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How to cope with a personal setback

At some stage in our careers or personal lives, we all experience setbacks - the rejection of a proposal, the loss of a job, the failure to get a salary increase or promotion, the death of a partner. The key in overcoming any setback is to understand the range of emotions that accompany such incidents, and to cope with them, using our knowledge of these emotional stages to guide in a positive way our behaviour, and to return once more to a state of normality. In essence, overcoming setbacks means motivating oneself after having successfully negotiated an unpleasant period of demotivation...

1. Know that we all react differently to setbacks.

A setback is an incident that checks our progress and brings our momentum to a grinding and usually disappointing halt. Our self-esteem can deflate; our confidence and motivation hit rock bottom. People respond differently. Some fall apart; others get back to work immediately; some turn to drink, become depressive, withdrawn, angry, and non-productive, the setback affecting all areas of their lives for some time. One’s degree of maturity, particularly in terms of emotional intelligence, becomes a vital factor in successfully overcoming the personal impact of a major disappointment.

2. Work through the stages of emotional turmoil after a setback.

In 'Emotional Intelligence at Work', US psychologist Hendrie Weisinger identifies seven sequential post-setback stages common to most people. He says that, following a setback, ‘you need to experience and manage each stage, successfully moving through each one. Failure to do so keeps you stuck in a particular stage and therefore that much further from your comeback.’

The sequence of stages is not set in stone. You might experience several at once; you might flip-flop between stages; you might return to one already passed. But, says Weisinger, it is essential that you work thoroughly through each stage…

  1. Disbelief - overcome it.

The first reaction has been likened to a lull before an emotional storm. ‘This isn’t really happening to me. I can’t believe this.’ It is a buffer between the shock of learning and the flood of powerful emotions that follow. The first productive step in making a comeback is to acknowledge gently the reality of the setback, assess the situation accurately, and know the feelings you will normally experience as a consequence…

  1. Anger - deal with it.

An anger feedback loop that feeds on itself begins to form , making you feel worse as the reality of the setback sets in. ‘It’s so unfair. I’m really annoyed. I hate Jack and the way he treats my proposals.’ You complain, feel bitter, and often expect others’ support and sympathy. Know that this is a natural emotion at this stage and try to defuse it through some kind of physical activity - e.g. write a mock letter to Jack, telling him it’s the worst decision you’ve come across, and what’s wrong with the company - then burn it. Or undertake other forms of anger-dissipation such as vigorous exercise.

  1. Yearning for the good old days - which won’t get you far.

Nostalgic thoughts of yesteryear are usually the next phase. They help you to feel good; but this desire to turn back time is only a mechanism preventing you from facing reality. Acknowledge this stage and deal with it in the only way possible: accept that it’s impossible to turn back time.

  1. Depression - fight it.

Often, after a setback you’ll feel like going to bed and pulling the covers over your head. Many do. Others shun friends, wishing to suffer alone, incapable of doing anything. Some find it hard to sleep and become exhausted during the day. Depression is the major hurdle in making a comeback: you slump into despondency and despair, depressing thoughts, and feelings of gloom.

On the brighter side, this stage is also the turning point: once you’ve passed it, you’re on your way to returning to normal. Seek the support and advice of family and friends; use positive self-statements; try problem-solving techniques. Once resolved to look positively at your current situation, you are ready to move on.

  1. Acceptance - face the new challenge.

Your confidence and motivation are now beginning to return. You’ve weathered the worst of the setback. You finally acknowledge that your old situation no longer exists and that you are prepared to face the new one. Focus positively on new goals and desires, and adopt a strategy to realise them.

  1. New hope - embrace it.

Optimism has returned. You now have meaningful goals, thought through the steps to achieve them, and are reasonably confident of doing so. Hope has aroused you sufficiently to get you to the final stage…

  1. Positive activity - undertake it enthusiastically.

Your motivation is nearly back, and you feel encouraged, energised, and ready to do whatever it takes to follow the new course. Hold on to this new attitude by breaking down your tasks into achievable minitasks, monitoring your behaviour from time to time, embracing the support and advice of others, and using problem-solving skills to generate new effective responses to any obstacles you might encounter on the way.

3. Remember the ‘Comeback Toolkit’.

In essence, Hendrie Weisinger proposes that, to help grapple with our setbacks, we should make use of a ‘Comeback Toolkit’. He lists the following actions among its basic components:

  • Tune in to your feelings and interpretations.
  • Use motivational self-statements and constructive internal dialogues.
  • Keep your sense of humour.
  • Practise relaxation.
  • Engage in physical activity.
  • Use problem-solving techniques.
  • Draw from your support team.
  • Reassess your goals and set new ones.

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