Dealing with Setbacks

It happens to all of us.  We are going about our lives thinking things are just fine… and then out of the blue – it happens!  We lose a job, or someone we love becomes ill, or injured, or we get some bad news.  It is inevitable.  Life is a journey filled with hills and valleys … we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Remember the scene in the kids’ movie, Finding Nemo when Marlin, the father clownfish, tells his son Nemo, “I don’t want anything to happen to you!” But Nemo swims away, more determined than ever, to reach that boat on the surface of the water. This is a major turning point in the film and something does indeed happen to that unsuspecting little clownfish.

Note that Marlin said he ‘didn’t want anything to happen’ instead of saying he ‘didn’t want anything BAD to happen’ to his little offspring.  Did Marlin really intend for the last remaining member of his family to simply stay by his side and never take any risks?

We all want to live life to its fullest and we likely want the same for those we care about.  Life requires us to take some risk, to venture into the unknown, to swim in coral reefs and in deep blue oceans.  It’s what makes life worth living!  Inevitably some things will happen – you might attend school in a new city, maybe you break a leg skiing in the mountains, you could catch a cold, you could fall in love…

What do YOU do when you get some bad news?  Do you crumble?  Do you have a ‘pity party’ as my Mom used to say? (I Love You Mom!)  Do you hide under the covers for days and wait for the problem to be resolved by someone else?  How soon do you decide it is time to do something about it? 

Building resiliency is one way to ensure that you have the strength you need to take action.  To get out of bed when it seems impossible; to take the necessary steps to care for yourself (and others); to put one foot in front of the other; or in Nemo’s context – to “just keep swimming”.

HERE’s HOW!    Here are 4 steps you can take to help you handle setbacks

  1. Acknowledge Your Emotions

First of all – it is good and healthy to show some emotion.  If you get fired from a job – it is okay to be upset!  If someone breaks your heart – eat some ice cream if that will comfort you – and cry or vent with your friend!  Listen to a sad song or maybe even create a full playlist that reflects your mood.  Don’t suppress your emotions – they are natural and necessary for releasing chemicals and endorphins.  They can also help to process how we truly feel about something. 

Let your emotions wash over you… Experience them.

But don’t let them overtake you.  It’s not time to drown!

Once you’ve fully ‘felt those feels’ – tell yourself, it’s time to start the process of healing and acting and getting back to your strong, resilient, powerful self!

2. Build a Healthy Mindset

In the book, Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Sandberg discussed how she overcame the grief she experienced after the sudden death of her husband.  She referenced the work of psychologist Martin Seligman who found that three P’s can hold you back: 1) personalization – the idea that you are at fault for the situation; 2) pervasiveness – the belief that this setback will affect all areas of your life; and 3) permanence – the thought that this situation will last forever.

Instead, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are not alone in experiencing difficulties – people all around the world are dealing with difficult things every minute of every day.  Tell yourself a different story.  You are not a victim.  You can control how you think, how you feel, and how you respond to this setback.  It also helps to think about the many things you have gone through in the past, you’ve been through difficult things before – this too shall pass! You are strong and capable in many other areas of your life and you have skills to manage this challenge too.  You are not to blame for this, although you can learn from it!  Treat this setback as an opportunity to learn and grow

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Notice this says practice – it is not an overnight sensation.  Just like building a healthy mindset – these concepts take time and you will improve through practice. 

The first step in being compassionate with yourself, is taking note of those automatic negative thoughts that come into your mind.  You could greet them by saying: “Oh hello, pessimistic one – I see you and heard your point – now move along!”

The next step is to treat yourself like you would a best friend who is going through the same thing.  You’d likely remind him/her to take time for self-care, to be patient and not critical, to seek help if they need it and that they are not alone – that you are going to help them get through this.  Remember there are people in your life that care about you and will help you.  There are also numerous resources available on-line.  Start with a doctor or a friend – do ask for the help you need.

4. Train Your Brain

There are numerous practices we can follow to support better mental health and well-being, these include: journaling, meditation, deep breathing exercises, expressing gratitude (noting 3 good things at the end of the day); mindful eating, etc.  There are hundreds of resources available (podcasts, apps, websites) devoted to helping you find inner calm. I recommend trying as many as possible to see what fits best with your lifestyle.

When dealing with a set-back, however, the three that I personally have found most helpful are:

  • gratitude journaling – reminding myself of my good fortune and all the many blessings in my life
  • performing acts of kindness to others – it always boosts my mood if I can do something to help someone else (even simply by smiling, or saying thank you, or holding the door for a stranger)
  • spending time with my thoughts, in a state of ‘reverie’, to fill my mind with hopeful ideas for the future (someone described this as going on ‘future walks’ where he would dream about a better future) and then day-dreaming about or journaling some actions I can take to get me to that next good place.

I find these mindful exercises have helped ‘train my brain’ to be more future oriented, to feel I am in control and capable, and to be hopeful for something better, even when working through a challenge.

All of these 4 areas take practice, but I assure you they are worth it.  Try to ‘fill your emotional tank’ when you can, as you never know when it will run dry and you may need to draw on your amazing, resilient brain to get you through to the other side.

Warm regards,


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