Do you find yourself constantly feeling like a failure? Your friends have better jobs, houses or partners than you, while you languish at the bottom of the career path, housing ladder or dating pool. Maybe you’ve had a string of unfulfilling jobs, while you’ve watched your peers’ high-flying careers take off. You can’t seem to get anything right at work – and you feel you’ve failed as a parent too. You just can’t get a break. What’s worse is you feel you’ve never really succeeded. Sometimes you feel that you’ve just failed at life.

We can all feel like a failure from time to time. But if you always feel like this, you may be stuck in a negative, repeating, self-fulfilling pattern called the ‘failure lifetrap’ or ‘failure schema’. The good news is that you can break out of it. Here’s what it is – and what you can do about it.

Reasons for feeling like a failure

If we feel like a failure, it’s usually in relation to other people. You might feel that other people your age have accomplished more in life, that you’re less competent than others in your field or that you’re not as intelligent as the people you mix with. You might, for example, feel like a failure when you scroll through social media and compare your life to the better, more glamorous lives other people seem to be leading.

Or you might feel a failure if you’ve been rejected by someone, or if you tried something new – but it didn’t work out. Your feelings of failure relate more to your perception of the failure and what it means to you – rather than the failure itself.

We can even be quite successful – yet still feel a failure. You may feel that other people believe you to be more intelligent or competent than you really are. You think you’ve somehow deceived everyone into thinking you’re better than you are, and worry about being ‘found out’. This is often called ‘imposter syndrome’.

Your failures might be real or imagined. Either way, your inner world is the same. You feel like a failure – whether or not you outwardly appear to be a success.

What is the failure lifetrap?

The failure lifetrap, or failure schema, is usually rooted in our past. It’s down to how we think about failure, based on our childhood experiences – and how we behave as a result. It can lead to persistent, self-sabotaging – and self-fulfilling – patterns of thought and behaviour.

If you have the failure lifetrap, you probably suffer from an inferiority complex. You see both yourself and your achievements as never meeting the standards of your peers. This can lead to anxiety and depression.

Think about your childhood. You may have been criticised, humiliated, compared or discouraged by your family or peer group. Do any of the following sound familiar to you?

  • You had a parent who was very critical of you, always putting you down.
  • One or both of your parents were high achievers. You believed you could never live up to them.
  • You had siblings you were unfavourably compared to. You felt you could never measure up to them.
  • One or both of your parents just didn’t care about your success. Or they may even have felt threatened by it, or been competitive with you.
  • You weren’t as good as your peers at school in some things – either academically or on the sports field.
  • You felt inferior to your schoolmates because your family was different in some way.
  • You missed out on some schooling, perhaps because of illness, and fell behind your peers.
  • Your parents didn’t teach you self-discipline or responsibility. So you didn’t do your homework – which led to failure over time.

In any of these situations, you might simply have stopped trying to achieve – and therefore avoided putting yourself in situations where you could fail. Feelings of failure can manifest themselves in a variety of situations. Two common ones are feeling like a failure at work, and feeling like a failure as a parent.

“I feel like a failure at work” – why you never seem to get ahead

We all make mistakes, and receive criticism and feedback at work. It’s how we learn and develop. But do you regularly feel like a failure at work? Do you constantly miss deadlines, mess things up or just never seem to progress? Do you never seek promotion – or even take one when it’s offered to you? Or is your job below your abilities? There may be two reasons for this:

  • Avoidance. You may have a tendency to run away from the possibility of failure – which undermines your ability to do, or get, a good job. You don’t put yourself forward, so you never progress.
  • Imposter syndrome. You’re actually doing quite well at work – but nonetheless feel a failure because you feel a fraud. You might even twist your view of events to reinforce your view of yourself as a failure, focusing on the negatives and playing down the positives.

While imposter syndrome can be tackled by re-calibrating how you think about yourself, if the problem is avoidance – which is more common – you’ll need to take steps to change your behaviour too. Otherwise your expectations of failure at work will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I feel like a failure as a parent” – why you should give yourself a break

Do you constantly get into arguments with your kids? Or are they not doing so well at school, or in other areas of their lives? And do you always blame yourself for their behaviour, failings or feelings?

Most parents feel like a failure some of the time. Actually, a lot of the time. Parenting is hard. There’s a saying that “you’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child”. But no parent can protect their child from life’s difficulties – no matter how hard you try. So give yourself a break, and try not to blame yourself.

There’s no parenting school. Most people raise children in a way modelled to them by their own parents. So it pays to think about how you were raised, and any unhelpful patterns you may be repeating. Not just in your parenting skills – but in how you think about success and failure as a parent.

Every parent makes mistakes. If you have very high – perhaps unrealistic – expectations of yourself as a parent, you might be setting yourself up for failure.

How to overcome the failure lifetrap

If your failures are imagined, the solution is to change your thinking. If, however, they are real, you’ll need to work on your behaviour too, to create opportunities for success. So the first step is to ask yourself whether your feeling of failure is accurate or distorted.

Get in touch with your ‘inner child’, the one who felt like a failure – and understand that you were treated unfairly. Then become aware of your strengths. Make a list. Everyone has talents, skills and abilities. These may be things that you’re not currently pursuing, perhaps because you were discouraged from doing so in the past.

This can help you overcome imposter syndrome. But most people need to change their behaviour too. This is because we usually respond to the failure lifetrap by choosing the path of escape: a tendency to avoid the possibility of failure. Avoidance, rather than any innate deficiency, is, paradoxically, what can lead to failure. It becomes a reinforcing feedback loop of self-sabotage.

The solution is to take steps to overcome your avoidance. Here are some things you can do:

  • Start facing challenges instead of running away. Gradually expose yourself to situations where you can succeed, to break the pattern and reinforce success.
  • Connect with your goals, aspirations and talents. Think about what you would do if you knew you couldn’t fail. This could involve a career change.
  • Make a plan. Take one small step today to move you closer to your goal.
  • Risk failure. It’s the only way to succeed. Failure is not the opposite of success: it’s part of success.
  • Speak to someone. If the failure lifetrap is something that you’re struggling with and it’s creating obstacles in your life, Schema Therapy can be very helpful. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy.
  • Try our Self-care courses. To learn more about Schema Therapy and how you can overcome the failure lifetrap, try our Self-care audio courses, which include a helpful introduction to Schema Therapy with lots of therapeutic skills and exercises.

Above all, give yourself a chance to succeed. Samuel Beckett’s most famous quotation is probably: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you’re not prepared to fail, you’ll never put yourself in situations where you can succeed. So you’ll conclude that you were right all along.

Or think of Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb. He said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every failure is a step to success.