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  • Monika La Nuez, LCSW

Embracing Setbacks: Strategies for Coping with Failure

Individual Therapy Boca Raton

Failing at something that is important to you can trigger some of the most difficult and painful emotions a person can experience. Failing can bring on intense feelings of shame, inadequacy, discouragement, and self-doubt. Navigating these emotions can feel overwhelming and stifling, while also deeply affecting your self-esteem and self-worth.

In this post, I  want to share some thoughts about how to cope with failure, in order to both sit with the difficult feelings that may arise and also find ways in which you can view your failure from a different vantage point, and perhaps begin to view setbacks as an opportunity to learn new insights about yourself and pave a new path forward for your life goals. Here are a few ideas.

Feel all your feelings

First and foremost, it is important to freely and non-judgmentally allow yourself to feel your emotions. It is natural to experience an array of difficult, unwanted, uncomfortable, and intense emotions when you have failed at something. Let yourself feel these emotions. Allow yourself to cry, feel dejected, feel angry, or upset. 

You may wonder why this would be helpful. When uncomfortable feelings arise, we tend to want to distract from these emotions. However, by distracting from your emotions, you are simply stuffing away feelings that are likely to resurface later. You are also losing out on the opportunity to gain insight and information from what your emotions are communicating to you.

Your emotions serve as a rich source of self-awareness and insight. By allowing yourself to feel your emotions and curiously reflect on them, you will likely gain knowledge about yourself that will help you heal from your failure, practice resilience, and forge a new path forward. 

Practice self-compassion

I’m guessing there’s a high chance that you’ve engaged in harsh self-talk and self-judgment if you’ve ever failed at something. Maybe you’ve made statements to yourself like:

  • “I can’t give anything to anyone. Of course she wanted to divorce me. I have nothing to offer.”

  • “Of course I failed that test. I’m so stupid!”

  • “What was I thinking when I started that business? No wonder it tanked."

  • “Why did I ever think I could become a runner? I don’t have a single athletic bone in my body. I was deluded to think I could ever run that 5k.”

Ouch. These statements hurt just reading them. And it is also natural that thoughts like these might come up if you have recently failed at something that was important to you. However, ruminating on thoughts like these can exacerbate feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy. And if you believe these types of thoughts, they can also keep you stuck and unable to grow from the failure you experienced.

A practice that can help immensely is the act of radical self-compassion.  I am a firm believer in practicing self-compassion no matter the circumstances.  Self-compassion is the ability to offer yourself loving-kindness, gentleness, non-judgment, comfort, and warmth when you are going through something difficult.  It is the acknowledgment that you possess innate self-worth regardless of your flaws, failings, and missteps.  It is talking to yourself the way a best friend or loving parent would. Here are some self-compassionate reframes for the judgmental statements I shared above:

  • “I’m so sad my marriage didn’t work out. We both changed over the years and just couldn’t be there for each other anymore.”

  • “I have trouble taking tests, it’s true. This test is not the arbiter of my intelligence, though. I am smart in so many other ways, I just need a little more support and effort when it comes to taking tests.”

  • “Having to close down my business hurts so much. This is a tough time.”

  • “Okay, I stopped in the middle of my training.  Running is hard and I have a lot going on in my life right now. I tried and realized this isn’t a good time in my life to start running. Maybe I’ll focus on some other ways of moving my body.”

What do you notice about how these statements feel? How do they feel different from the judgmental statements I listed earlier? How do you think you would feel differently if you could offer yourself compassion when going through something difficult or experiencing a failure?

Explore what you learned from your failure

Failure can serve as an opportunity to increase your self-awareness and learn more about yourself.  While the pain of failure may sting, it can also be an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how you want to approach situations differently in the future. Remember to practice self-compassion as you reflect on your situation, as this process may bring up difficult emotions. Say you have just gotten divorced, for example. Some helpful reflections you can explore are:

  • How do I want to approach my next relationship differently?What qualities do I want to cultivate to be the best partner possible in my next relationship?

  • What didn’t work in my marriage? How come?

  • What did I contribute to the challenges in the relationship? What did my partner contribute?

  • What emotional work do I need to do to be the kind of partner I want to be?

  • What do I want to bring into the next relationship and what patterns do I want to put an end to?

