Do’s and Don’ts

There are some spectacular strategies out there for making setbacks worse, and if we are honest, most of us have indulged in some of them on occasion. In this blog, I’ve identified the most common negative approaches, and below each one offer an antidote. So if you recognise an unhelpful strategy that you are guilty of using, try the alternative and see if it helps!

1. Don’t - catastrophise

Some of us have a tendency to make things worse in our heads, e.g., when something bad happens, we imagine all the negative outcomes or knock on effects that could possibly happen because of this event. Then, we take all these imagined scenarios, and conjure up negative outcomes and knock on impacts that could possibly result if these things were to happen. Before we know it, we are blubbering idiots, curled up in the foetal position, completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the chain of events that haven’t even happened! Ever done this, be honest now?

Do – keep it in perspective

To avoid making a molehill into an imaginary mountain, the alternative is to see what has happened in the context of everything else that is going on in your life, and recognise that it is just a passing disappointment. Career disappointments don’t remove your good health, or strip you of your family or friends, or take your hobbies away.

While obviously having no money has a knock on impact, it’s important to stay motivated so you can move onto the next opportunity rather than make this one even worse than it needs to be.

It’s important to remember that no setback, however bad, ever defines who you are, there is always so much more to you than any one setback in any one area of your life!

2. Don’t - focus only on the problem

There is no better way to render you completely free from any motivation to improve a situation than to put all of your effort, time and attention on what went wrong. Imagine rushing to the airport and finding you missed your flight. To implement this strategy, you should find a seat, pull out all the paperwork, and check all the times to see what went wrong. This is a good time to dig out your diary, and wonder where you didn’t allow enough time, perhaps the taxi, bus or tube took longer than you expected. Maybe there was a hold up at the check in desk. You could even take a little time to consider that this wouldn’t have happened if you had taken a later flight, or travelled on a different day. With this approach, it’s worth considering whether you missed this plane because you are ‘unlucky’. You could go the whole hog and engage your inner victim, start to feel upset and wonder, “Why me!”

You get my drift here, nothing is actually changing, and no steps are being taken to sort the problem out.

Do - ask what can you do about it

If we use the example above of the missed flight, what’s the alternative strategy? Looking at the facts of the situation, you are not on the plane you planned to be, and it’s likely you still need to get to your destination.

So ask yourself, what can you do about it? The answer to this question depends on what you were travelling for and what your personal resources are. You may be in a position to shrug it off and book another flight, if not, it’s always worth throwing yourself at the mercy of the airline. There may be some flexibility, especially if your delay was out of your control. You can explore other modes of transport, cancel your plans, or come up with some alternative creative solutions to the problem.

If you have to give up and go home, it still isn’t worth dwelling on how it happened, other than to make sure you learn any lessons that would prevent it occurring again in the future. Then find a constructive use for the extra time you have just gained to make the best of what started to look like a bad day!

3. Don’t – use the setback to taint the good stuff

An excellent strategy for feeling bad about a setback is to use it to redefine all the good things in your life through a self-crafted filter of negativity. By which I mean, say for example you didn’t get a job you really wanted. Take this fact of not winning that work and add some meaning about how it reflects on you as a human being. Things like being useless, worthless and clueless are all good for this approach.

Now add some wild speculation along the lines of, only these employers had the insight to recognise the deep flaws in you and your abilities. People who have loved your work in the past must be deluded and quite frankly not very good at their jobs. All the friends and family who have supported you in your endeavours must have been having you on.

You can see where this is going. If you really put your back into this one, you can in a very short time come to see your entire existence as a sham with every positive experience a chance occurrence, akin to winning the lottery!

Not a good place to go… ever!

Do – use past positive experiences to recognise this as a temporary setback

This is the exact opposite of the negative strategy above. This involves using the same imaginative abilities, only reversing the focus and direction. By which I mean, instead of holding up this current setback as the defining example, or gold standard, by which you measure everything else, take a few random examples of great memories of past experiences where you have been successful in this area, and compare this current experience with each one. As you do this, you will remind yourself how insignificant this current setback really is, and you will get back in touch with some of the things you really loved doing.

If you find this hard to do, especially when you are feeling a bit bruised, it’s a really good idea to have an achievement file, with a list of your proudest achievements, tucked away somewhere, so you can pull it out in emergencies like this, and browse through the all the good stuff. It’s a brilliant way to get your head back into positive shape for taking the next step.

4. Don’t – believe that this one setback will shape your whole life

Have you ever had that feeling, when something bad has happened, that it’s going to impact every aspect of your life? Occasionally this does indeed happen, but it is by far the exception not the rule. To use this strategy to feel really bad though, it’s important to forget this. To work this one to the hilt, you must forget that you have any other options to try. Erase from your memory any other situations where you have felt like this and the situation has turned out fine. Now just sit and imagine how your whole life, career, social structure and finances are about to crumble around you. See the task of rebuilding a new life from scratch, and take a little time to let this completely overwhelm you.

Dark stuff, eh?

Do – remember that ‘pivotal moments’ are rarely single events!

We all love to identify that point in our life where we changed direction, or found success, or made an important decision. If we are honest though, these key events are generally convenient hooks that make our story telling more exciting. The reality is that the ‘lucky break’, came after years of preparation, training and being in the right place at the right time, before the ‘magic moment’ actually took place.

When we make major life changes because we have been unhappy, the way we talk about coming to this momentous decision indicates how this isn’t really a snap decision, it comes after many frustrations, as in: “It was the straw that broke the camels back.”

So when something goes wrong, even in a big way, remember all those other times when you thought you had reached a brick wall and it turned out to be a minor blip, or even worked to your advantage.

Remember also that it’s very rare for one single event to change your life. If you think about your progress as being like a speeding train, it takes a lot to slow it down or stop it. Imagine setbacks as flies hitting the windscreen! Splat!

5. Don’t – use a setback as an excuse to trawl through bad memories

I have to say this used to be a speciality of mine. If I was embarrassed or had made a mistake, I was spectacularly talented at finding other similar examples from the past. I would take a careful inventory of them and maximise the impact by going right back and reliving each one, until I felt the embarrassment or shame of each one once more. If I really wanted to indulge myself, I would imagine an audience of disappointed and unhappy people looking at me, gently shaking their heads.

This is a really effective way to feel as bad as you can about a minor setback.

Do – ask what you can learn from the setback, or find the funny side

We don’t learn nearly half as much when things go well as we do when they don’t! So, instead of bedding down to feel as bad as you can about a setback, embrace it as a learning opportunity.

Always assume the mantle of feedback not failure. You can do something with feedback, failure is an emotional dead end. Once you have identified any lessons, if you still feel bad, look for the funny side. You’ve heard the saying: “One day I’ll look back at this and laugh.” Why wait?

In Conclusion

This has been a slightly tongue in cheek look at the do’s and don’ts of dealing with setbacks, and if a health warning is necessary, please do not try out any of the ‘don’t strategies detailed above, even in the spirit of scientific experiment. Do try out the antidotes though, until they become your habitual responses to setbacks, and use them as your setback fly swat.

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