How to Deal With Failure

By Lisa Lewis

Figuring out how to move forward after a setback or failure can feel overwhelming. But there are skills you can develop to help you move through and learn from them. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate the understandable and expected emotions that can come from setbacks and failures—and how to move forward.

Recognize That Failing Doesn’t Make You a Failure 

In fact, failing is a normal and necessary part of life. It’s one of the best—and sometimes only—ways to learn. Of course, that doesn’t make the emotions you’re feeling any easier; it’s just helpful to know and remember the next time you find yourself in the same spot. 

Remind Yourself That It’s OK to Feel Uncomfortable 

When things aren’t going well, it can bring up feelings that don’t feel good. It may be helpful to recognize that feelings are information that you can use to understand and improve your life. They tell you what’s going on for you at any given moment. And they sometimes help you realize things you weren’t even aware of before and are helpful for you to know. 

Sometimes, feelings are really hard to sit with. But the information they have for you is often most accessible when you can stay present with them and not try to push them down or away. It may be helpful to note that even hard feelings soften as you move through them and understand what they’re telling you.

Tips to Navigate the Moment

  • Allow yourself to feel negative emotions rather than pushing them away. Take the time to notice and identify what you’re really feeling, and try to figure out what might be behind it. For example, strong emotions like anger or frustration are often ways we protect ourselves from deeper feelings of hurt or sadness. It can help to speak out loud to yourself (lots of people do this!) or to write free form in a journal or somewhere else.
  • Pay attention to the narrative you’re telling yourself about what happened. Is the current situation triggering associations with one or more past situations? If so, could your emotional reaction be rooted in the past rather than what’s happening right now? Is there a way to reframe how you’re looking at the situation? Remind yourself that even if there are similarities here, you got through the past challenges, and you’ll be able to get through this situation, too.
  • Imagine how others you trust would handle the situation. Do you have a role model in your life who would have advice on what to do? Think about what advice they’d have and use this knowledge to help you figure out a plan. You may also decide to reach out directly, but thinking about this on your own may still be a helpful first step.
  • Think of what you’d say to a friend. Sometimes, imagining what you would say to a friend who was in the same situation can help you realize that you’re being hard on yourself. Talk to and treat yourself the same way you would a friend who was in your shoes. You would be kind and compassionate to them, and you deserve the same treatment. 

Identify What You Can Do

Once you’ve processed your emotions, you can figure out the best way to move forward. Here are some good next steps:

  • Recognize what’s in your control and what isn’t. Focusing on what you can do, rather than getting stuck on what you can’t control, will help you figure out what your options are and get to a resolution faster.
  • Evaluate your options. What are your realistic choices for moving forward? Consider writing down your various alternatives and evaluating how realistic they are and what the pros and cons are for each.
  • Figure out your resources. Think about what happened and whether you may have contributed to the challenge you’re facing. Are there skills you can work on to reduce the likelihood of a similar situation happening in the future? How might you work on these?

    For example, if you’ve done poorly in an important class, are there ways to get additional academic help, perhaps by scheduling time to meet with your teacher or professor, or making an appointment for tutoring through your school’s academic support center?
  • Think about new opportunities that may now be options for you because of this situation. For example, if you got cut from a sports team, are there other sports, including intramurals, that you now have the time to pursue? If you were feeling pressure from being on a team or other activity, does this give you a little space to feel less stressed?
  • Come up with a plan. After you decide how to proceed, it can be helpful to figure out the various steps that will be required and set a timeline for yourself. Having a series of smaller, specific tasks can feel more manageable than one large goal. Figure out the best first step, and know that taking that first step can help you feel like you’re moving forward.

Take Care of Yourself 

It can be easy to ignore self-care when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Keep in mind:

  • Healthy coping strategies, such as meditation or moving your body, can be outlets for stress and improve your mood.
  • Consistent routines, including getting enough sleep, will ground you and give your brain the rest it needs to help you work through this more comfortably
  • Social activities or other distractions, such as hanging out with friends or going to a movie, can be a much-needed break, especially if you find that you’re ruminating on the situation or feeling stuck.

Reach Out for Help If You Need It

Other immediate resources include the Crisis Text Line (to contact them, text “HOME” to 741741) or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (available by texting or calling 988). Both also offer chat options and are confidential.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.