-evaluate the importance of a given event or task.
  • reposition and try to view the situation from another point of view.

To be honest, I have struggled for years with the concept of reappraisal. Even though David Rock’s book provides ample supporting evidence from neuroscientific research, the whole idea still seemed iffy to me. Emotions are incredibly important for me and my goal has always been to learn how to stay with my negative emotions, analyze them, get to the root cause and work on resolving that. Making conscious efforts to change my feelings seemed like cheating.

But I have to admit that reappraisal can be very effective in the workplace when you are stuck in negative emotion and you don’t have the time and mental bandwidth to thoroughly examine and endure the emotion. It provides tools to alter the way you think about the situation and pull you away from feeling like a failure at work.

When You Start Feeling Like A Failure At Work, Switch Direction

I have a weekly plan for preparing my blog posts – I write the first draft on Tuesday night, do the first edit on Thursdays, work on formatting and visuals over the weekend and publish at the beginning of the following week. It gives me structure and a sense of accomplishment for reaching each of the minute milestones.

Last week though, was tough. I had several thirteen-hour workdays and a few leadership fails that really brought me down. I had the blog post outline ready right on schedule and I had the whole thing in my head, but I just could not get myself to sit down and write it.

With each passing day, I was more and more disappointed with myself. In the end, I managed to start, wrote half of the post and got completely stuck. I felt stupid and useless. It was a post I had been planning for a month and I simply could not make it happen.

After a bit of banging my head against the nearest wall and a fretful night’s sleep, I woke up and looked over the past few days. I realized that I had been so thoroughly focused on the timeline I had devised myself and the topic I had planned that I had completely lost sight of the whole reason I am doing this – to share stories that are important to me and have fun along the way.

With this new perspective, I switched the post’s topic to something more relevant for me at the moment and finished the whole thing in two hours.

Often we get so caught up in the way we picture things should go that we utterly forget there might be a different way we could approach the situation. In these cases, it helps if we go back to the start and remind ourselves of our goal and the end result we want to achieve. On surprisingly many occasions, we find another way to reach those results and discover that just next to the wall that we were trying fruitlessly to break down, there is a door that is just waiting for us to open it.

Do you want to learn more about being a great manager?

Join my course on Udemy: First Steps in Management: A Practical Guide

Accept Failure

The truth of the matter is that we sometimes do fail. But it is just as true that it is ok to fail sometimes.

We cannot be perfect in everything and that is fine. It is also fine to sometimes fail in something in which you usually excel. We all have bad days or even weeks and months.

I have found that accepting my flaws helps me overcome failures easier and makes me braver and allows me to continue learning and improving so that I don’t fail as often in the end.

Write a Blog Post About It

Or a song, or a sonnet, or a journal entry, or a list – anything that will help you take the situation and emotion out of your mind, observe it and process it.

Feelings of inadequacy plagued me both in my personal and professional life all week. Even though I employed most of the techniques described in this post, the thing that finally pulled me out was sitting down and writing it all. It also helped me see that I could have been better at asking for support and at acceptance. I also figured out that the switching direction approach I used with my writer’s block could have been useful when I felt stuck in finding a way to improve a relationship with an internal client.

In fact, I think that in the future, I might use this article as a checklist to help me ensure that I have done all I can to support myself in situations when I feel like a failure at work. Feel free to do the same.

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