How to transform setbacks into successes

Have you ever felt like giving someone a piece of your mind when they tell you that setbacks are a part of life – immediately after you have experienced one? I know I have, but despite the often abysmal timing of such advice, the uncomfortable truth is that setbacks are inevitable. It is how we perceive and respond to them that matters. The good news is that there are many practical and crucially learnable ways to ensure setbacks do not define us but are moments from which we can learn and grow. In my blog, How to transform setbacks into successes, I share six highly effective approaches to make the difference you are after.

How to transform setbacks into successes. Smiling lady who has overcome adversity.

1. How to transform your setbacks into successes: conversations

Whether we experience a setback such as academic failure, divorce or redundancy, our conversations with ourselves (self-talk) and those we have with others in the immediate aftermath can make a significant difference. Naturally, we turn inwards to ourselves and outwards to our support network to make sense of our setback and what we can do about it. However, in doing so, we have to be selfish in a good way by asking whether our existing conversations are making a positive difference. If they are, then great, but if they aren’t, we must be willing to set aside current expectations and loyalties. Conversations that can’t or won’t help us get back on track can quickly turn a setback into something more permanent. Only conversations with impact, defined as those containing the qualities and characteristics we need, can transform setbacks into successes.

So, if your misfortune is taking on the look of permanence, be kind to yourself and find someone new to talk to. Who you choose is less important than their ability to instil feelings of hope through laying out a clear pathway to success, but ideally, they will have the training, knowledge and experience in the area of your life affected.

2. Meaning

Human beings are a sense-making species (to find meaning), and we instinctively seek to understand experiences, especially those that knock us off course in life. To do this effectively, we need to know two things. What are the causes of our setback, and secondly, what are its resolutions? Luckily, we have an in-built system that lets us know if our attempts at comprehending our situation are working or not: our emotions. Emotions are messages sent by our ‘emotional self’ containing vital information to guide us through periods of adversity and back into successful ones. Positive emotions are how our emotional self expresses its faith in us that we know the causes and the resolutions; negative emotions communicate its concern that we don’t. Taking the ‘emotions as messages’ concept, we can tune in to how we feel to transform setbacks into successes.

3. Patterns

Four primary patterns run our lives, which can help us understand and respond to setbacks:

  • How we think, behave, feel and relate

Understanding our patterns can shed light on how setbacks occur and successfully transform them. For example, someone who struggles to achieve a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight might recognise the following patterns:

  • Thinking: “I have never succeeded before, so why would I this time? I’ll give it until March, but if I haven’t lost two stones by then, I’ll give up.”
  • Behaving: shopping habits remain inconsistent with losing weight. The person buys unhealthy foods just for other family members, but their very presence in the house proves too tempting.
  • Feeling: someone cannot find healthier ways to boost their mood, so continue to eat snacks and treats because they are the only things that make them feel ok.
  • Relating: despite knowing they need support, someone reacts angrily towards those who offer it because they incorrectly feel judged.

Building a detailed picture of unhelpful patterns can help create a blueprint of helpful ones, so the above become:

  • Thinking: “I won’t set myself unrealistic deadlines but will give myself all the time that I need. I will be kind and compassionate towards myself and not expect a quick fix.”
  • Behaving: shopping habits are consistent with losing weight. Other family members will have to accept the absence of unhealthy foods unless on special occasions.
  • Feeling: someone admits that snacks and treats only bring short-lived emotional benefits and accepts that healthy eating truly does make them feel good about themselves.
  • Relating: anger is seen for what it is, a reflection of shame or embarrassment. Once this is acknowledged, someone sees the support for what it is: genuine.

Once we understand how to create positive patterns, we can transform our setbacks into successes.

4. Acceptance

In my introduction, I suggested that setbacks are a part of life and that all we can do is accept this reality. However, acceptance is easy to say, harder to achieve. We all go through life based on certain beliefs and assumptions to which setbacks represent a profound challenge. For example:

  • How can my partner have an affair (reality) when they love me (fantasy)?
  • How can my employer make me redundant (reality) when this was a job for life (fantasy)?
  • How can I have failed my exam (reality) when I definitely passed (fantasy)?

Understandably, it can take time to harmonise what we used to believe with the facts, but the sooner we can do this, the better it will be for us. When we can’t accept a setback, we open up a Fantasy-Reality Gap, which is the difference between how we think things are and how things actually are. FRGs are unsustainable ways of living because we all can do is accept our reality. The bigger the FRG, the more harmful they are for our mental health and wellbeing. To minimise the impact of a setback, we have little choice but to let go of our ‘fantasy’. But why would we want to? Because acceptance is not resignation but the first stage of our transformation and how we transform our setbacks into successes.

5. Challenge

Setbacks clearly represent a challenge to us because of the disruption they cause in and to our lives. However, challenge is not all bad because, paradoxically, it is key to transforming our setbacks into successes. When we struggle to recover from a reversal of fortune, it is NOT because we can’t but because we are faced with too little or too much challenge. Once we accept this fact, we can set about finding the level of challenge that makes progress possible through using what I call The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge: not too little, not too much, but just the right amount.

So how do we know if we have the right amount? Because we are making measurable progress in putting our hardship behind us. To make The Goldilocks Principle work for us, we need to increase the resources at our disposal, such as getting the right type of support around us. In the section below, I have included nine questions to help you identify the resources you need to transform your setbacks into success.

6. Transformation

It can be easy to view setbacks like a painting on the wall, i.e., something that stays the same no matter how often we look at it. A more optimistic perspective is to see them as a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel waiting to be sculpted and resculpted into something we like the look of. The trick, of course, is to know how. One way is to use our brain’s ability to time-travel and journey in our imaginations to our desired destination when our setbacks are behind us. Once there, we can build a detailed image of our lives and work out the journey we took to get us there. For example, someone experiencing loss or bereavement can visualise having moved on from their loss and look back at how their grieving made this possible.

Setbacks are upsetting, sometimes traumatic, but they are not our fate; people can and do transform them into successes.

Getting support to turn your setbacks into successes

If a setback is holding you back in life and you have enjoyed my blog, then I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Transformation Programmes have enabled many people to understand and overcome been the most difficult of circumstances. To read what some of my clients say about me, visit my Testimonials page.