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Blog Insight & Commentary

What I Do When I Feel Like a Failure at Work

*World’s tiniest violin plays Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto*

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

Embarassed Hilary Duff

There’s a great moment in the 2006 romantic comedy The Holiday that I think of every time I feel like a failure. Unlucky-in-love Iris, played by Kate Winslet, goes out to dinner with her charming, elderly neighbor, Arthur, who’d spent his entire career working his way up through the ranks of Hollywood. 

Clearly depressed and feeling helpless, Iris shares the woes of her love life with Arthur, and he gives her this sage analogy: “Iris, in the movies, we have leading ladies, and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”

While I’m not a proponent of using rom-coms to guide the entirety of your career (think twice before dating a coworker or judging your female boss), this line works for both cheesy love stories and careers. At work, we call the best friend “imposter syndrome,” the feeling of failure that makes you think you’re not talented enough to land your dream job or, once you’re there, to do what you were hired to do.

And when you lose confidence in yourself—how well you manage your team, your public speaking skills, your ability to make a sale, whatever—you relegate yourself to the position of “office bestie” in your own career.

Don’t get me wrong. An office BFF is a godsend, but that person is not you, and as Iris aptly concludes in this scene, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake!” Let’s get you back into the spotlight.

Reevaluate your definition of “truth”

If you feel like a failure, your emotions are valid, but it’s also fair to say that your version of the truth is fuzzy and you’ve lost perspective on one Very Important Person: you, and everything you’ve achieved thus far.

Say you’re working at a company you hate, and you’ve interviewed elsewhere but have had zero luck landing a new position. Rejection can be disheartening, especially when you’re really ready for a change, but it doesn’t erase everything that got you where you are—and it definitely doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause.

This is what we know is true in this scenario: You don’t like your current job. You applied to another job. You didn’t get it.

This is what you’re assuming is true, based on fear and insecurity: You weren’t hired because you’re bad at what you do. You’re not skilled enough to land your dream job. You’re never going to find a job that makes you happy. You’re a failure.

Cut the negative self-talk by sticking to a fact-based analysis. Some truths are easy to recognize. But in any situation where you feel uncertain of your skills and find yourself relying on false narratives, ask for feedback from hiring managers, coworkers, or direct reports. Use what you learn to improve, not degrade, yourself. 

Develop a mantra

When I was writing my thesis in graduate school, I often felt lost and confused, mostly because I’d never written a thesis before. This feeling translated to me feeling like I didn’t understand my subject matter and would never be qualified to get my master’s degree (slippery slope there). With my friend and fellow graduate student, Margaux, I devised a mantra to keep that feeling of failure at bay: You have value.

When either of us felt down, we’d text the other the “box of fries” emoji—“value meal,” get it?—to remind each other of our worth. It’s been years, but we still do that to do this day. 

Plenty of other working women use mantras to amp themselves up. Think of yourself as Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street, but with words. The more you tell yourself you’re successful, you have value, the more you internalize it.

Be kind to yourself

In the same vein of mantras, kindness is key to squashing the feeling of failure. Because you’re human, you have flaws. Sometimes you’re not as nice as you’d like to be, and you definitely still remember that time you told a prospective employer who you voted for during an interview

We’ve all been there! You’re not the first person and you won’t be the last to make a mistake. What you don’t want to do is harp on every misstep. Don’t tear apart your presentations. Don’t replay that networking conversation gone wrong. Instead, acknowledge the opportunity for growth and vow to do better next time.

Remind yourself of your accomplishments

One last step on the road to workplace stardom, you leading lady, you. Celebrate yourself. 

Take a few minutes right now to write down everything you can think of that you’re proud of, and I mean everything. On my list would be my master’s degree, the fact that I lost 60 pounds in college, that time I officiated a wedding, my ability to overcome my fear of flying every single time I travel, and that I’m good at standing up for myself (I have some very eloquent texts to prove this). 

Some of those accomplishments are career-related, but many of them are just me-related. Every time I’ve felt like a failure, those experiences and qualities I love about myself have carried me through. Yours have, too. It’s time you honor that.

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