Making setbacks work for you

Making setbacks work for you

No-one can meet their goals 100% of the time. What happens when you don't? Here are some ideas for turning setbacks into valuable experiences that actually move you closer to, rather than away from, whatever you're trying to achieve.

You know that feeling of despondence when you fall short of your ideal?

Perhaps you've been struggling to get anywhere near meeting your goals for a while. Or maybe you've gone along achieving those goals for a while, and then there's a blip. Either way, you realise you've slipped and that you're not meeting your own expectations for yourself.

What happens?

Chances are, your motivation drops. All you can think about is how far you are from achieving what you want to achieve, so you beat yourself up with a big Guilt Stick. That lowers your motivation even further. It becomes impossible to see how you're going to get back on track.

Well, it doesn't have to be like that. It's possible to turn setbacks and blips into valuable learning experiences. All you need to do is to reframe the way you think about them. Here are some ideas to help you do that:

The value of straying from your goals

The first thing to keep in mind is that setbacks can be great reminders of the value of certain goals. As the Mindfulness Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it: “Sometimes not doing the practice is the practice.”

That might sound a bit strange, so let's illustrate it with a few examples. In the context of meditation, it is not uncommon for people to find that they only realise how valuable their daily meditation practice is when they've missed a couple of sessions and notice themselves feeling more tense and stressed than usual. Similarly, you might only appreciate how good your daily run is making you feel when you've missed a week or so. Or perhaps you've given up alcohol, then “treat” yourself on a special occasion, and realise just how thick-headed and sluggish even a couple of drinks can make you feel the next morning.

In each of these instances, the experience of moving away from the original goal is a powerful demonstration of why you've made that goal for yourself in the first place. If you'd just stuck to your goal all along, you wouldn't have had that reminder. Now you can decide to get back on track with renewed motivation and commitment, because you've realised just how important that goal is.

Focus on what's going right

There's a brilliant line in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: “There's nothing that's wrong with you that what's right with you can't fix.” If you've realised that you've fallen short of your expectations for yourself, then you already have the resources to fix that situation. You need to stop focusing on all of the ways that you have failed to achieve your goals and think about how you are already moving towards them, even in times of setback.

Here's an exercise that will help you to do this:

  • Take a sheet of paper and write the numbers 0-10 in a column on the left-hand side.
  • Think about your goal. What would it look like if you were meeting that goal perfectly, 100% of the time? Try to get a detailed picture of this in your head, then make some notes next to the number 10. 10 encapsulates the perfect achievement of this particular goal. For example, if it is your goal to improve your cardiovascular fitness, meeting this goal perfeclty might mean being able to run a marathon, going on daily runs as part of your training, and so on.
  • Now think about the opposite of that goal. What would it look like if you were as far away from meeting your goal as you could possibly imagine? Again, spend a little time trying to imagine this. Write some notes next to the number 0. 0 is complete and utter failure to meet this goal. Sticking with our example, being at 0 might involve not budging from your sofa and barely being able to walk a few paces without becoming breathless.
  • Where are you currently on this scale of 0-10?
  • Now ask yourself: Why are you at this point on the scale and – this is the important bit – not lower? If you're at 6, what's keeping you from slipping down to a 5? And so on. So if you're cross with yourself because you've only been going for your run twice a week rather than every day, think about why you've been able to manage twice a week? How have you stopped it slipping to just once a week, or not at all?
  • Keep writing down reasons why you're not slipping further down the scale. Think of as many details as you can.
  • (If you're already at 0 on the scale, can you think of any way that things could be even worse? Why aren't they?)

This exercise should help you to become more aware of everything you're already doing to meet your goals. Even if you're falling short of your perfect score of 10, chances are that you're doing lots of things to help you to move towards that perfect score.

Look at small improvements

Sometimes it can feel very daunting to get back on track when you've strayed from your goals because it feels like you've got such a long way to go. So don't think about how you're going to get back to your perfect 10. Think about how you could improve things by just one point along the scale, or even just half a point. Once you start taking small steps back towards your goal, you'll find that they take on their own momentum. Continuing with our example, don't worry about daily runs of marathons for a moment. Think about how you might fit in just one more run a week, or perhaps extend those twice weekly runs by just 5 minutes. Small steps.

Let it go

Perhaps the most important thing that you can do if you feel you've fallen short of your ideals is to draw a line under what has happened, forgive yourself, and move on. The alternative is to focus on your failures, and that rarely leads to better results. If you've had a weekend of bingeing on junkfood when you're supposed to be on a diet, it's tempting to beat yourself up about that and reach for some comfort food to help you feel better. Try, instead, to put what's past behind you and make a fresh start.


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