How do you handle failure and setback?
Exactly a year ago I published a book. Among other things, this book is a guide on how to effectively deal with adversity and setback. A core message is that challenges, setbacks, and stressors can be viewed as mountains you need to climb and overcome. And in how you become fitter, stronger, braver, and find meaning if you approach these mountains correctly. It entails leaving the comfort zone and exploring new territory. In doing this you will bolster your immune system, activate survival genes, and build mental and physical resilience for a longer and more satisfying life.
As I published the book, my adversity just started, and I was given the opportunity to really practice what I preach. My first setback was starting the year broke, having suffered severe financial loss triggered by the lockdowns and creditors not paying me. Then on the first day of 2023 I tore my calf, leaving me in crutches for weeks. Shortly after recovering I had to go for shoulder surgery, both incidents leaving me with soaring medical bills and unable to live my usually active lifestyle for more than a year. To top it off I got myself into a relationship that was not psychologically healthy. I was broken in many ways.
Let’s be honest, life doesn’t work out the way we want it to. For many reasons, your plans don’t work out, your dreams don’t realise, your investments don’t perform, your relationships aren’t as loving and supporting as you want, and your career plans don’t go the intended way. Or worse, you experience divorce, bankruptcy, health crisis, or fall victim to violent crime, etc. Living in South Africa ads extra layers of challenge, where we are not only vulnerable to crime, incompetence, misconduct, lawlessness, failing institutions and infrastructure, but rulers that endanger rather than protect us.
The shit hits the fan…Now what?
What will determine if you bounce back in due course or if you take a detour past the land of shock, blame, pity, hopelessness, helplessness, and depression?
What’s your attitude when you experience one or more setbacks in life?
What coping skills are you able to access when you’ve been knocked down?
What is different between people who stay down for long when they get knocked down and those who get up with an attitude of determination, persistence, and optimism? What is the difference in mentality between the person who thinks, feels, talks, and acts like a victim of life’s fate and the person who thinks, feels, talks, and acts like the writer of their life story?
The work done my Martin Seligman on Learned Helplessness and Learned Optimism illustrated that our interpretation of the setback is key to determining our resilience. Things go wrong. You cannot control what happens, you can control how you respond.
According to Seligman, we can either have a pessimistic or optimistic explanatory style (response). Optimism here doesn’t mean you ignore the problem and tell yourself all is hunky dory. But rather the attitude that you can do something tangible about the setback.
When we experience setback, we evaluate the problem through these three criteria:
Source: Is it about me(personal)? Or is it an event or situation outside(external) of me that caused this?
Significance: Is it everywhere (pervasive) effecting everything? Or is it limited (isolated) to a space or place?
Duration: Is it permanent (forever)? Or is it limited to a specific (temporary) time?
Where you lie on this continuum and how you frame the setback according to these criteria will determine your response.
Stages of setback
This will differ from one person to the next, but normally, we go through these stages:
Based on the grief stages developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Dr Michael Hall identified these potential stages:
- Setback Stage: An event occurs that knocks you down that triggers a sense of loss, disruption, upset, block, etc.
- Shock Stage: You are shocked, surprised, in a state of dis-belief, amazement, disillusioned, etc.
- Bargaining Stage: You look outside yourself to a supernatural source (God) or to some other person (boss, wife, husband.) and beg that you will do anything to get your life back the way it was. You beg, bargain, and confess etc.
- Anger Stage: You yell and scream, you threaten, you throw a tantrum, you mad, you curse, you blame.
- Depression Stage: You give up, lower your hopes, expectations, and energies, you resign to your situation, you feel like a victim, you stand in the rain and let it rain all over you.
- Acceptance Stage: You acknowledge what happened and face it by thinking about what you can do that will move you forward.
How long do the stages take? Weeks, months, or even years. This depends on you:
On how much meaning you give to the event or setback.
On how you interpret it according to the three criteria (source, setback, and duration).
And of course, on how you respond.
These are potential stages because it all depends. It depends on your attitude and resilience. The stronger you are inside yourself, the more meaning and resolve you have inside you, the less you need to go through the emotional rollercoaster stages. The less time you spend in the Shock—Bargaining—Anger—and— Depression stages, the quicker you can move to the Acceptance stage.
The solution for grief stages is acceptance. The sooner you get to acceptance, the sooner you can begin to deal with the setback effectively. Acceptance is an incredibly powerful state. You can save yourself a lot of heartache, sleepless nights, and waste of misdirected emotional energy if you get to acceptance quicker.
In truth you can speed up your development of resilience by shortening your time between setback and acceptance. Here is a tip: skip shock, bargaining and depression and move straight to acceptance. It will be good for you not to spend too much time on fighting yourself and blaming an unfair world. You will gain perspective and get to the business of living quicker.
Ask yourself: What can I learn from this? Learning should be the response and resilience the result. You can accelerate your learning with an attitude of openness, responsibility, and curiosity.
Resilience is getting perspective.
That’s how you bounce back quicker and with less damage. Give yourself perspective and clarity by asking these questions:
- In what domain did the setback occur? (Health, career, money, relationships)
- How much importance have I given to the event?
- Is giving the setback/event that much meaning helpful?
- How much of a tunnel-vision is my current perspective creating for me?
- While I’m focussed on this one thing, what else am I not seeing?
- If I go forward in time with 5 years and look back, what do I notice?
- With the new perspective what parts of my life are okay or fine?
To do this you not only have to have a basic core sense that whatever happens, it is just something to deal with, but you have to have empowering beliefs about yourself as a person (your value and worth as a person), your ability to learn and develop skills to cope with things (your self-confidence), your relationships with others who you can depend and trust in the process, your determination and persistence that over time you will recover and bounce back and be as strong as ever, your meanings and intentions that keep you inspired, hopeful, and optimistic, and your sense of self-efficacy that you can take proactive initiative to turn things around.
Which will you do?
It is entirely your choice. No one can force you to interpret a set-back (or anything else) in a particular way. Yet how you interpret it and the meanings that you give will determine the experiences you have and the quality of your life.
Refuse to be a victim: Of economic decline, disappointing events, poor leadership, an unfair life, and shit that happens.
If you want to learn more on equipping yourself with emotional, cognitive, and physical resilience, you will enjoy my book.
Please share this with someone who is experiencing setback or disappointment.
Thank you for reading
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a Meta-coach and integrates neuroscience, neurosemantics, psychology, and lifestyle for optimal health, performance, engagement and productivity. As the founder of Keep Thriving, he has facilitated and helped organisations and individuals actualize their potential.