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3 Quick Strategies for Getting Through to Yourself When You Feel Like a Failure

Henry Ford once shared this recommendation to humanity: “Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.”

We don’t know for sure whether he was offering advice to guide our interactions with others or with ourselves, but we don’t need any evidence outside of anecdotes to confirm that people are more critical of themselves than they are of anyone else.

Mark Goulston—psychiatrist, business consultant, and author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone—says it’s human nature to make goals and then feel immense regret several months later when we realize we haven’t made much progress on them.

He says it’s simple to squash your self-critical tendencies when you feel like a failure and put yourself back on track for success. Here are three strategies:

  1. Pinpoint your obstacles and frustrations. Next time you have a quiet moment, ask yourself this question: ‘What’s holding you back from accomplishing your goals, and how frustrating is that for you?’ (If talking to yourself in this way is too difficult, imagine a person who cares about you asking this question.)

Then listen to your own answer.

When you do this mental exercise, it’ll open your eyes to the fact that you’re not a failure. Instead, you’re human. You’re juggling dozens of responsibilities, you’re suffering from a serious mirror neuron gap thanks to your kids (especially if they’re teens!), and you’re making compromises because you’re a caring and giving person. So give yourself a break. In fact, give yourself credit for the 3,000 things you’re doing right.

  1. Rewire your brain to see your goals in a new way. Sometimes we pick goals for the wrong reasons (for instance, “My father will be disappointed if I don’t become a doctor,” or “Everyone in my family has a PhD”) and then never reexamine them. Other times our lives evolve while our goals stay stuck, and we need to get the two in sync

As you analyze your goals, avoid falling into the expectation trap—that is, the idea that “This has to happen (or not happen) for me to be happy or successful.” For example, you’re kicking yourself for not getting your MBA yet—but do you need to get your degree right now in order to be successful or happy? Or could you take a different path—for instance, getting your degree online over the next few years—and be just as fulfilled?

  1. Don’t confuse “reasonable” with “realistic.” Reasonable means “makes sense.” Realistic, on the other hand, means “likely to happen.” For instance, it may be reasonable to decide on January 1 that you’re going to sign up for your MBA classes, never yell at your kids again, and start running marathons—but it’s probably not realistic. It typically makes more sense to pick one goal that’s likely to be attainable and focus on it.

When you have that goal in mind, use this approach to achieving it:

  • Set specific targets. I tell clients to write a step-by-step plan. Like plotting waypoints on a GPS before a trip, this helps you visualize the road you need to follow.
  • Put your goal in writing. Describe exactly what you need to start doing and what you need to stop doing in order to succeed. Putting your words on paper strengthens your commitment to achieve your goal.
  • Tell someone about your goal. Call a person you respect, explain the change you want to make in your life, and ask the person to either call or email you every two weeks to see how you’re doing. Your desire to keep this person’s respect will be a powerful motivator to keep your commitments. If you do this, remember to give your helper a Power Thank You for assisting you, and also find a way to return the favor.
  • Keep toxic people from stopping your progress. Identify any problem people who lower your resolve or weaken your confidence. If possible, avoid them as you work toward your goal.
  • Give it time. If you’re breaking unproductive habits or creating good ones, keep this rule in mind: It takes between three and four weeks for a new behavior to become a habit, and it takes about six months for that habit to become second nature. Be patient with yourself.

If you beat yourself up over not achieving your goals fast enough, you’ll extend your timeline of success. Positive self-talk is great, but it can only get you so far. Change your mindset around goal-setting so that it serves you during the season you’re in and learn how to extend some grace to yourself when you fail to meet your goals. According to Goulston, “your quick but powerful Empathy Jolt will clear away the guilt that’s keeping you from taking a clear look at your goals.”

Want to read more? Get the book!

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Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He appears frequently as a human psychology and behavior subject-area expert across all media, including news outlets ABC, NBC, CBS, and BBC News, as well as CNN, Today, Oprah, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Westwood One.

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