12 Tips to Deal with Setbacks in Life

Upset guy, sitting on the sofa

(Image: Nik Shuliahin)

“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 ever 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 expect. I certainly do too.

When you face negative incidences, what do you do? Do you beat yourself up? Do you become very 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 and cope with them. When we do not cope with our negative experiences properly, we get trapped 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 12 tips to deal with setbacks in life.

How to Deal with Setbacks in Life: 12 Tips

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Am I the only person facing this problem in the world?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? At a national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst thing that can happen to me as a result of this?
  5. How is it 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 a 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:

  1. What’s the problem? You overslept and you are running late for a meeting.
  2. Am I the only person facing this problem in the world? No. People oversleep all the time. In fact, there are probably thousands of people who are in the exact same predicament as you are right now.
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? At a national level? On a global scale? At an individual problem, it seems like a big issue. You’re late and your counterparts are likely going to be pissed off. But 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 you care about waking up late? I didn’t think so either.
  4. 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 you’re not serious about your work. Most likely, nothing’s going to happen. In the worst case scenario, you may get fired.
  5. How is it going to impact my life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 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. 1 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 single day, you will likely get fired.

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaim responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach. 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 life beyond that day.  Hence, there’s no reason to get so stressed up over them.

2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy. Don’t coop up your frustrations if they’re grating 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. No sooner will it explode, and you don’t want to explode in anger!

However, don’t get stuck with venting. Some people are angry all the time, and it makes them very unattractive both inside and out. Some taxi drivers are very angsty and it’s tiring to face them. They complain about everything the whole time, and after 10-15 minutes of talking to them, you feel like you’re done. In fact, I came across one yesterday when taking the cab.

While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem. You don’t want to be an energy vampire. Vent if you have to, but do it for say, 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others facing this too

Like I mentioned in Step #1, even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. There are over 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your emotions

When things don’t go our way, unhappy emotions are triggered. These emotions need to be processed. By process, I mean to gain awareness and deal with them in a conscious manner. This is different from “repress,” where you bottle up your feelings or even deny them.

How do you process your emotions?

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or blog. It doesn’t have to be formal — it can be a brain dump on paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Acknowledge your thoughts. Don’t resist your thoughts but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts. By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again,” acknowledge that as well. Or if you have a thought that says, “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 yourself and focus on the situation on hand.
  3. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC, and your mobile phone (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail function. Just talking helps you gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  4. 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
  5. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gives you an alternate viewpoint and consider things from a different angle.

 

 

5. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

One time when I lost my transport card, I was angry about it. The problem wasn’t the loss of that one card, but that I had a history of losing cards — plus I just added a big sum of money into the card. I was angry at how I didn’t put the card in my bag, where it would be more secure. I was angry at why I placed the card in my jeans, which was probably how it got lost — it probably dropped out as I was walking. I was angry at the loss of my money. I was angry that I was always losing my card, and this time right after I topped it up with more money.

Deep down, I was really angry at myself. I didn’t know why I was such a klutz. I was just pissed off with how careless I was — that I would lose things so easily. I was angry at how I made things difficult for myself because I wasn’t conscientious enough. I was angry at how I was doing my best to be a good person in this world, yet there I was, self-sabotaging my efforts with these trivialities. I was angry for being a loser.

After you uncover the root of your anger, what can you do about it? How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #8, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

I have written a 5-part anger management series here: How to Let Go of Anger in Your Life (series)

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re 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 revitalized to deal with the situation — with objectivity. A little love and care for yourself go a long way.

7. See this as an obstacle to overcome

Helen Keller 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 right 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.

8. Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

Applying this to the situation where I lost my card, this was what I got:

1) What’s the situation?

  • The card is lost.
  • I did not know where I lost the card.
  • I’m already on the bus and well on my way home.

2) What’s stressing/annoying me about the situation?

  1. Losing $50 because of my carelessness. My parents have cultivated the value of thriftiness in me, so it feels lousy to lose good money that could be used for better purposes.
  2. Inconvenience I caused for myself for losing my card – I have to pay cash for my fares until I get my new card. I also have to make my way to the station just to buy a new card, and that’s one additional thing to do in my long list of to-dos.
  3. Losing my card even though I’ve been making conscious effort not to let history repeat itself

3) What are the next steps that’ll help me resolve them?

  1. Get my new card as soon as possible tomorrow, so as to minimize my inconveniences.
  2. Work harder and recover the $50 loss via 1-2 more ebook sales on my blog.
  3. Ensure the new card doesn’t get lost again next time. I’ll make sure to stash the card securely in my bag every time, every time I board/alight the bus – basically, during the times when the card is used.

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

9. Understand how it occurred (so it won’t happen again)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

So for my problem, it occurred because I play down on the importance of looking after my personal belongings all the time. By being more careful with my items from now on, I can better prevent such a situation from occurring next time.

10. Realize the situation can 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, when I applied this to my lost transport card:

What’s bad about the situation:

  • I just lost $50 of good money that could be used for other purposes.
  • I need to buy a new card asap to replace the old one. It’s a hassle and additional thing to do.
  • My traveling will be inconvenienced until I get my new card.

The upside:

  • The situation could have been worse – I could have lost my wallet, which would be terrible, because it would be a serious pain to replace my identification card, credit card, membership cards, etc inside. Moreover, that means losing more than just $50 too.
  • Or, there could have been more money inside, say $100 or $150, which would be a bigger loss.
  • 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 (1) Things could be a lot worse. This wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. (2) There’s a silver lining in every cloud and it’s up to what you make out of it.

11. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

Do your best to address the problem, but don’t feel bad when things don’t pan 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.

However after a while, I realized no matter what happens, even in the most dire of situations, there is always a way to address it. It’s just 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 beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

12. Pick out the lessons from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

From my situation, I learned:

  • To be more careful when it comes to my personal possessions
  • There is an upside to taking better care of my possessions. In the past I would not think that there is any point to do so, since I assumed they’d be there all the time.
  • How to handle my emotions better
  • How to tackle similar situations next time
  • That if I link my transport card to my bank account in the future, it will allow me to get a refund the next 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 a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way