When Nita Sweeney decided to start running at 49 years old, her thoughts sounded like this: “You’re old, fat, and slow. You look funny in those clothes and they’re not even the right clothes anyway. People will laugh at you. You’re such a poser, acting like a ‘runner.’ Who do you think you are?”
When many of us start something new, our inner dialogue sounds the same. We already know we will fail. Miserably. And because our failure is inevitable, we’re better off not even trying. And often that’s exactly what we do: We don’t do anything.
Or maybe you can’t get over a recent (or past) failure. You failed an important final or an exam for your new career. You didn’t get a job you really wanted, or the promotion you worked really hard for. You gave a mediocre, maybe even embarrassing, speech.
And somehow that failed performance turned into I am a failure. Somehow that’s become your current perspective on anything you do. In fact, maybe you wake up to the sound of negative thoughts—I’m such an idiot, today won’t go well, I always fall short—and you fall asleep to the same song.
“Thoughts of failure can derive from many places, but especially from adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, trauma, or violence,” said Kelly Hendricks, MA, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
Individuals who grow up in such environments, she said, might grow up believing: “I don’t matter. No one likes me. I can’t do anything right, especially not please or win the attention of my own family; therefore, I’m a failure.”
Or maybe you were surrounded by people who saw themselves as inadequate and talked about it regularly—and assumed the worst about life in general, Hendricks said.
Maybe the people around you talked about others in this way, said Tracy Dalgleish, C.Psych., a clinical psychologist and couples therapist working to take therapy outside of the therapy room by providing e-courses, community presentations, and workplace wellness seminars.
“Sometimes our definition of failure may not even be our own,” she said.
Thoughts of failure also can stem from our personality traits, such as perfectionism and the need for control or approval, Dalgleish said. While these traits can be invaluable in helping us to succeed and accomplish our goals, she noted they can become problematic when we don’t meet our own standards (or someone else’s).
Whether it feels like your failure is deeply entrenched or not, you can learn to effectively navigate these thoughts, instead of letting them run the show. Here’s how.
Start moving. Sweeney, an author, writing coach, and editor, found that once she started moving, the negative voice quieted down. For instance, she’d tell herself to “Just put on your running shoes” or “Just walk out the front door.” In fact, the seemingly simple act of moving forward inspired the title of her memoir: Depression Hates a Moving Target.
Think tiny. Similarly, Sweeney suggested readers do “something so tiny you cannot fail. Then, do that itsy-bitsy thing over and over until it becomes comfortable.” For example, she used an interval training plan that started with jogging for 60 seconds. She repeated this until it felt so easy that she “was nearly laughing at how simple it was. I became desensitized to a thing that would have terrified me before.”
Sweeney used the same approach for dealing with panic attacks while driving on the highway: She’d get on the highway at a place that had two exits close together. Then, she’d stay in the right lane until she reached her exit. “I repeated this until it was comfortable. Only then did I stay on the freeway [longer].”
Accept your thoughts. When we have a critical thought, we tend to further criticize ourselves for having it. So, I’m such a failure becomes I’m such an idiot for thinking I’m such a failure. Which, of course, only makes us feel worse.
What’s more helpful is to accept the thought exactly as it is—without judging it. Sometimes, this is all our thoughts need, said Dalgleish, also host of the podcast I’m Not Your Shrink. This doesn’t mean you actually like the thought; it means you’re acknowledging its presence.
According to Dalgleish, you might tell yourself: “Oh look, there is my mind again. It is telling me that I’m a failure. My mind likes to do that when these types of situations come up. I’m going to just notice that I am having this thought right now. I am going to notice that I feel tense and upset when I have that thought.”
Defuse your thoughts. “We become ‘fused’ to our thoughts, which means that we think it, and we believe it, and we run the thought on replay,” Dalgleish said. To help her clients “de-fuse” from their thoughts, she uses a powerful exercise from acceptance and commitment therapy: “We both write a difficult thought on a post-it note and then we wear it on our shirts. It helps to separate the thought, to take it out of our mind, and to actually see that it is just a string of words put together.”
She also suggested these strategies: Sing the thought to the tune of “Happy Birthday”; and visualize the thought on a TV and then adjust the brightness of the image or the color on the screen.
Redefine failure. We can change how we see failure. After all, failure isn’t fixed, and it isn’t gospel. “If you can see failure as simply moments when there are unexpected or undesired outcomes, then these unexpected or undesired outcomes will have no attachment to you as a person,” Hendricks said. Consequently, this protects your core identity and creates opportunities and room for growth, she said.
According to Dalgleish, you might ask yourself: Is there another way of viewing this situation or event? “If I were taking a birds-eye view, what would I see? Have others experienced this and coped as well?” What can I learn from this? How can I view this as an opportunity or invitation?
Try meditation. This also was a helpful practice for Sweeney, who’s meditated for years. Sometimes, she’d do a quick body scan to identify where she was feeling these feelings of failure. Usually, she said, it was her belly or throat. “If I stood still for a moment and let those sensations be, they passed. When the body sensations passed, the negative thoughts also stopped.”
Surround yourself with supportive people. When you forget how capable, competent, and gifted you are, it can help to have people in your corner to remind you, Hendricks said. Plus, these individuals are likely speaking about themselves in positive ways, too, which can rub off on you, she added.
Create a daily mantra. “Research shows that if we tell ourselves how we want to be, or if we write it down, we are more likely to act in line with it,” Dalgleish said. Which is why she suggested creating a daily mantra or “radical statement of acceptance,” such as: “I am right where I need to be” or “I’m doing the best that I can” or even “Let it go.”
Lean into failure. Dalgleish quoted Buddhism teacher Pema Chödrön, who said: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” This means, Dalgleish said, that it’s “inevitable to not fail or to not face challenging situations. It is part of the human condition to experience difficulties—not meeting our expected outcome.” So, show up for the hard things. You just “might gain a lot from failing over and over again.”
Seek professional help. Whether your thoughts of failure are due to a difficult childhood or combination of personality traits, working with a therapist can help. As Dalgleish said, this “can be one of the many ways to help create change.”
Today, Sweeney still struggles with negative thoughts. As she said, “It’s ridiculous. I’ve run three full marathons, 27 half marathons in 18 states, and more than 80 shorter races. But if I don’t run for a few days, my mind says, ‘That was fun while it lasted, but you’re done. You’ve forgotten how to run and all your endurance is gone.’”
The only solution, Sweeney said, is to thank her mind for thinking it needs to protect her, ask her mind to hang tight for several minutes, and go out for a run.
“My mind needs to be shown.”
Maybe your mind does, too.