Life is crazy. Sometimes it is beautiful and amazing—you feel like you’ve got things figured out, you’re on top of the world, you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. But sometimes, life sucks. It’s hard, complicated, tragic, and awful, and you can’t imagine how you’re going to take one more step forward.
At various points in our lives, we are all met with setbacks, failures, and obstacles. Some are small, like a speedbump, just enough to slow us down. Some are huge, like a wall, and stop us entirely in our tracks. But while difficult, challenging, and often heartbreaking, all of them give us an opportunity—an opportunity to pause, restart, reflect, learn, grow, and reshape our lives.
My life has been full of setbacks and obstacles. I’ve lost loved ones, missed opportunities, and made huge mistakes at work. I’ve suffered from injuries, accidents, anxiety, and overwhelm. Some setbacks sent me crying in my room for weeks. Some landed me in therapy. Some just left me with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. But through them all, I’ve learned how to honor them, get through, and use them to prepare for future success.
While I often couldn’t see it at the time, I now know there have been no mistakes on my journey. Instead, each step has led me to the life I live today. Each scar made me stronger. Each failure helped me learn, and each setback had a strange way of setting me up for the next step in my life.
Whatever setback you might be facing and however big or small it may be, in this article, I’ll share simple, practical ways you can deal with whatever life throws your way so you can come back stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
Types of Setbacks
There are all types of setbacks you might face along your journey: personal, professional, financial, and environmental.
Personal setbacks might include injuries, illness, mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, relationship challenges including breakups, divorce, and fights with those you love. This also includes loss of all types: a partner, child or loved one, a job or home, a hope or dream.
Professional setbacks might include bombing a critical meeting, losing a big sale, working under a terrible boss, being overlooked for a promotion, or being laid off or fired.
Financial setbacks could include limited or not finding work, losing money, an investment gone wrong, or being underwater in your home.
You might face environmental setbacks, including natural disasters like a fire or hurricane, or, like many are facing right now, a global setback due to the pandemic and all the impacts it is causing in many areas of our lives.
Often, one setback leads to another and causes a downstream effect, impacting every area of your life. However, it is possible to take a step back and help manage how things go.
3 Powerful Steps to Deal With Setbacks in Life
Here is a three-step process I created to help you deal with your setback, capitalize on the experience, and set yourself up for future success.
Step 1: Allow Yourself to Feel
When bad things happen, many people want to go straight to fixing it, looking at the upside, trying to work through it, or pushing through whatever pain they may be feeling. However, it’s critical to first give yourself permission to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel. Are you hurt? Angry? Frustrated? Embarrassed? That’s okay.
Often when we have a setback, we are told—or we tell ourselves—“everything happens for a reason,” “the sorrows make the joys so much sweeter,” “it could be worse,” or we immediately try to find the silver lining. This is what can be defined as “toxic positivity.” When you deny, minimize, or invalidate your feelings, not only is it unhelpful, but it can also be harmful.
Maybe a setback has left you feeling angry, frustrated, sad, hurt, overwhelmed, terrified, disappointed, worried, embarrassed, or all of the above. Whatever the feelings are, allow them to emerge. Because unless you feel it, you’re not going to move past it. If you don’t grieve or honor your feelings, they have a way of sneaking back up on you. There’s a saying:
“What the mind conceals, the body reveals.”
When we conceal, try to hide, push down, or ignore our emotions and feelings, they don’t simply disappear. They go deep within us, and they eat at us. So, that sudden heart attack, unexplained high blood pressure, or unexpected anxiety may not be so inexplicable after all. We physiologically need to acknowledge and feel our emotions. When we do, it provides a release and prevents those feelings from eating away at us.
So, take the time to honor, acknowledge, and truly feel your feelings. Cry. Scream. Journal. Talk to a friend or work with a therapist or coach to acknowledge and understand your emotions. Identify what the feelings are telling you. Let them arise. They may persist, but they will eventually pass once they are heard and dealt with.
Step 2: Pause and Reflect
Life setbacks allow you to pause and reflect on what you want from life. Life has a way of giving you whatever is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. Even if you can’t see it yet, this change is trying to teach you something. Here are some ways to step back and garner perspective.
You can use this setback to identify what you want or don’t want in this next stage or step of your life. Just had a bad breakup? Identify what you want and need in a life partner. Lost your job? What do you want in a job or career going forward? This is your chance to evaluate your priorities, identify what’s important to you, and define what you want from now on.
Learn the Lesson
Identify what you learned from the situation. Lessons in life have a way of being repeated until they are learned. For example, I had a client who was disappointed about how an entrepreneurial venture had turned out. He had a falling out with his co-founder and decided to move on from the business. He was down, frustrated, and trying to figure out what to do next.
As we reflected on this setback, I asked him to consider what he learned from the situation. Once asked, he revealed that he learned to make sure he was aligned with his business partners. He realized he wasn’t as great a manager as he thought he was and that he should have trusted his instincts on a few decisions made along the way. As he made a list of what he learned, he could move forward with knowledge and experience about how he could better set up his next venture. How can you do things differently next time?
Now is also the time to be grateful for the setback—to be thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow and see things from a different perspective. I know it’s not easy, but challenge yourself.
