Coping with Setbacks & Disappointment

When you are working toward a positive change in your life, setbacks such as loss, failure and rejection can make you feel discouraged, frustrated, anxious and sad. Too much of this can lead to self-doubt, depression, and getting completely off track. It is important to understand that setbacks and disappointments are unavoidable and perhaps even a necessary part of life. If you look at setbacks as bumps in the road rather than roadblocks, you’ll persist toward your goal and you may eventually succeed.

Setbacks are Unavoidable
If we were to chart the change process, it would almost never look like a straight line between two points. Instead, it would tend to look more like a mountain with high points and valleys on the way to the peak.

  • Setbacks are part of the natural process of change and may make change more resilient and lasting.
  • Your overall chance of encountering a setback is high.
  • You are most likely to encounter a setback in the first few months after making a change.

Setbacks are Opportunities for Learning
Consider a child learning to walk. Every child’s first steps are clumsy and tentative and most will fall down many, many times before mastering the skill. Every time the child falls down, she learns some important information about gravity, body mechanics, and navigating different surfaces. She also learns that falling down is not so bad and can be tolerated. She may get good at walking on flat surfaces, but she will probably fall again when she tries her skills with hills, slick floors, and uneven terrain. Fortunately, despite the scrapes and bruises, most of us persist and eventually become master walkers who rarely fall down.

Navigating Setbacks
After experiencing a few setbacks, you may discover a pattern to your behavior. By paying attention to your setbacks, you can learn to identify the warning signs that a setback is around the corner and take action to minimize the damage. Some examples of warning signs include:

  • Multiple or overwhelming life stressors
  • Major life changes
  • Unpleasant emotions such as boredom, apathy or irritability
  • Feeling overconfident, excessive risk taking, or setting unrealistic goals
  • Avoidance or refusing to acknowledge or deal with problems; ignoring warning signs and triggers
  • Stopping medical treatment, counseling or medications on one’s own or against professional advice
  • Isolating self or refusing to ask for help when needed
  • Exposing yourself to people, places and things that trigger old habits
  • Not taking care of self; changes in eating and sleeping patterns, personal hygiene, or energy levels
  • Lack of routine and structure in life
  • Engaging in obsessive behaviors like working too much, gambling, sexual excess, abusing substances, overeating or over-exercising

Coping with a Setback
Anticipate that you will experience setbacks and plan on how you will deal with them. Don’t give up; instead practice damage control. It’s natural to feel disappointed, but it isn’t helpful to feel discouraged or devastated. Give yourself some time to deal with the problem and try to look at the big picture. Don’t lay blame, take personal responsibility and ask yourself what you can do to get back on track.

If you are dealing with a setback or disappointment and having trouble getting back on track, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you take stock of your situation, cope with your feelings, and generate ideas for getting back on track and staying on track. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. Please also visit my Kansas City local resources website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

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