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Everyone has been in a situation where he or she felt that if something had been done differently, more could have been accomplished. But a hitch on the way to success doesn’t define you; nothing is ever perfect, nor is anyone. Viewing disappointments as temporary setbacks, rather than permanent roadblocks or failures, can help you move forward with more confidence.

Is Failure a “Bad” Word?

Failure is a strong word. Its harsh connotations and definitiveness can make it feel like there’s no way to bounce back from a frustrating situation. “Try not to dichotomize things as either success or failure,” suggests Dr. Jonathan Ravarino, a psychologist at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “[Use] language that’s different from ‘I failed.’”
Dr. Ravarino explains that the concept of failure is an endpoint with nowhere to go. He encourages students to think of failures as setbacks, hurdles, or obstacles—all difficult, but also likely temporary and solvable.

Sherry H., a junior taking online classes at Ashford University, shares, “I [tell myself that] I had a challenge or that an experience was an opportunity to learn something I didn’t know.” Reframing frustrating or disappointing situations can help you stop beating yourself up and try again.

Unreachable Standards

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best, but it’s important to adjust your expectations so that you’re striving toward healthy goals as opposed to perfectionism.
If you feel you’ve failed at something, think about whether you might be measuring yourself against an unrealistic standard.

Be proud of yourself for doing well, even if not “perfectly.” Jane B., an extended-term student at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, explains, “I’m only in a race with myself.”

Give Yourself a Break

“When we struggle, we just get so critical of ourselves,” Dr. Ravarino says. Many students automatically dwell on things that went wrong. Try to remember all that you do well on a daily basis. Failing at one thing or in one area doesn’t define you as a person.

Dr. Marceline Bamba, associate director of clinical services at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says, “[Setbacks] don’t mean you’re incompetent or a failure as a human being. One test or one class doesn’t need to define your worth.” Tristan D., a student at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, agrees. She says, “Have faith in yourself even when you [feel you’ve] failed.”

Dr. Katherine Bradley, director of counseling services at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, suggests talking to yourself as you would someone you care about, or someone sensitive, like a child. Stephanie S., a senior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, says, “Just because [something] didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean you failed completely.”

How to reframe setbacks

Reflect and Reframe

Rather than focusing on “failures,” The University of Texas at Austin suggests shifting your mindset to one of growth. Here are some ways to do this:
  • Use positive language about options and solutions.
  • Remind yourself that you’re a worthy individual who’s capable of success.
  • Think about times when you’ve been successful.
  • Be proactive and seek help identifying resources.
  • Create strategies for reaching future goals one step at a time.
Also consider these alternative phrases when thinking or talking about “failure”:
  • I feel bad now, but this is a temporary setback. I can handle it.
  • Everyone faces obstacles. This is one of mine.
  • I can get over this hurdle if I try again.
  • I may be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure.
  • This is a problem, but I can come up with a solution.

Move Forward

Rather than allowing negativity to halt your efforts, use setbacks as an opportunity to learn and succeed in the future. “Evaluate the situation and strive to continue working toward an improved standard,” suggests Cesar P., a junior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Instead of shying away from the situation, think honestly and logically about it so you can make different choices next time.

Margaret K., a junior at University of South Carolina in Columbia, says, “The standard doesn’t have to be a grade. It can be a different outlook on your situation.”

Perhaps you’ve fallen into a pattern of procrastinating or haven’t asked for help when you’ve needed it. Identifying these behaviors and making a point to change them will help you reach your goals.

Common barriers to success

Common Obstacles

Sometimes there are relatively simple reasons why something isn’t going well—or at least as planned. Uncovering these can help you prioritize and put energy into the things that make you feel successful. Here are some questions to consider:
  1. Are you taking care of yourself physically and emotionally?
  2. Are you doing things to make yourself happy, or are you trying to please other people?
  3. Are you trying to do everything at once, rather than breaking projects into smaller parts?
  4. Are you holding yourself to an unrealistic standard, such as your perception of “perfect?”
  5. Are you spreading yourself too thin?
  6. Do you ask for help when you confront challenges?
  7. Are you convinced you’ll “fail,” even before you start?
  8. Have you defined what specific successes will look like, or are you aiming for a vague end point?

If you still feel stuck, talking with someone who has a different perspective can help. Your school’s counseling center is a great resource, and you can also reach out to the academic advising center for homework help, or a friend or trusted mentor for help setting goals.

“Everyone fails, but the measure of an individual is his or her response,” says Dr. Bradley.

Examples of famous people's setbacks

Everyone Struggles

You’re not the only person who’s had a few bumps on the road to success. Here are some well-known people who struggled before they got the outcome they wanted:

Michael Jordan has been hailed as “The greatest basketball player of all time.” But receiving that honor came with its difficulties. As he’s said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”

J.K. Rowling was down on her luck before the Harry Potter book series became a smash hit. She says her long period of hardship gave her the strength to overcome obstacles. “Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” she said in a TED Talk, called, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure.”

Acclaimed director Steven Spielberg is proof that it’s never too late to change your life. He was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts three times, then dropped out of a program at California State University, Long Beach. Thirty-four years later, he received his diploma.

You can stay stuck in a rut, or you can learn and move on, recognizing that all people are imperfect.

“I consider what I’m actually frustrated about and if it’s really worth being upset over,” says Rachel B., a student at Seattle Pacific University in Washington. “I take a few deep breaths and walk away from the situation for a bit, if necessary.”

Don’t let one negative experience hold you back from reaching your full potential. As Tristan encourages, “Have hope.”

Take Action:

  • Reframe setbacks with positive language.
  • Remember that challenges don’t define who you are.
  • Differentiate between healthy goals and unrealistic standards.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Identify behaviors that are keeping you from succeeding.
  • Ask for help to support your goals and efforts.

Student suggestions about coping with disappointment

Get Back in the Saddle

Here’s some advice from other students about coping with feelings of disappointment and frustration:

Work It Out
“When I get disappointed or frustrated I use whatever strategy suits my environment,” says Miranda A., a senior at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Depending on where she is, Miranda likes to clean and organize, go for a run, or play basketball. These channel her frustration into positive tasks that make her feel successful.

Jennifer W., a sophomore at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, tells herself, “It will get better. I’m strong and I’ll get past this.” Sometimes literally reminding yourself how powerful you are can help you harness your ability to take control.

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