This year I’ve experienced a constant stream of setbacks, of varying degrees of seriousness: minor administrative life hassle, major family tragedy, missed career opportunities, painful emotional entanglements, idiotic breakages, unexpected financial demands.
At times, it’s felt as if the universe was sending me regular doses of deliberate punishment.
Each problem on its own wouldn’t be so bad. Especially since I recognise that I’m actually pretty lucky—I have my life mostly together, along with strong coping strategies and a solid support network.
But when problems come thick and fast—and, this year, another one kept appearing before I’d had time to process the last one—it can be too much for anyone to handle. When you’re already struggling, the smallest setback can tip the scales and dump thousands of final straws onto the camel’s back*.
*with hindsight, putting all those straws on scales above a camel was an avoidable mistake
How to bounce back better…
So perhaps it’s a major design flaw in the universe, but everything doesn’t happen exactly the way we want, at the precise time we would prefer. What’s funny is that even though I know this to be true in general, I’m still terribly surprised whenever any particular setback shows up. Whether a minor inconvenience or a major depressive spiral, I’m often left reeling by unanticipated obstacles.
I’ve recently decided it’s time to develop an improved process for recovering from such setbacks.
My existing process is… not great. It includes elements like cursing, shouting, looking sadly out of windows, complaining, binge-eating, and thinking about writing terrible poetry (but never actually inflicting that on the world, mercifully). I don’t recommend any of this.
Of course, what you need to do will depend entirely on the particular circumstances of whatever setbacks come your way. But here are some lessons I’ve learned lately, which will hopefully be helpful to you too:
1. Let Go of What Might Have Been
It’s easy to imagine a universe where this setback didn’t happen. You got the job, or secured the date, or you didn’t drop your wallet on the way to work, or you packed your suitcase better so you didn’t break your laptop during a five-minute walk down a flat street (this particular one might have happened to me very recently).
But we only get to live in one universe, and it’s this one. Unless we’re able to learn specific lessons from these regretful thoughts (like: pack your suitcase more carefully in future, you fool), then they serve no purpose.
We must accept that this setback happened—which is far easiersaid than done, particularly for larger setbacks. Acceptance is tough, and everybody’s process will be different. I find it helpful to consciously sit and feel the emotion (regret, sadness, anger, frustration)—then clear my thoughts, breathe, and acknowledge that the bad thing has happened and there’s nothing I can do to change that—I can only change my response to it.
2. Ask: Can It Be Fixed?
With the initial wave of emotion out of the way, it may be possible to see a comparatively straightforward solution.
Sometimes things are simply over—a failed job application is going to stay failed, and turning up at their office to desperately sing the company song isn’t going to improve things.
But if we’ve received an unexpected bill, or broken something, or upset somebody, then perhaps we can simply take action: pay the bill, fix or replace the thing, or have a conversation to clear the air. Sometimes the situation may not be fixable, exactly, but perhaps it can be improved. If there’s some practical action to be taken, then do it.
The sooner we put the difficulty behind us, the sooner we can get on with our lives. (And ignoring a lingering problem will only make things worse.)
If there’s not an immediate action to be taken, it may be helpful to revisit the “let go” stage above. For a big setback, it could take many revisits.
3. Find Support, if you Need It
If you’ve stubbed your toe, you might be able to vent via a pithy tweet or a text. But if you’ve suffered a serious setback, don’t be afraid to lean on friends, family or even appropriate professionals for help. Carrying it alone only makes it harder to deal with.
Perhaps it would help to find somebody who’s been through this themselves. For example, after your first rejection from a publisher, it might be reassuring to hear from a veteran writer that this is totally normal.
It often feels as if we’re the only person ever to suffer a misfortune, which is why it’s so valuable to build community to share our joys and struggles with.
4. Find Some Joy
As famous comedy character Alan Partridge says, we need some positives after a disappointment.
It doesn’t have to be big, but finding some joy will distract us from the desire to wallow in self-pity and remind us that there’s still some good in the world, even if this particular good thing didn’t work out this time. Time for a treat, scheduling something to look forward to, taking time with a friend or family or pet, or whatever will cheer us up.
5. Reconsider Your Goals
Persistence is often crucial, and—once we’re ready—it’s good to get back on the horse and try again, aiming to achieve whatever it was we didn’t quite manage this time.
But sometimes a failure is a good moment to reconsider the direction we’re travelling in. Do we actually want this thing, or have our priorities changed?
There’s no need to go too deeply into it; too much questioning can be paralysing. However, a few minutes of reflection is always helpful for allowing ourselves the possibility of change.
6. Take New Action
Hopefully we’ve accepted the loss, done our best to improve the situation, found some support, and done some nice things to cheer ourselves up. Now it’s time to look to the future and actually take action to get whatever we want.
That might mean applying for more jobs, rebooting or replacing a project, finding another date, whatever it takes. If there’s something we want, and it’s worth trying (again) to get it.
All Our Problems Are Solved Forever (Ha!)
Obviously, I’d like to wish you a life free of setbacks, but we all know that’s impossible. I’m trying to move forward in the certain knowledge that more things will go wrong… and that hopefully I’ll be better placed to handle it when they do.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.
Only one laptop was harmed during the production of this post.
Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)
Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.
Read the whole series on Anxiety here.