“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” — Unknown
“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” — Hans Selye
Have you experienced moments when things don’t go your way? It could be small setbacks such as your boss reprimanding you, not reaching your goal target, or losing something important. It could be big setbacks like failing in your business, losing your job, or getting a divorce.
You’re not alone. All of us have times when things don’t go as we expected. I certainly do too.
When you face negative incidences, what do you do? Do you beat yourself up? Do you become negative? Or do you learn from it and move on?
While we cannot change certain negative events that happen to us, we can change how we react to them. When we do not cope with our negative experiences properly, we get trapped in a negative cycle, causing ourselves more damage. We also waste time harping on the incident rather than move on. By learning to deal with setbacks, we can deal with life’s big challenges more effectively.
Here are 10 tips to deal with daily setbacks in life.
1. Take a step back and evaluate
When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:
- What is the problem?
- Am I the only person facing this problem in the world?
- How does this problem look like at an individual level? At a national level? On a global scale?
- What’s the worst thing that can happen as a result of this?
- How is this going to impact my life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?
For example, say you overslept and you’re running late for an important meeting. Most people will panic and become extremely stressed out. If we apply the set of questions to the situation, we’ll find that it’s not such a big problem after all. For example:
- What’s the problem? You overslept and you are running late for an important meeting.
- Am I the only person facing this problem? No. People oversleep all the time. In fact, there are probably thousands of people in the exact same predicament as you are right now.
- How does this problem look at the individual level? National level? Global level? At the individual level, it is indeed a big problem. You’re late and your counterparts are likely going to be pissed off. At a national level, people are late every day, and life goes on. No one cares about someone oversleeping in the comparison to national issues such as politics and the economy. At a global scale, the problem becomes so minute that it can’t even be seen as a “problem.” People are dealing with worse things like poverty, famine, and death. Imagine you’re a kid experiencing famine in South Africa right now. Would waking up late really matter? No. You’d be worried about survival issues and whether you’d live to see the next day.
- What’s the worst thing that can happen to me as a result of this? Your colleagues may have a bad impression of you. They may think that you’re not serious about your work. Most likely, nothing’s going to happen. In the worst case scenario, you may get fired.
- How is it going to impact my life in the next 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years? By itself, your problem isn’t going to have any impact in the long run. It’ll just fade away as with other days in your life. One year from now, you’re not even going to remember this incident. 5-10 years later, it’s totally insignificant. Of course, if you are late every day, you will likely get fired.
Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaim responsibility. It’s to consider different perspectives so you can adopt the best approach. It’s also to detach yourself from the anxiety of being in the problem, so that you can think rationally and act in a way that gets you the best results.
Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact on our lives beyond that day. Don’t get stressed up over them, but focus on what can be done. Repeat the questions above for your problems, and you will find that most of your problems won’t deserve so much stress and attention.
2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger
If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy. Don’t coop up your frustrations if they’re irritating you, because it’s not healthy to do so. It’s like putting the lid on a pot of boiling water — the heat and pressure will only increase. Soon it’ll explode and you don’t want it to happen!
However, don’t get stuck with venting. Some people are angry all the time, and it makes them very unattractive both inside and out. Venting may temporarily relieve yourself but it won’t solve the problem. You don’t want to be an energy vampire. Do it for 10 to 15 minutes, then move on.
3. Process your emotions
When things don’t go our way, unhappy emotions get triggered. These emotions need to be processed. By process, I mean to gain awareness and deal with them consciously. This is different from “repress,” where you bottle up your feelings or even deny them.
How do you process your emotions?
- Journal. Write down your unhappiness in a private diary. It doesn’t have to be formal — it can be a brain dump on paper or a word document. Delete after you are done.
- Acknowledge your thoughts. Don’t resist your thoughts but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts. By acknowledging, I mean recognizing that these thoughts exist. So say you have a thought of, Wow, I’m so stupid! Acknowledge that. If you have a thought of, I can’t believe this is happening to me again, acknowledge that as well. Or if you have a thought of, I’m so clumsy, acknowledge that too. Acknowledge every thought that arises. Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting and focus on the situation at hand.
- Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk what’s on your mind. Tools include a tape recorder, your PC, and your mobile phone (most phones today have an audio recording function). Just talking helps you gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, playback and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
- Meditate. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is — including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t. Read: How to Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
- Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gives you an alternate viewpoint and lets you consider things from a different angle.
4. Uncover what you’re really upset about
Many times we are not upset or angry at the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the heart of it, it’s anger toward yourself.
I used to get really frustrated whenever I lost my transport card. The problem wasn’t the loss of one card, but my history of losing cards. Furthermore, my dad’s repeated criticism about how I would lose cards (when I was young) compounded this frustration. Deep down, I was angry at myself. I was pissed off by how careless I was — that I would lose things so easily. I was angry at how I couldn’t even get something small right.
Uncovering this anger helped me work on the issue, which included forgiving myself and letting go of the negative stories regarding my dad’s criticisms.
After you uncover your anger, what can you do about it? How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #7 to identify your actionable steps. Anger comes from not having control of the situation. Sitting there and feeling angry isn’t going to change the situation. The more action you take, the more you regain control, the better you feel.
I have written a 5-part anger management series here: How to Let Go of Anger (series)
5. Give yourself a break
If you are very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time-sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel more energized to deal with the situation objectively. A little self-love and care go a long way.
6. See this as an obstacle to overcome
Helen Keller once said,
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
Whatever you’re facing now, see it as an obstacle to overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.
7. Focus on actionable steps
In every setback, there will be things that can’t be reversed since they have already happened. Focus on things that can be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time things change is when you act on it. Rather than cry over spilled milk, work through your situation:
- What’s the situation?
- What’s stressing you about it?
- What can you do to resolve this?
- Take action on your next steps!
After identifying your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the unactionable steps. It’s about regaining control through direct action.
8. Realize the situation could be a lot worse
No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that. For example, say you lost your wallet. An analysis may look like this:
What’s bad about the situation:
- I just lost my money for no reason. This money is enough for my meals for a week!
- I need to buy a new wallet and replace my cards. That’s additional cost and so much hassle.
- I need to call to cancel my credit cards. Someone may have misused my cards after I lost them.
- The situation could have been worse — I could have been in a life-threatening accident, someone could have robbed me, or someone could have hurt me.
- I could have lost more money.
- I learned the importance of taking care of my possessions, and not to be complacent about them.
- I’ve become a more careful and conscientious person.
This activity helped me see that (1) Things could be a lot worse. This wasn’t as bad as I thought it was; and (2) There’s a silver lining in every cloud and it’s up to what you make out of it.
9. Identify your lessons from the setback
There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?
From my experience with losing things, I learned
- To be more careful with my personal possessions
- How to handle my emotions better
- How to tackle similar situations next time
- There is an upside to being careful with these things. In the past, I would think that it was pointless since I assumed that these things would be there all the time.
After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away from this a stronger, wiser person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.
10. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself for it
Do your best to address the problem, but don’t feel bad when things don’t turn out the way you want.
When I was in my previous company, I was handling a huge amount of responsibilities. Every day felt like a firefighting session. Everyone was constantly stressed out, and the atmosphere was sometimes high strung.
But after a while, I realized no matter what happens, even in the direst of situations, there is always a way to address it. It’s a matter of how you deal with it. Things will run, and life will still go on.
Hence, no matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too short to worry so much about daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#5), and do what you can within your means (#7). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.
Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way