Why Does Anxiety Make You Feel Like a Failure?

Do you have too many doubts? Do you have the feeling that you fail in everything you start? Have you stopped proposing any new goals for yourself? Anxiety often lies behind this perception. We explain what you can do about it.
Why Does Anxiety Make You Feel Like a Failure?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 17 April, 2023

Forgetful. Idiotic. Uncharismatic. Unmotivated. Always making mistakes. Does this sound like you? Few perceptions are more devastating than seeing yourself as a failure.

Obviously, there are times when you have a run of bad luck or your self-esteem falters. However, anxiety feeds you with insecurity and orchestrates in your mind the idea that you’ll fail in much of what you set out to do. When this psychological dimension is persistently installed in your life, your thoughts become negative, obsessive, and sometimes even irrational.

While it’s true that anxiety is a normal reaction to stimuli that you process as threatening, there are times when it leads to problematic states. For example, if you were to experience this psychophysiological state for several weeks, months, or years (as might be the case if you suffered from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)) the image you have of yourself would become blurred. But, why would this happen? And could anything be done about it?

People with impostor syndrome carry with them a high load of anxiety, in addition to low self-esteem.

Anxious woman thinking about why anxiety makes you feel like a failure
People who suffer from anxiety have multiple cognitive alterations that can make them think that they’re not particularly competent.

Why anxiety makes you feel like a failure

Distorted thoughts are typical of states of stress and anxiety. In these situations, it’s common to reinforce a series of mental patterns. They’re the kinds that can cloud any purpose or attempt to reach a goal or initiate a motivating change. In fact, in reality, you don’t always realize how the anxiety filter has established itself in your brain until certain changes start to occur.

Research conducted at Emory University (USA) claims that the neurobiology of anxiety disorders affects the cognitive functions of the brain. This means sufferers don’t think or process reality in the same way as there are small yet significant alterations in their brains.

We’re going to explore the variables that explain why anxiety makes you feel like you’re a failure.

Approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy guide us and offer tools to deactivate the perception of failure.

Cognitive distortions

If you’re anxious, you frequently activate and reinforce multiple cognitive distortions. These are mental schemas that make you process reality in an erroneous way. They’re part of the basis of negative self-perception. You stop trusting yourself for reasons such as:

  • Negative mental filtering. “Everything is going to go wrong”.
  • Overgeneralization: “This has gone wrong so everything else is going to go the same way”.
  • All-or-nothing thinking. “If I don’t do this perfectly, I’ll be a failure.”

Anxiety and avoidance

If anxiety is making you feel like a failure, it may also be due to another common psychological mechanism. Indeed, anxiety leads you to constant cycles of avoidance. For instance, say you have a presentation to deliver at work. However, you’re afraid of failing. You want to do it perfectly, yet the mere idea of doing it makes you even more anxious so you delay it.

Procrastination is a form of avoidance. In effect, seeing that you’re not advancing, the image you have of yourself worsens. Insecurity grips you. Moreover, avoiding what you’re afraid of increases your sense of failure.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem and anxiety are often related. They’re two psychological dimensions that tend to feed back into each other and exhaust you. People with impostor syndrome are no strangers to this kind of feeling. Perfectionists also tend to harbor latent anxiety along with negative visions of themselves.

Social comparison and external pressures also shape extremely destructive perceptions that feed feelings of failure. In effect, it anguishes you not to measure up, not to be as others expect of you, and not to achieve what others have achieved.

Latent depression

When anxiety makes you feel like a failure, deep down, you may be suffering from a camouflaged depressive disorder. You mustn’t forget that the substrate of depression has multiple elements and persistent anxiety is a recurring factor. If this is the case, there’ll probably be other elements present. For example, feelings of hopelessness, apathy, and changes in your diet and nighttime rest.

Often, the idea that you’re failing at everything you do is simply a symptom of an underlying problem that you need to address.

man leaning on the window thinking that anxiety makes you feel like a failure
Everyone has days when they feel bad about themselves. However, if this perception continues, it’s necessary to seek specialized help.

What to do if you’ve been feeling like a failure for a while

It’s okay to go through a few days when you don’t really feel like you trust yourself and your abilities. As long as this perception is specific and is deactivated after a short time, you can allow yourself to go through this psychological downturn.

On the other hand, if the idea that you’ll fail in everything you do is constant and there seems to be no way out of this mental loop, you need to make some changes. Here are some guidelines:

Confront and rationalize

Failing once doesn’t make you a failure. Just because something goes wrong today doesn’t mean that it’ll become a perpetual curse. If the idea that you’re a failure is a constant, confront it by using Socratic questioning. Ask yourself “What evidence do I have that this idea is true?” “Is this perception helping me?” “Haven’t I been successful at other times in my life?”

Be more compassionate with yourself

Treat yourself as you’d treat your best friend, with respect, empathy, and compassion. What would you say to the person you love the most if they insisted that they were worthless and failing in everything they do? Think about it, because that’s what you should be telling yourself.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Behind your invalidating and self-destructive thoughts, may lie a psychological disorder that you must treat and address. As we mentioned earlier, the idea that you’re a failure can be due to anything from generalized anxiety to depression.

Making mistakes won’t be a problem if you don’t let doubt control you

Although doubt can sometimes assail you, it isn’t usually a problem unless it takes control. After all, you’ll make more than one mistake as you go through life, some of which will be important.

For this reason, the tone of your internal dialogue and the mechanisms and tools that you use are of the utmost importance. If they’re positive, you won’t be leaving the running of your life in the hands of uncertainty or hopelessness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Martin EI, Ressler KJ, Binder E, Nemeroff CB. The neurobiology of anxiety disorders: brain imaging, genetics, and psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2009 Sep;32(3):549-75. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2009.05.004. PMID: 19716990; PMCID: PMC3684250.
  • Reisbig AM, Danielson JA, Wu TF, Hafen M Jr, Krienert A, Girard D, Garlock J. A study of depression and anxiety, general health, and academic performance in three cohorts of veterinary medical students across the first three semesters of veterinary school. J Vet Med Educ. 2012 Winter;39(4):341-58. doi: 10.3138/jvme.0712-065R. PMID: 23187027.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.