Turn a Setback Into a Fast-Forward
When an unexpected rewind gets in the way of your goal, don’t get mad. Get gritty.
You thought you’d get married by a certain age, but you just ended a long-term relationship. You trained to run your first race, and the event got canceled. You’re on a two-week vegan-eating streak, but then? You’re halfway done with a bean burrito when you realize it has cheese in it.
Unexpected hurdles of any size can make you feel anxious, overwhelmed and even paralyzed, says Carrie Jackson Cheadle, a mental-performance coach and the author of “On Top of Your Game” and “Rebound.” Why? When things don’t go your way, you may feel out of control, says Jackson Cheadle.
“When one bad thing happens, it can send you down a slippery slope of negative thinking,” explains Jehan Sparks, PhD, a behavioral scientist specializing in judgment and decision-making at UCLA. You go on high alert for anything else that could be considered bad; you doubt yourself in ways that you wouldn’t have before; and you internalize, even catastrophize, the moment. In other words? “You spiral,” says Sparks.
You don’t have to, though. “A stressor doesn’t become stressful until you decide you can’t handle the situation in front of you,” says Jackson Cheadle. That means you have all the power. You can choose how to view and act on setbacks — and you can even use them to propel you to greater success. Here’s how.
“A stressor doesn’t become stressful until you decide you can’t handle the situation in front of you.”
Carrie Jackson Cheadle
1. Feel all the feels.
“Don’t be sad.” “You shouldn’t let this frustrate you.” Sound like you? “It’s normal to fight your first response to a negative event, but categorizing those emotions as ‘bad’ slows your bounce-back.” says Jackson Cheadle. “You have to allow yourself to feel your feelings so that you can move through them,” she says.
There’s even research that shows accurately identifying your emotions can speed the rebound process, adds Jackson Cheadle, which is why she recommends doing a web search for “list of emotions” and using a source with 50 or so examples to help you nail down what you’re feeling. “Instead of clumping emotions into these giant categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you can say, ‘Oh, what I’m actually feeling is desperate,’ or, ‘What I’m feeling is despair.’” Pinpointing that specific emotion — and telling yourself that it’s OK to feel it — can help you psychologically digest what’s happened and recover faster, she explains.
2. Accept and act.
If you’ve ever done improv, you know the “Yes, and” rule: No matter what someone introduces into a scene, you always accept and build on it. “If someone brings up aliens and you try to go against it, the whole thing falls apart,” says Jackson Cheadle. The same goes for processing disappointments. If you shut down and think, “No way,” you get stuck. Accept what’s happened and determine what you can do next, and you’ve primed yourself to get back in the game.
Sparks says that adopting this perspective helps you build and maintain a growth mindset, or the belief that you can learn from and adapt to tough situations instead of thinking that your capabilities are fixed. For example, if you lose your job, rather than decide you can’t hack it in your field, you might list ways you can strengthen your skill set in your newfound free time. If you roll an ankle a week into your new running routine, instead of giving up the sport, you could commit to doing exercises that will help improve your balance once you get back on the road.
This kind of reframing is also an important way to strengthen your grit, adds Sparks. “Gritty people tend to be successful because they’re super resilient to setbacks. They learn from negative experiences.”
3. Highlight what’s going well.
Just as pessimism can snowball, good vibes can gain momentum too. “If you actively list positive things in your life or things you’re grateful for, especially when you’re going through something negative, you’ll start noticing other positive things,” says Sparks. Thinking of unexpected advantages to your new situation — perhaps a canceled race means you can run a virtual one along a route of your choice, or moving in with your parents means you get to save more money for a nicer apartment — can be another way to get on a positivity roll, she adds. Both actions create confidence and motivation to help you get back on track and try again.
What’s important, says Sparks, is waiting to deploy these tactics until after you’ve felt your feelings but before you spiral into negative thought patterns. “Trying this too soon can backfire, because it feels inauthentic,” she says. Remember, you have to take note of bummer emotions before you can take a more objective view and see the upsides that can help you get unstuck.
4. Reboot your goal.
No matter what you want to achieve, when you’re thrown off course, you must recalibrate your goal. “Your brain likes to hold on to that original expectation,” says Jackson Cheadle, even after the circumstances change. “But if you don't adjust your goal, no matter what you do, you’re going to feel like you failed.”
How you adjust depends on what you want to do and what motivates you, she says. You may need to shift your timeline, so instead of taking that trip with your friends this year, you aim to go bigger and better next year. Or you may need to create a schedule you can stick to, planning to go on one date a week in order to get back out there. No matter how you reset, the key is to write the new goal down as well as the exact steps you’ll take to accomplish it, says Jackson Cheadle. This simple act engages the action-oriented part of your brain and can significantly increase your likelihood of success, she says.
One final, uplifting thought: While it may not seem like it in the moment, unanticipated backslides can actually give you a performance advantage, leading to what experts call “post-traumatic growth.” In a 2019 study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, researchers looked at junior scientists who suffered setbacks early in their careers. The researchers found that 10 years later, the scientists consistently outperformed their peers, publishing papers that were cited more often and had a higher impact in their field. One theory, according to lead study author Dashun Wang, PhD, is that difficult experiences may instill strength and resolve. And perhaps, thanks to those hard moments, says Wang, “the scientists appeared to become a better version of themselves.”
Here’s to using adversity to your advantage.
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi