What to Say When Someone Feels Like a Failure

There will be moments when everything you try fails. There will be moments when the one you counted on most walks away and leaves you groping through blinding tears and wailing questions of why; quotes Best-selling author T.D. Jakes in his book ‘Soar’.

The most important thing someone who feels like a failure needs to hear is that failure does not define who they are. They may not have gotten the desired results but there’s always a flip side to the failure. In most instances, it’s a lesson and if you hold on to the positive side of it, you will find the stamina to move on.

But, what is failure and why does it suck?

Failure can be defined as missing a target, achieving less than what was hoped for or nothing at all.

I disagree with the dictionary’s description of failure as the opposite of success because there is always a take away from every experience and like I mentioned above, there is always a lesson.

Let’s take for instance a business deal gone sour. You had a business plan in place, a team to work with, capital, and other resources.

You invested time and energy but instead of leaping profit, there was a total loss. In such a scenario, do we consider everything lost? What about the networks formed?

The knowledge gained in the course of cultivating the venture, and friendships formed? Surely, all is not lost.

Everyone goes through a season where they feel totally defeated. So, when someone tells you they feel like a failure, it takes a lot of wisdom to pause and find the right words to say. Let’s first find out what you shouldn’t say.

What NOT to say to someone who feels like a failure

Most certainly, failure feels bad, there are words you may utter that push someone further into stress rather than redeem them. It’s better to keep quiet and listen than to speak and make the situation worse. Here are some words to avoid.

1. You are not alone

It doesn’t make failure any easier just because many people have failed and even if it does, someone can use it as a justifier for staying in their comfort zone. We recommend you use words that influence change.

2. It’s okay

No, it’s not and the fact that they already told you that they feel like a failure proves that it’s not ok. Failure is an uncomfortable setback. It toughens the journey to growth and self-realization. If it’s not dealt with productively, it can cause a person to forsake their dream.

3. I wish you knew

Since you cannot undo what has already happened, avoid causing the person to reminisce on what could have happened. We only do what we know best.

The late Maya Angelou used to say

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can come out of it. You did then what you knew how to do, now that you know better, do better”.

Maya Angelou

No one should be subjected to regrets regardless of the role they played in the failure.

4. It could have been worse

This seems like a consoling statement but to someone who is agonizing, it’s not. On many occasions, it will come out as a comparison of their situation to someone else’s.

Worse still, you sound like you are dismissing their pain. Failure is relative and does not necessarily reflect on the outside what someone is feeling on the inside.

The most important thing to tell someone who feels like a failure

Failure can thrust one into action or trap them in a cocoon of hopelessness. Your words have the power to alter one’s perspective towards failure and revitalize them to start over.

Now that you know what to avoid saying, let’s have a look at what you can say.

1. It’s tough, but you can overcome

By admitting how tough the failure is, you connect with the other person’s fears and you get an opportunity to acknowledge their ability to rise above it. ‘You can’ are magical words, each time you use them they make the other person mentally stronger.

2. Did you learn anything?

This is a kind but challenging question to someone feeling like a looser. It is not obvious that they will ask themselves so be the one to ask. It interrupts their ‘pity party’ mildly and ignites the need to self-evaluate.

It raises one from the feeling of failure to being challenged to find new solutions and insights into the problem. Another way of phrasing this question is what would you have done better?

3. If you get over this, there is nothing you can’t overcome

The truth is, recovering from one failure doesn’t make you resistant to feeling like a failure in the future but it builds your mental capacity to handle failure.

By telling someone they can overcome everything, you’re boosting their confidence to bounce back and they can imagine themselves overcoming over and over.

4. This failure is a setup for success

If viewed from a positive perspective, failure re-focuses us to push our limits, setting higher bars and being more intentional in decision making. Failure also reveals mistakes we may have overlooked had it not happened.

Final Note

Oprah Winfrey has one of the best messages to those who feel they have failed. She says, “Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again, do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire”.

What your words need to convey is the need to alter the thoughts and attitudes towards failure. If you choose the right words and tone, you will be well on your way to setting your listener for a comeback

Find out How to Know If Someone Cares About You

How to Deal With Guilt and Regret


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

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