Getting Past Setbacks: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Adversity

Getting Past Setbacks: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Adversity

Things get screwed up sometimes. The best laid plans get derailed. Life throw us curveballs. Setbacks are a natural part of life. But we can, and must, persevere.

Sam teaches gym. He runs regularly. He’s always climbing ladders, and working in the yard. A few years ago, he stood up to get the remote, ended up tripping on the rug and spraining his ankle.

In college, Sam put a promising golf career on hold, with a torn rotator cuff–and after surgery and physical therapy decided to forgo his PGA dreams.

I changed jobs a few months ago. I was working 65+ hours a week, during the transition as I tried to balance the demands of two careers at once. Everything went according to plan and it was a positive change, except my workouts, which took a major decline.

Just today Sam ran into his friend, who’s a police officer in town. He hadn’t seen him for a while and was like, “how have you been?”

He told Sam, he had just come back on the job after finishing chemo. 11 months ago, he had been diagnosed with cancer, given two weeks to live, and somehow miraculously survived.

We’re listening in the news to tales from Hurricane Harvey, Irma, the earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico…Worrying as we see friends try to rebuild lives after losing practically everything.

Life is full of setbacks. Some are physical, some are emotional…some are just well, life.  We have a plan, we’re sticking to it. We’re motivated, we’re succeeding. Everything’s going well, and then, bam.

The best laid plans get derailed and we face a setback. None of us have a crystal ball. None of us know what’s coming down the pipeline. But here’s the deal, after a setback, as minor as a sprained ankle, or as major as a hurricane or cancer, we have to figure out how to overcome.

There are a few tricks I’ve found to overcoming setbacks to get back in the game after life throws something wild your way.

1. Give It Time

Some things are just crappy. Illness sucks. Things like watching a loved one battle cancer, or when someone passes away, well, it’s just garbage. One of the worst, most helpless moments in life. It’s hard to have perspective when things are really bad.

Time doesn’t really heal all wounds, but time does lessen the pain. Of course when you’ve had a dream derailed, or faced a horrible situation, you feel like, “it’s never going to feel better.” To be honest, some pain we carry with us forever–but if we want to rebuild and start to overcome a setback, then time helps significantly.

We won’t feel better overnight when something terrible happens. We may wonder why the bad thing happened. Anger bubbles up, we feel bitter or sad and depressed…but after time, we’ll gain some perspective. The sun will keep coming up.

2. Do One Thing

So, when a setback comes along, make it a goal to do just one thing each day to move yourself along. This might mean doing your PT exercises after an injury each day. It might mean making a phone call to resolve a financial issue. It might mean getting back on the treadmill for 10 minutes, or starting your workout goal over from scratch.

Whatever the thing is that will get you back to where you’d like to be–do it. Do that one thing every day, even if it’s just ten minutes. Sometimes it’s all we can do to get out of bed and get dressed. If that’s the one thing you can do to move closer to your goals do it.

Once you’re doing your “one thing” for a week, move on to a second thing. If you’ve worked out for ten minutes each day, lengthen it to 15. Once you’ve gone around the block, start to go around twice. Build up. When you start out, just tackle one thing, one day at a time.

3. Plan Weekly Goals

As you start to come back after a setback, setup weekly goals. Don’t look at the big picture at first, because big pictures can be daunting. Don’t think about running a marathon again. Try not to think about how to be at the top of your game. Literally, just focus on what you’re going to do for the next week to move you incrementally closer to your goal.

Weekly goals can be small–tiny even. It might just be to make a few phone calls. Update your resume after a job loss, or make three connections. It might be to go to the gym a few times after an injury or a slump. It might be to simply start to practice a few self-care actions after you’ve overcome an illness.

When the worst is behind you, and you’re trying to rebuild after a setback, break the big picture WAY down. Break it into 52 pieces if you have to. What can you do just this week? Don’t worry about how to get back to where you were by next year. Focus only on the next seven days.

4. Celebrate Success

Every time you experience a success, celebrate. This is especially tough for athletes, or people who have experienced major injuries. When you used to run miles, it’s hard to get excited about going up a flight of stairs, right?

But each small victory will build. Really, there are no small victories–each win takes you closer to your goal. Each step moves you forward. If you aren’t moving backward, or standing still you’re making progress, even tiny progress, and that deserves to be celebrated.

Moreover, find a motivator that works for you. If you like the support of others, post on social media or share with a friend. It’s okay to even tell your spouse or your buddy, “remind me that I’m doing a good job,” and then celebrate the validation. If you’re motivated by money, put a dollar aside each time you achieve a victory. If you’re motivated by stickers, shopping, checkmarks on the calendar–find what works for you and celebrate!

5. Look for the Lesson in Setbacks

Every situation has a lesson. I used to think this was kind of a “woo woo” theory. Like, eyeroll worthy. There’s nothing quite as irritating when something bad happens than to have some “sunny person” tell you it’s a learning moment.

But one of the fundamentals of building grit, stamina and success is to find the lesson in everything. Every experience we have contains a learning opportunity (even if it’s a cautionary tale of what NOT to do next time). When we extract lessons from experience and apply the lessons forward, we become tougher, better, stronger and more able to tackle things that come our way.

So when something bad happens, look for the learning opportunity. What can this teach you about yourself? Maybe illness increases your awareness of your body and helps you focus strongly on your health. Perhaps a financial setback or major loss helps you appreciate those in your life who lend a helping hand. Perhaps it teaches you how to be accepting of assistance. Setbacks teach us how to rebuild.

6. Stay Positive

This is another one of those “ugh” sentiments, but it’s so true. In life positive and happy people are that way because they have an internal locus of control. They don’t believe things happen to them, they believe they make things happen. Of course they still go through earthquakes, illnesses and car accidents, just like the rest of us, but they know even when something happens beyond our control it’s not because the universe is “unfair” or because they’re the victim.

Instead, they face a situation and look at the factors they CAN control. Crappy things happen to everyone, but not everyone reacts in the same way. Great things happen to everyone too, but there are those who see it, and those who don’t.

Each of us has a happiness set point, or what’s called hedonic adaptation. Lottery winners and those face a major accident return to the same levels of happiness after a year (for real). We’re as happy or as crappy as we want to be, no matter what life throws our way.

Our police officer friend was happy to show Sam pictures of his new puppy and talk about his plans for the future and how grateful he is now for each and every day after beating his cancer.

After minor or major injuries, illness and disasters, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning–it’s what you do with those 24 hours that counts.

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