If you have depression, anxiety, and/or another mental health issue - or even if you don't - it can be common to experience the negative thought "I'm a failure". In particular, according to members of The Depression Project's community, this can often take place when:
- You compare yourself to other people (often on social media) who you feel are doing better than you;
- You don’t achieve a goal that you’d set out to achieve (such as not scoring as highly as you wanted to on a test);
- You don’t feel as if you’re living up to certain expectations of yourself – either your own, or those of other people (such as your parents);
- You experience a disappointing setback (such as losing your job and/or not being offered a new job that you applied for);
- You are put down and criticised by other people;
- You engage in perfectionistic thinking;
- You find it difficult to do something that you feel you should be able to do (such as, for example, completing something at work, sticking to healthy habits, maintaining a clean home, and/or consistently attending to your personal hygiene).
However, the negative thought "I'm a failure" is just that - a negative thought - rather than a fact. On that note, we'd now like to share with you a free excerpt from one of our cognitive behavioural therapy-based journals that identifies six thinking patterns that can falsely convince you "I'm a failure".
Are you ready?
“Cognitive distortions” are distorted thinking patterns that are grounded in some form of bias, and which commonly result in you viewing yourself and/or the world much more critically, judgementally and/or negatively than you otherwise would1. And, when you have the negative thought “I’m a failure”, you’re almost certainly thinking in a cognitively distorted way without even knowing it. For this reason, it’s extremely important that you identify- and bring awareness to the ways in which you may be doing so.
Because if you’re able to recognise that the negative thought “I’m a failure” is indeed a cognitive distortion – as opposed to being an accurate perception of reality – then it will suddenly become much easier for you to dismiss it and push it from your mind (or at the very least, this negative thought will likely lose some of its power over you).
Now, to help you do this, let’s identify six cognitive distortions that commonly plague people when they’re experiencing the negative thought “I’m a failure”.
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #1: Filter Thinking
“Filter thinking” is where you filter out all of the “good” or the “positive” in a situation, and only focus on the “bad” or the “negative”. For example:
- Filtering out all of the things you’ve accomplished, and thinking “I’m a failure” because you’re exclusively focusing on one or more things that you didn’t accomplish.
- Filtering out all of the praise your boss gives you for a project you worked on, and instead thinking “I’m a failure” because there was one area where you made a mistake that they’d like you to fix.
- Filtering out all of the challenging times where you kept pushing through regardless of how hard it was, and thinking "I'm a failure" because you had a breakdown one time where all of life's stressors were too heavy to carry any longer.
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #2: Catastrophisation
Catastrophisation is when you blow something out of proportion, and conclude that things are much worse than they really are. For example, thinking “I’m a stupid failure” for not doing as well in your exams as you wanted to (which, while disappointing, does certainly not mean that you are a “stupid failure”).
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #3: Personalisation
“Personalisation” is where you take personal responsibility for things that aren’t in your control, that have nothing to do with you, and/or that aren’t your fault. In particular, an example of personalisation would be thinking “I’m a failure” in response to being put down and criticised by someone – when in actuality, that person’s criticism may say absolutely nothing about you, your capabilities or your worth as a person, and instead be a reflection of them. This can be the case when, for example:
- The person criticising you may have low self-esteem and/or be jealous of you – and therefore criticises you and tries to tear you down in a hurtful, careless, misguided attempt to lift themselves up.
- The person criticising you may be unhappy with something in their own life, and is consequently taking their anger, frustration and/or misery out on you.
- Another person’s criticism may reflect their own values about whatever it is they’re criticising you about, but not necessarily yours. For example, your parents may value status and money, but you may value doing a (less prestigious and lower-paying) job that you enjoy. As a result, your parents may constantly criticise you for “not having a good job”, “failing to reach your potential”, “lacking ambition”, “not being as successful as their friends’ children are”, and “letting them down after all the sacrifices they made for you”.
- Similarly, another person’s criticism may simply reflect their own rigid, closed-minded views of the world, as opposed to your capabilities or worth as a person. For example, your parents criticising you for being unmarried could be a reflection of their rigid, closed-minded belief that “you MUST be married by age X – otherwise you’re failing at life!”
- Another person’s criticism may also reflect the fact that they don’t understand depression, anxiety and/or another mental health issue very well at all. An example of this would be someone criticising you for being “useless” or a “disappointment to them” because you spent most of the weekend in bed – without understanding that depression can make you feel completely, utterly and debilitatingly exhausted, and that for this reason, it can at times be extremely natural to spend much more time in bed than you otherwise would when you have depression.
- Another person’s criticism may also just reflect the reality that they’re simply a very critical person in general – not just of you, but of other people, and also of themselves.
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #4: Labelling
Labelling involves branding yourself as something based on limited information or evidence. In practice, this could take the form of, for example:
- Labelling yourself as a “failure” after not achieving your goals on a handful of occasions. In this case, while you may be able to say that you failed at achieving your goals on those particular occasions, it would be an overgeneralisation to brand yourself as someone who is a “failure”. After all, what’s to say that you can’t achieve your goals in the future?
- Similarly, another example would be labelling yourself as a “failure” due to experiencing a disappointing setback (such as losing your job or your business going bankrupt). In these scenarios, while you may be able to say that you made some mistakes that you wish you hadn’t made and/or that you didn’t perform as well as you had wanted to, it would once again be an overgeneralisation to declare yourself a “failure”. After all, like we’ve previously mentioned, if you can learn from your mistake(s) and figure out how to perform better moving forwards, then in the future, you give yourself a good chance of achieving the success that you want.
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #5: Minimisation
Minimisation can involve downplaying or ignoring the presence of external factors that contributed to what it is that you’re feeling negative about. For example:
- Thinking “I’m a failure” for not doing your chores, neglecting your personal hygiene and staying in bed all day – but completely discounting / ignoring the fact that you were deep in a depressive episode, and consequently feeling absolutely exhausted.
- Thinking “I'm a failure” for not being able to work as effectively as your co-workers, while completely minimising the fact you’re your depression / anxiety / another mental health issue is significantly compromising your ability to function.
"I'm A Failure" Cognitive Distortion #6: Black-Or-White Thinking
Black-or-white thinking is where you view something as either one extreme or the other – such as either a “success” or a “failure” – instead of having a more balanced, accurate perspective. A common example of this would be thinking “I’m a failure” in response to falling just a little bit short of achieving a goal that you’d set for yourself – like getting 80% in an exam instead of your desired goal of 85%, or ranking second in your sales team at work as opposed to first. In cases such as these, a much more balanced, accurate perspective may be: “While it’s disappointing that I didn’t achieve my goal – and while I’ll do everything in my power to try to achieve it moving forwards – objectively speaking, I still did a pretty good job.”
End of free excerpt
We really hope you've found this journal excerpt helpful, and moving forwards, we hope that identifying cognitive distortions like so can help you be a little bit kinder to yourself.
All our love,
The Depression Project Team.
P.S. If you'd like more help dealing with the negative thought "I'm a failure", then click the button below to learn more about the journal that you just read a free sample from!