  • What are the qualities and characteristics I am looking for in a new partner at this stage in life?

  • Was the end of this relationship really a “failure,” or the natural progression of the two of us changing?

Indeed, you can find opportunities to reflect on any situation in which you’ve felt unsuccessful or disappointed. What are some reflective questions you can ask yourself if you are struggling with a current setback?

Reframe the meaning of the word “failure”

It can also help to reframe your perspective around the word “failure.” The word itself can bring up lots of negative thoughts and feelings about yourself, which may not necessarily be accurate or true.  What would it be like to instead view a struggle or unsuccessful attempt at something as a teaching point, a potential source of growth, or an opportunity to gain insight into yourself? Some possible reframes include:

  • The realization that something isn’t a good fit anymore, such as a relationship or a job.

  • Realizing that maybe your interests have changed and you’re now able to pursue something that feels more aligned with who you are today.

  • Identifying your limitations so you can get the support you need, such as getting tutoring or going to your professor’s office hours.

  • Realizing you were unhappy with something and that this was affecting your mental, physical and emotional health. Now you have a chance to explore opportunities that help you feel revitalized and nurtured.

Take care of your physical needs

Struggling to succeed with an important life goal can bring on intense emotions and reactions. A major life failure can lead to depression or anxiety, and can instigate a snowball effect in which you may start neglecting some of your physical health needs. You may notice urges to isolate, you may lose interest in activities that were once important to you, or you may stop exercising or eating well, for example.

Understandably, a major life blow can stop you in your tracks and uproot healthy habits and patterns. I encourage you to notice if you have stopped engaging in healthy behaviors, the length of time this has been the case, and the overall effect that stopping your patterns has had on your mood and outlook.  How can you reimplement those habits and patterns that were once buoying you? Can you identify one or two small steps you can take to re-engage in your healthy behaviors and habits? How can you act opposite to the urge to neglect your needs when feeling the effects of a perceived failure?

Share with those who understand

One of the most difficult emotions that can arise when failing at something is the emotion of shame.  Shame can come up as feelings of humiliation, defeat, embarrassment, and feeling that YOU are inherently “bad” or flawed.  It is a crippling emotion that often urges us to hide what we’re feeling, which then tends to amplify and exacerbate the emotion of shame, creating a vicious and unhealthy feedback loop.

Finding safe people to share your emotions with, whether via group or individual therapy, or close non-judgmental friends or family, can make a world of difference with how you cope and process a failure you’ve experienced. By talking about your emotions, you may encounter others who have endured similar struggles and thus feel less alone. You may realize that everyone has likely failed at something, and that failure is a normative experience when taking risks and challenging yourself to grow. 

While talking about your failure may not take away the pain of your experience, it can provide a much-needed sense of comfort, kinship, solace, and validation when connecting with those who understand.  

Connect with your innate self-worth

As human beings, we tend to tie our self-worth to external factors: our careers, our financial success, awards and accolades we’ve received, or the longevity of our marriage, for example. We become conditioned to believe that these external forms of validation comprise our self-worth.  The trouble with this is that if certain parts of our lives start to fall apart, we can easily enter a space where we question our self-worth and value as human beings, which can be detrimental to our mental health.

Think about the people you love most. What do you love about them? Is it their job, their zip code, the type of car they drive? Maybe. But I imagine you gravitate to the people you love because of other intangible qualities, such as their honesty, work ethnic, generosity, kindness, loyalty, vivacity, or sense of honor.  

Your value and self-worth is much deeper than those external factors that equate to outside success. You possess worth and value simply by virtue of being human. Your worth lies in those qualities that lie deeper than your outside measures of success. How can you remind yourself of this? How can you connect with your innate self-worth and remind yourself that you are valuable and lovable even when you experience failure? 

Final Thoughts

I hope some of these ideas help you if you are currently struggling with failure.  I encourage you to extend compassion to yourself, let yourself feel all your emotions surrounding your failure, and find ways to view failure as an opportunity to catapult you toward growth and new ventures that may prove more satisfying and fulfilling with regard to the vision you hold for your life. Remember, you are more than your failures. You are worthy. You are valuable.

Seeking individual therapy or DBT therapy in Boca Raton or the South Florida area? Feel free to reach out to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see how I can help you with your mental health therapy goals. Call me at 917-843-7803 or email me at

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