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Facing Failure

Lessons from my clients’ setbacks: back-to-school, relationship, and health

George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures, CC0
Source: George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures, CC0

Everyone knows that successful people are more likely to rebound quickly from life’s inevitable setbacks. But everyone also knows that’s easier said than done.

Perhaps the following composite examples of what my clients did will be instructive.

A failed attempt at returning to school

My client was bored with her job at a turgid organization at which you need four meetings to make a modest policy change. So when her employer offered to pay 2/3 of the cost of a master’s degree, with her kids grown and out of the house, which gave her time, she jumped at the opportunity. But after trying, trying hard, for a semester, she said, “My brain just isn’t working as well as it used to” and dropped out, having lost $4,000 and the taxpayer $8,000 for the semester’s tuition. I asked if there might be an alternate explanation to “my brain isn’t working as well:” poorly chosen instructors, inadequate study habits, too many other responsibilities, a substance abuse problem? She said no.

I wish that, before signing on for a whole master’s degree program, she had audited one course or at least reviewed the syllabi plus student reviews of the core instructors. It’s usually wise to take a low-risk action, a pilot-test, before committing to a major investment of time and money.

She wanted to discuss how she might refresh without going back to school. We considered:

  • Taking an individual course at the local community college, adult school, university extension, or online through Udemy, LinkedInLearning, or Coursera. She declined, saying that at least for now, school is out—she feels too traumatized from her semester in the master’s program.
  • Asking her boss if she could do a special project that would excite her: She said that’s unrealistic.
  • Looking for opportunities to mentor students or new employees. She said that she isn’t good at mentoring.
  • Finding an exciting after-work activity. I asked about sports, crafts, community theatre, volunteering, romantic and family activities. None resonated with her.
  • We finally settled on her meeting with her favorite coworkers for a TGIF and mutual-support session at a local watering hole now that the government’s COVID restrictions are lifting.

Spouse walked out

I clicked onto my Zoom session and sensed that my client was sad. When I asked if anything is wrong, she said, “My husband walked out on me. He said, 'I’ve had enough of your laziness, stupidity, and drinking.’ Marty, you and I talk about resilience but how the hell do I bounce back from THAT?”

After taking a little time to offer empathy, I asked her whether she thought there was much of a chance of his returning, perhaps if the two of you saw a counselor. She said no.

I then asked, “So what might be helpful for us to talk about?” She responded with something like, “I feel so guilty . . . and hopeless. If I couldn’t keep the man I loved, and he’s a good man, I’m hopeless.” I didn’t want to invalidate her perception but didn’t agree that she nor anyone is hopeless.

She then asked, “How can I change?”

I responded, “What do you think is both realistic and important to change?” She said, “I can’t get on the wagon now. I’m too stressed, but I have to be nicer, really.”

I then asked, “That’s pretty broad. What’s one or two concrete ways you could be nicer?”

She said something like, “Talk less and listen more. Criticize less, letting the small things go. Praise more, including the little things.”

I responded, “Sounds great. It will take practice but yes, keep those ideas top-of-mind, even keep a written copy eye-level next to your computer monitor, on your mirror, or the refrigerator.

A skiing accident

A client pushed himself too hard while skiing and crashed, shattering his knee. He’d never ski again, indeed would probably only walk slowly and with a limp. He alternated between freaking out, denial, and acceptance. I asked him, “What could we talk about that would be helpful?”

He said that he needs to focus on replacing the fear with calm acceptance. I asked him, “In the past, what has worked for you?” He said something like, “Denial. The more I think about something like this, the worse I feel. I just have to take my meds, do my physical therapy, lose 10 pounds, shrug my shoulders at the pain, and move on.” I asked, “How likely is that to work, short- and long-term?” He said, “Short-term not so well, but when I get in the habit of doing it, it’ll get better although not great. But “not great” may be the best I can hope for, and worrying or getting angry only makes me feel worse.”

I just nodded.

The takeaway

Those examples embed tactics for rebounding from failure. Might one or more be worth trying?

  • Rather than excessive rumination about the failure, focus on evaluating a number of low-risk actions for moving forward.
  • Sometimes, a big failure is the needed wake-up call.
  • Denial has a bad reputation, but sometimes it’s wise.
  • Even after severe failures, no one is hopeless.

I read this aloud on YouTube.