Dealing With Life’s Small (And Not So Small) Setbacks

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Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat.  It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only  by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.

Failure (or the perception of failure) is something we all must come to terms with. Businesses and relationships fail to make it, targets are missed, and expectations dashed. However, failure and disappointment are part of the human experience and in order to achieve the goals in life we set ourselves, failure and setback are sure to be part of the process. However,  we don’t often allow ourselves the luxury of being able to fail in order to succeed and,  thinking like this, we lose the chance to learn valuable lessons. There is a lot to be said for the thought that there are no failures in life, just successes and learning experiences. Sometimes we make mistakes and others let us down and it is important to realise that this is possible without damning ourselves. When we do, the danger is that when we revert to negative thinking patterns when we experience failure or disappointment, we often attach those feelings to our general view of ourselves and we become cognitively and emotionally unhealthy. I have worked with many clients who feel that failure defines them but I always say that even if you have had a setback, you are not a failure as a person. However, it is easy to think this at times but understanding that failure is all part of the exciting world we live in can open up a new healthier way of looking at things.

Accepting that Failure and Disappointment exist

We live in a world of perfectionist thinking. The world’s media bombard us with perfect images of people situations and life in general, giving the general impression that life is easy under most conditions. We are expected to be as perfect as possible in the workplace and juggle this with the perfect relationship. Even in the majority of schools, competitive sports have been pushed out of the curriculum to avoid children “failing”.  In all of these scenarios, failure is seen as unacceptable, something to be avoided at all costs or only experienced by “weak” people. However, as we all know, life is difficult, and we will all need to deal with failure at one stage of our lives but there is a positive side to failure and it can hold the key to success. Failure, taken the right way can be an aid to personal development, growth and learning. In Eastern philosophies, good and bad, life and death, success and failure are given equal weight because they are part of the natural cycle of things. The problem is not the event but our reactions to them. This is in total contrast to our western view of things.

What happens when Failure happens?

Failure can trigger many different emotions and they range on a spectrum between healthy and unhealthy. The unhealthy emotions usually tend to be driven by beliefs that will make you feel stuck, hopeless and unable to move. The healthy emotions will make you feel pain and stress and cause you to reflect but will allow you to look at the failure objectively and move on and there is usually a process that needs to be worked through to get to this stage. Firstly, the unhealthy emotions can bring a numbness, denial and a feeling of disbelief, even sometimes feeling no emotion at all. All showing that failure was not factored in. Not showing any reaction to failure is also unhealthy and could show that something deeper is at work. This initial shock should last a few days at most and then the negative emotions can be felt. This is a vital experience and a natural one.  It is normal to feel out of sorts and vulnerable during this stage and even at this stage, it is hard to distinguish healthy and unhealthy reactions so it important is allow feelings to come out and seek support from friends, loved ones or a professional. It is also normal to experience a limited period of irrationality as the failure is accepted and worked through. If any part of this process lingers, professional help should be sought.

Deeper feelings after Failure

Anxiety:  Anxiety is an unhealthy response to threat or danger. After failure, there may be the fear of further failure and this can exaggerate emotions. The opposite of this is concern. Even though both are fear-based emotions, one is immobilising and the other is realistic. Anxiety can be extremely negative for recovery and can cause feelings of hopelessness, lack of coping skills and feelings that running away is the best option. Anxiety can be tackled by facing the things that caused the anxiety in the first place and changing thinking patterns if needed.

Depression: Depression can occur when failure keeps us stuck in negativity and the future seems hopeless. We see the failure in the terms of loss and apply the feelings felt from the failure to ourselves and our abilities. It is easy during this phase to ruminate, dwell on past failures and an imagined future of hopelessness. Depression is the natural consequence of not dealing with anxiety and are often experienced together, maybe in the form of a vicious circle when a sufferer becomes anxious about being depressed. It is safe to say that sadness is a very appropriate feeling after failure and should not be assumed depressive. The difference is that sadness can still allow us to see the future as hopeful.

How to accept Failure

Accepting failure means accepting the very thing that makes us human: our own fallibility. No-one is perfect and despite what we sometimes think, perfection doesn’t exist. Striving for excellence and to be as good as we can exists but perfection means that nothing better is possible. Many who believe that they have reached the level when nothing can be better and on the same level as those who believe that nothing worse can happen. Life teaches us that something better or worse can always happen. Neither of these views are consistent with reality.  The process of accepting failure can be looked at from three angles: Failure, failing and the individual’s role in the process. Failure is tangible. It is easy to find evidence to tell us that we have failed. We didn’t reach the target at work, the relationship ended, we still have that weight on. However, we are not so good at recognising when we are failing. We are taught to keep going, everything will be ok as long as we see it through. Only weak people give up. Persistence is a strength. We have heard it all and all heard it. However, being focussed on a goal should not mean that the option of stopping at some point and trying something else should be out of the question. That is where the individual’s role comes in. How far down this line people go is individual and the decision to quit often comes too late. If you feel that the process is failing, it is very important to  ask yourself, perhaps with professional help, whether decisions have to be made.

How to deal with Failure

It is only when failure is accepted and attitudes towards it are changed, will it become a catalyst for success. When this happens, fear is reduced and creative ability comes through. Fear of failure can also be reduced by letting go of unhealthy demands concerning success or failure. In doing so, motivation can come for the right reasons, that is to want to do something rather than must do it. Letting go of the demand that you must succeed enables you to look at things in a more constructive, objective way. Look at these tips for overcoming failure and learning from the experience.

Be honest with yourself : This is essential if lessons are to be learnt. Blaming others, situations or conditions will not help and will reinforce dysfunctional thinking. Without accepting your role in the failure, no learning can be had.

Feel the emotion: It is important to realise that with any setback comes the accompanying emotions. Feeling these is human and natural and should be embraced. A period of time should be taken to feel these emotions but it is also important to keep them realistic and not catastrophise them. Once this process is over, you can move on to learning and planning.

Learn: Once you are in the position to do so, the setback can be reviewed and lessons constructively drawn from it. Working on the basis that no-one is perfect, it is important to continue assessing personal responsibility. What could I have done differently? Were my expectations unrealistic?

Plan: What do you do with the lessons learnt? What better than to develop a contingency plan to cope next time? Do you need additional skills, more help, a change in thinking? Also learn the signs that tell when action needs to be taken. Am I failing? Are we failing? What can we do? What do I need to make a decision?.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Marty

    Nice article.

    Athletics can be a great teacher. A truly competitive athlete takes loss a different way. He/she assesses weaknesses and works hard in the off season to become stronger.

    Some say the difference between losing and winning is trying one more time.

    In reality results are way above our pay grade. Attitude and effort is what we control. If we get up everyday enthusiastically and give all out effort, we win.

  2. Viv

    A very helpful article. Working with adults who frequently label themselves as ‘failures’ can be draining and much time is spent in suggesting failure in itself is a sign of progress. This article will certainly help me in my future dealings with these negatively programmed adults and hopefully give them a newborn hope. Thank you.