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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 student 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.” Charles S., a part-time student at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, agrees. He says, “The key is to pay attention to the things failure can reveal about ourselves. Take pride in the positives. Resolve to correct the negatives.”

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. Fred W., a part-time student at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, says, “Nobody is perfect. Perfection is an unrealistic goal, but continued self-improvement is its own reward.”

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. “Failure can be a stepping stone. If you choose, you can learn how to adapt and do better next time,” suggests Malissa G., a student at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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

Nicole B., also a student at Madison Area Technical College, says, “Look at the situation and think about how you can improve it.”

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 or local counseling center is a great resource, and you can also reach out for academic support, or a friend, family member, or trusted mentor for help setting goals. Nicole agrees. “It’s good to get insight from others. This gives you a better outlook and other ways to cope,” she says.

“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 step back, refocus, see where I went wrong, and decide where things need to change,” says Malissa. “You can’t let a downfall control you. Grow from the challenge. Have high expectations, a good work ethic, and faith in yourself.”

Don’t let one negative experience hold you back from reaching your full potential. As Malissa encourages, “Know your worth and give yourself credit.”

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’m frustrated or disappointed, lifting weights or taking a kickboxing class really helps turn my feelings around. You can’t always control things, but you can control how much you sweat!” says Malissa G., a student at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina. This channels her frustration into positive activities that make her feel powerful and in control.

Reflect on the Positive

Sherry H., a student taking online classes at Ashford University, doesn’t use the word “failure” to define her challenges. Instead, she approaches them from a more positive perspective. “I try to make the very best of them through self-reflection. I seek out learning tools that might help me understand what choices might have been better suited for the particular situation.” Using your resources can be a great way to learn from your mistakes.

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.

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