The last couple of years have been rough for so many of us. Some of us were trapped by anxiety, some lost their jobs and others needed to postpone their plans. It is impossible to compare individual hardships, but we can agree that we’ve all experienced one or more setbacks over the last twelve months.
Somehow, despite all of these events, we all know at least one person who in times of crises, did not only manage to cope, but seemed to grow. Setbacks in any form, a global crisis, a disease, the death of a close relative, or any other traumatic experience can offer a chance for growth and personal development. And while there is nothing more profound to say that in every crisis lies an opportunity, I do want to provide you with the tools to see – and use – this chance.
I already wrote an article about failing for this blog and you might wonder what the difference between failing and a setback is. My line would be that failing means that you at least actively tried to succeed, while a setback is something out of your control. And it is this loss of control which drives us mad.
Before we move on, I would like to add that the presented advice is on how to deal with individuals’ setbacks and your own mindset. Structural problems such as homophobia or sexism need to be addressed on a structural level and cannot be solved by an individual following this piece of advice such as mind-setting. To be more precise, we don’t solve homophobia by just wearing pride colors, even though it can create a feeling of community, but rather through lawmaking and political action.
How negative experiences can stoke creative energy
First of all, even this loss of control can be a trigger for growth. Many artists attest their most creative moments to personal setbacks. Eric Clapton’s most popular song Tears in Heaven was created after his son died in a tragic accident. It is the raw emotion in the song which puts a spell on us. The book Vincent by Joey Goebel explores a world where young artists are deliberately subjected to personal misery in order to inspire them to greatness.
While this is of course a dystopia and artists do not actively seek out misfortune, these examples provide a first indication on how to deal with setbacks: turning your anger and fear into expression.
Even Johnny Rotten famously once said “anger is an energy”. Don’t bottle up your energy. Put it to good use.
Even more powerful than the expression of your emotions during a setback can be an active mind-setting. In his song “I think I call it morning”, Gil Scott Heron contemplates on his individual experience as a black man in the 70s in America. “Why should I survive on sadness? Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness, knowing that I got to live on?” Gil Scott Heron concludes that in order to survive his personal experience, he actively needed to change how he saw these experiences.
The issue with powerful tools such as mind-setting is often the entry point. Where do you start? Before we dive deeper into this process and its adjacent tools, I want to stress another point: in case of severe trauma caused by setbacks, please visit a specialist. While there might be a stigma for many of us to visit a specialist, try to think about it as a broken leg: you would also refer to a specialist, wouldn’t you?
Process of personal growth during a setback
I developed a canvas to guide you through the four phases of setting your mindset for personal growth. You find the canvas at the end of this article, as a template and with an example at hand.
What is happening to you? Write down the situation and how it makes you feel. Do you see any behavior changes in your day-to-day life? What emotion do you feel? Explore it. You can also ask those around you if they’ve noticed any change in your behavior.
Why do you feel this way? Explore the feeling further. Write down your answer. What are triggers for you? What kind of cues create a strong emotional response?
This exercise of digging deeper is like saving a Word document. It is not helpful in a situation of a setback to always ponder on your observation. Focus on the way forward, not on the same emotions and going around in circles. Only then can we make progress.
3. Looking forward
Personally, I have identified three possible avenues to change my mindset during a setback:
While dealing with a setback such as a disease you often realize how thankful you are for your partner or the friends around you. Things that were a given before suddenly show their clear value to you. Try to integrate more of these things into your life. Let the people you are thankful for hear and feel it. You will find that this can provide a lot of energy.
Take your time and enjoy the beauty of small things. Live in the moment. When was the last time you went out in nature and just observed the self-organization of all the little things. When did you really enjoy food?
If you are in the middle of a setback, a lot is happening to you. Pull the brake lever, hold your breath, and observe the world around you. What do you see, feel, experience?
You will see that your focus is shifting away from the dreadful view in the future to the nice things right in front of you.
This can be for instance, taking more time for walks. You just experienced a setback; it is time for a change.
What have you always wanted to do? You cannot change your setback, since a core feature of a setback is that it is out of our control. Focus on the things you can change. Learn a new skill and shift your focus towards something new. If you have a medical condition, you might not be able to change your course of therapy. But it might help to focus on your nutrition, because this is within your power.
Change does take time. Try out different rituals in the three categories over the course of 1-3 months and see if they help you. If they don’t help that is fine, since it definitely takes time to adapt to a new situation. What is important is that you enjoy these new routines. This is why I like to call them rituals. Did these rituals help you? Can you observe change in your feelings and actions?
To end, I would really stress again that growing out of setbacks takes as long as it takes. There are no shortcuts and the route is an individual one. Being patient and at the same time being persistent should guide you through the whole process. At the same time, being patient with yourself and persistent in your rituals are the first step on building a personal wall against setbacks, something similar to resilience.