Earlier in my life, I perceived a setback as a failure. More recently, I’ve come to view a setback as an uncomfortable change I didn’t anticipate and have difficulty accepting. This shift in perspective was essential in learning how to overcome setbacks and bounce back stronger. My first step is to remind myself that…
Setbacks Are a Part of Life
Everyone experiences setbacks, and while they can be difficult to deal with, they are usually temporary. Maybe it’s a late in life job loss. Or maybe you’re single and floundering on the dating scene. You might be struggling with an illness or injury and the limitations it places on you. Or maybe you’ve lost a loved one or had to give up on a cherished dream.
It’s also worth noting that setbacks can be very personal. One person’s speed bump can be another person’s tsunami. And as we age, things may also affect us more profoundly, or differently than they would have in the past. For example, if I forget to pay my credit card bill on time, will I simply pay the late fee and move on? Or will the oversight put a spotlight on other things I’ve forgotten? Will this reverberate through my thoughts and feelings as fear that I’m losing mental sharpness?The time it takes to recover from a setback often corresponds to the degree of loss it represents and the amount of control we believe we have over the situation. Click To Tweet
The time it takes to recover from a setback often corresponds to the degree of loss it represents and the amount of control we believe we have over the situation. Studies have found that when we believe we affected an outcome, we are more likely to adapt and learn from the setback. We are able to see what we could do differently next time.
However, when we believe the situation was influenced solely by external factors – there’s nothing we could have done differently – we’re more likely to feel powerless. We might tell ourselves:
Relationships just don’t work out for me.
The job was too good to be true.
That dream of spending my retirement painting wasn’t in the cards.
Loss taps into deep structures in the brain. If we do not employ consciousness to navigate the emotional landscape of our loss, it can morph into a prolonged melodrama which we act out unconsciously.
5 Tips for Overcoming Setbacks
Recognize what is happening in your brain.
A setback can trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response and cause your emotional reaction to skyrocket. So, first, recognize your reaction will keep you from thinking straight. Then, restrain your words and actions until you’ve calmed down.
The brain is also a storyteller that loves to embellish a tale with each telling, so it’s important to stick with the facts. Just the facts! Refrain from going into what-if scenarios of how close a call it was. Don’t dwell on what might have been “if only.” What occurred is what happened – the who, what, when and where. To ensure self-honesty, resist the temptation to speculate about anything you don’t honestly know, like why it happened or the other person’s motives.
Bring yourself back to the present moment.
Bringing yourself back to the present moment can be a helpful way to deal with intense reactions to a setback. The events leading up to a big setback often play like a movie inside our heads. When you catch yourself reliving the events or trying to “rewrite the script” of what happened, bring yourself back to the present moment by anchoring your attention to the breath and breathing deeply.
Notice what is happening right now: the time of day and details of your immediate environment. Where are you sitting? What scents surround you? What sounds? You can’t sense these things in any other moment than the one in which you find yourself. But also realize that, at least initially, you might have to do this exercise every few minutes until your emotions calm down.
Delay taking action.
Wait before you speak or take action. Many of us allow our emotions to prompt action that isn’t well thought out and that may result in unintended consequences. If we don’t take a breath and try to restore calm before we act, we can spend a lot of energy doing things that are not constructive. They may even be counterproductive! If you need to evaluate the action you’re contemplating, run it by a trusted friend who has no investment in the outcome. On the other hand, if you are paralyzed when you know you need to act, breathe your way through it and do the best you can.
Wait until your emotions calm down before making any big decisions.
Waiting until you calm down before making any big decisions is usually your best response to any upset. After a big setback, the emotional wave can have the force of a tsunami. Its power to distort your reality can be very great indeed.
So, wait, wait, wait and wait even longer. The dilemmas created by turbulent emotions usually resolve themselves into emotional clarity with the passage of time. Since most of the things you think when you are emotional are not altogether true, wait until your emotions have subsided. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that getting the decision behind you will solve anything, especially if that decision is made reactively.
Be on the lookout for new opportunities.
When we undergo a setback, opportunities emerge that didn’t exist before the setback occurred. Although we may be unable to see them right away, changing conditions often reveal choices and resources that weren’t obvious under other circumstances. Without making up a fantasy or going into denial, it’s important to have faith that we will eventually be able to change difficult things for the better with time, patience, and the wisdom we always gain from meeting our challenges with willingness.
Keep in in mind that big setbacks usually represent our greatest opportunities for transformation. The key to actualizing these opportunities is simple but not easy: be willing to embrace the uncertainties that setbacks invariably magnify. Bottom line: come back to the now-moment, stay here, and wait until your clarity and calm are restored. Then, with a clear head, you can decide what, if anything, to do.
Using the tips in this post, I hope you can develop a comprehensive approach to coping with setbacks and moving forward in a positive direction.
If you’d like some tips for what to do when you’re waiting for your emotions to calm after a setback and before responding or making a decision, I’ve prepared this PDF for you to download:
Take good care : )