Perhaps you lost your job. Did you like your job? Were you thriving? Did you feel like it was really where you wanted to be? I had a client that lost their job recently, and while devastating, it was a tremendous gift. They were miserable, burnt out, and hated their boss, but they would have never left that job on their own. Letting go allowed them to be free and move on to something better where they could thrive.
Often, setbacks provide an opportunity to reassess your life and what you are genuinely grateful for. I know many people who have had severe medical issues who step back and take stock of their lives and what’s important and eventually feel deep gratitude for all they have, even amidst the chaos. Why are you grateful for what happened? How can you find appreciation for your recent setback?
Step 3: Use It as a Step Forward
Once you’ve had a chance to process and reflect on your setback, it’s time to use it as a stepping stone for future success. Think of your life as a progression. Each setback, lesson, and failure are like stairs with each step taking you towards your future. When you face a setback, you can choose: will this setback take me down, or can this setback bring me closer to where I want to be? If you view your setback as a failure and get stuck in what went wrong, it will be. If you view it as a step up, you can move forward.
I also like using the metaphor of a backpack. We spend our lives filling our backpacks with tools, tricks, and strategies for any situation. When you have a setback, you learn and grow and add another tool to your backpack. You are now more skilled and equipped to handle whatever life throws your way. Each setback makes you better at life!
Life doesn’t get any easier; you get stronger, wiser, and more capable.
Years ago, there was a story shared with new hires at IBM. According to the anecdote, a VP made a huge mistake that reportedly cost the company $10 million. The employee met with Tom Watson Jr., the head of the company, expecting to be fired, and presented his resignation letter. Instead, Mr. Watson replied, “You are certainly not leaving after we just gave you a $10 million education!” Regardless of whether this long-told story is true, the point is critical—leaders at IBM did not see failure as a problem if it was turned into a valuable learning experience.
Most entrepreneurs live this way. They know that failure takes them one step closer to their success. Salespeople are the same. They understand that each “no” gets them closer to the next “yes.” Thomas Edison was famously quoted as saying, “I learned 10,000 ways not to invent a lightbulb.” He saw every failure as an opportunity to learn.
Think about how to use your setback as a step forward. I have close friends, a couple who were just diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Are they scared? Of course. But they are looking at this as an opportunity. The minute they found out, they began to research ways to make healthier decisions from food to sleep to environmental choices. They are looking at this setback as an opportunity to change their lifestyles together. By looking ahead, they will boldly fight cancer and live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Think about the setback you are currently experiencing. What opportunities will this bring to your life? As you look at your setback, what options does this bring? How can this setback be a setup for what’s next? What changes does this force or allow?
Not sure? It can be helpful to look at the situation as a neutral observer. Imagine you’re a fly on the wall or you’re watching a movie of your life and setback. From this zoomed-out view, what do you notice? What insights or advice would you give yourself? What perspective does this new setback bring? How will this set you up for future success?
Pay It Forward
Once you’ve learned and grown from your setback and used it to set you up for success, then what? At some point, you’ll have the opportunity to pay it forward. Consider how you can use your experiences to help others who are going through the very same setback you once thought was impossible.
If you look at many successful business owners, mentors, TED talkers, motivational speakers, and entrepreneurs, most of them have one thing in common: they faced a major setback. They usually hit rock bottom, and they used their setbacks, failures, and painful experiences to help others.
Arianna Huffington got rejected by 36 publishers. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school (twice!). Oprah Winfrey faced a challenging childhood, was told she wasn’t suited for television, and was fired from her first co-anchor position. Eckhart Tolle was on the brink of suicide before he became one of the most prominent spiritual teachers in the world. And JK Rowling hit rock bottom before the Harry Potter series went on to become a smashing success. I could go on.
Use Your Setback to Make a Difference
How can you use your setback to make a difference for others in a powerful way?
You don’t have to be an influencer, write a bestseller or stand on stages across the world. Maybe you’ve struggled with addiction and can support others in your local AA group. Perhaps you were challenged to make your business successful, and you can help other local entrepreneurs. Maybe you had a tough childhood, and you’d like to be a big brother or sister for those who could benefit from your help, wisdom, and support. Maybe it’s as simple as teaching your kids a different way of being.
Whatever challenges you’ve faced on your journey, you can use your experiences to make someone’s life better. Sure, you don’t have to do that now. But you can look to the future and dream up ways to spin the negative into something positive.
However big or small your ripples will be, these experiences are setting you up to help someone else. Who will that be?
Let’s face it. Life is full of setbacks, failures, obstacles, and challenges. Setbacks are not in the way of your life. They are a critical part of your life. They are redirecting you to where you truly should be. They are not throwing you off your path. Instead, they are reminding you which way the path lies.
Philosophically, I believe that life is working for us, not against us. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that my setbacks are opportunities for learning and growth. I believe there are no mistakes on our journey, even when it feels that way. But that doesn’t mean I don’t completely understand how it feels when a setback smacks you straight in the face. It can hurt, but it can also be the best gift.
Right now, this setback may feel like the end of the world. I promise you, it is not. Instead, it’s a chance for you to define your destiny. You get to choose what happens next. Will this setback take you down, or will this setback be the very thing that defines who you are? It’s completely up to you.
More Tips on How to Deal With Setbacks in Life
Featured photo credit: Jonathan Chng via unsplash.com