How to Recover from Failure or Setback

Mar 18, 2023 | Confidence, Leadership

The after-effects of failure – we’re all familiar. That feeling you get after making a mistake, taking a risk and failing, working hard with no results, or even just thinking we sounded stupid.

In a word: deflated.

Maybe you beat yourself up: I should’ve been better; other people could have done this; what’s wrong with me; maybe I’m not cut out for this – sound familiar?

When you put effort out there and don’t succeed, it’s hard to stay motivated – no dopamine, no excitement. Even if you’re someone whose got a lot of grit, it’s hard to sustain action from a negative place.

Worse yet, we can spiral into a negative cycle of self-blame and shame, which makes it worse.

Research shows there’s a better way,

Self-criticism and self-doubt

The typical response to our own failures is self-criticism or self-doubt.

Self-criticism says it’s our fault. We should’ve done better – someone else would have. The inner critic thinks we need to whip ourselves into shape. And it believes the way to do that is with a stick, not a carrot.

Self-doubt questions whether we’re even capable of succeeding. Are we good enough to do this? Maybe someone else is better, and I should not even try. Self-doubt tries to keep us safe by suggesting we give up – that way we won’t fail again, and we won’t feel this way again.

Both self-criticism and self-doubt cause internal stress, which then makes it harder to access the higher brain (the prefrontal cortex) that we need for executive functions like self-regulation, complex thinking, decision-making and planning.


Many people see self-compassion as letting oneself off the hook, so they tend to avoid it when they’re pushing toward a goal.

But on the contrary, research shows that people are highly motivated to succeed when they have self-compassion. In fact, studies have linked greater self-compassion to less rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure.

Research by Serena Chen at UC Berkeley and others has shown that people who have greater self-compassion tend to be more motivated to improve themselves, report greater feelings of authenticity, and more of a growth mindset.

In addition, studies by David DeSteno have shown that compassion was linked to a 30% increase in perseverance in the face of difficult tasks.

And in terms of our brains, the ability to have compassion (whether for others or ourselves) is linked to the area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which is that higher brain area we need for executive functions and self-control, including delaying gratification and longterm goal direction.

Practicing self-compassion

Self-compassion is a critical part of my coaching program and is applicable to so many clients’ situations.

Self-compassion can be practiced in a number of ways through mindfulness and self-reflection exercises. (For more on self-compassion, including more tips for practicing it, click here.)

In general, you want to acknowledge the situation and the feelings you’re having without judging yourself for them. Then speak with kindness towards yourself, as you would a friend or loved one having those feelings.

Also, it’s helpful to recognize that what you’re feeling is not unique to you but a natural part of being human.

Finally, see if you can reframe your perspective by seeing the “failure” as a growth point. Where is the value in it?

From there, you may want to take a new action. If so, what would that be?

Try this for a recent “failure” you’ve had, and share in the comments how it goes!

Photo by Kinga Howard on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

Meet the Author

Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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