How to deal with setbacks


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“Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

There is a lot to learn from this ancient Japanese saying: no matter what life throws at you, never give up, get back up and keep going.

The road to success is infamously paved with failure. Every success story is built on a foundation of countless paragraphs of failure. We are, almost, defined by how we react to setbacks. Some of us prosper when faced with crushing setbacks, responding with resilience to overcome challenges, while some of us break under the pressure.  

Dealing with setbacks is an important and unavoidable part of life. Changing our mindset to a more positive one provides us with the necessary tools to rise above our setbacks.

Psychologist Stephen Joseph believes there are three broad ways of dealing with setbacks:

  1. Problem-focused coping
  2. Emotion-focused coping
  3. Avoidance coping

Those who deal with setbacks with problem-focused coping endeavour to tackle challenges by finding solutions, focusing their attention on the problem immediately before them, ignoring other tasks which would only divide their attention.

Problem-focused copers are not afraid to ask for help when they need it, nor do they allow distractions to derail them from redressing the problem at hand.

Emotion-focused copers focus more on controlling their own emotions, which involves a lot of discussion. Talking our way through difficult experiences in the confidence of supportive friends and family can be a great boost to overcoming challenges. This may be especially true when we are overwhelmed with negative emotions.

Externalising our experiences through conversation allows us to visualise the problem, to designate what is the heart of the problem (laying blame), and what is the best solution (praise) more objectively. Pursuing new perspectives to a problem with external influences allows us to highlight new insights into what may be the best path to overcome the setback.

One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever.”
Linda Lambert

Avoidance-coping is the most appealing strategy for most: disengage from the situation by avoiding dealing with problems, often turning to alcohol, or any other vice, to distract ourselves from the uncomfortable feeling of failure. While this may seem appealing on the surface, avoiding dealing with your setbacks prevents you from pushing through to the other side; avoidance prevents us from realising our full potential.

Stephen Joseph’s conclusion is that problem-focused copers are the best equipped to overcome setbacks:

“They look at the situation from different angles, seek solutions, and move forward in new directions. That’s not to say that sometimes it is not also important to deal with ones’ emotions.

“If we don’t deal with our emotions it can be hard to think clearly about our problems, and when faced with a setback that’s ultimately what we need to do.”

There is a direct correlation between confidence, resilience and dealing with setbacks.  

Typically, when we have a higher confidence in ourselves, we are more likely to respond positively to setbacks, feel resourceful in finding solutions and feel resilient to cope with pressure.

In contrast, when our confidence is lower, for example,on the first day of a new job, when we believe we are lacking in experience, this can affect how we respond to pressure.

However, the relationship between confidence and resilience is more complex. We have identified three different types of confidence;

  1. Self-Confidence – this relates to self-belief and self-worth
  2. Task Confidence – relates to confidence in our personal capability to successfully complete a task
  3. Social confidence – relates to how confident we feel within a social setting

In terms of how we deal with setbacks, Task Confidence (Personal Capability) is more relevant here. However, we should not confuse confidence with capability.

We can feel confident and lack capability and vice versa, lack confidence but be highly capable.  Low task confidence is often the thing which holds us back and interferes with how we deal with setbacks. This is when we make excuses and find reasons why we can’t as opposed to why we can.

The good news is that we can strengthen our task confidence and learn to build resilience in the face of setbacks. Engage provides a robust, clear framework on how to achieve this.

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