We’ve all heard that there are only two things we can count on for certain: death and taxes. But anyone who has ever lost a job, suffered from an illness, or become estranged from a love one can tell you, there’s a third certainty that can be added to that list—setbacks. Setbacks happen, and they happen to everyone.
Here is the positive spin. Setbacks are how we develop personal character and emotional resilience. It is not when the waters of life are calm and sailing is smooth that we grow, but when life is turbulent. These moments require heavy lifting, mentally and emotionally, which comes from facing our difficulties rather than blaming, ignoring, or distracting ourselves through various false and momentary pleasures. By facing setbacks, we not only learn to solve problems but also develop the inner strength to step up to whatever life throws our way.
Of course, not all setbacks are equal. Some are temporary, relatively minor and handled quickly—the flat tire on the way to work, the rain that cancels your golf game, your boss’s indecision, etc. Other setbacks are major—losing a job, illness, or estrangement of a loved one—and knock us off balance, diminish our happiness and well-being, and often weaken our confidence in ourselves.
The question is how we recover. Although not easy, we can recover from setbacks, not only as a function of the passage of time but by learning to manage our emotions and then moving forward by making positive choices. Here are five steps to help you do so.
- Face it. Step towards the issue, rather than away from it. Look it squarely in the face and see it as it is. Tell the truth about it rather than distracting yourself from it. If you find yourself facing a problem, remember that avoiding that problem won’t make it go away. All too often, we are tempted to take the “ostrich approach” – burying our heads in the sand when faced with challenges. Instead, the first step is to find the courage to face it rather than hide or distract.
- Feel it. Setbacks can be painful and often require that you go through a process of grieving. To grieve means to be honest about your inner experience, to let yourself explore and feel it. Suppose you’re laid off from your job. You may feel betrayed, hurt, angry, or afraid. As you notice and allow yourself to go through these feelings they eventually begin to dissipate and lose their intensity. You’ll still have them, but they won’t be so intense. Writing down your feelings or talking to someone you trust can help. Denying, avoiding or taking your feelings out on someone else only causes more problems and compounds the impact of the initial setback.
- Accept it. Acceptance is allowing reality to be what it is. It doesn’t mean you like it, nor that it will feel good in the moment. But a conscious declaration of your intent to accept a reality (losing a job, a downturn in the market, a child going down a path you don’t like, etc.) helps you stop feeling overwhelmed and victimized so you can begin to take your power back and channel your energy in productive ways.
- Reframe it. This means to view the setback in a different way. How you think about the situation will determine not only how you feel but also what actions you take. Take some time and write a number of alternative ways of thinking about your reality. For example, “I’m unhappy about losing my job but it is a wake-up call to decide what I really want in my career.” “I’m a talented and committed person and an employer will be fortunate to hire me.” Keep writing and exploring different options until you come up with some ways of thinking that you can honestly believe and feel good about. See the potential blessing or good that can come from the setback. What purpose can it serve? How can it be a good thing, at least in the long-run? Whatever setback you experience may well be an opportunity in disguise.
- Act on it. Many realities exist outside our ability to control or influence. Some, however, can be altered if we are willing to confront and change them. Either way, there are always actions we can take that will allow us to reclaim our power and authority and direct our energies in ways that make a difference. Although all of our actions won’t always result in a complete remedy of some of the realities of our lives, they will at least result in an internal sense of personal integrity and confidence. If you’re feeling worried or anxious, don’t allow it to shut you down. Look for the opportunity, chart a course of action to feel your power and reach your goals. This is the time to act. Action leads to results; not taking action only leads to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
It takes honesty, courage, responsibility, and persistence to step up to our setbacks. It requires a willingness to let go of the payoffs we get out of blame and wallowing. But it’s worth it as we realize that what’s inside us is bigger than what’s outside. You may be surprised at just how tough you really are.
What kinds of setbacks have you faced in your life? In what ways have you responded that have helped you conquer them or made you a better person?