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The Secret to Overcoming Any Setback

Don't give up on yourself. You can take back control.

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Think back to a time you failed at something meaningful or important to you. Did you feel demoralized, blocked, hopeless, or helpless? Did you feel stuck because you had done what you could, yet were unable to succeed?

If so, you are not alone.

Small Psychological Injuries Can Have Big Impacts

We all know failures are demoralizing, but what we don’t realize is they constitute a form of psychological injury in that they literally distort our perceptions—and thus set us up to fail again. There are three primary ways in which this happens:

  1. Failure distorts our perceptions of our abilities such that we feel less up to the task or less capable of reaching a goal than we actually are.
  2. Failure distorts our perception of the goal itself such that it seems further out of reach.
  3. Failure makes us believe that whether we succeed or not is out of our control.

Taken together, we are likely to feel hopeless and stuck, which is why so many of us give up after a failure, or perform poorly if we do or must persist.

As an illustration of how powerfully our distorted perceptions affect our behavior, in a recent study, scientists examined the self-care practices of patients with heart failure—developing healthy habits is vital for people with cardiovascular disease. Patients who perceived themselves as having little control over their disease were much worse at self-care than patients who perceived themselves as having more control, even though all were well aware that self-care was vital for their health and longevity. In other words, incorrectly perceiving a lack of control prevented the patients from taking action and applying vital self-care strategies, despite knowing that such strategies were incredibly important to their health and longevity.

The Importance of Regaining Control

To avoid feeling helpless and hopeless, and to address the psychological injuries that failures and setbacks can inflict, you must find ways to regain control of as many aspects of the task or goal as possible.

Let’s look at some examples of how to regain control:

  1. You failed to get a promotion at work. Now you feel like the situation is hopeless because you’ve done a good job, and if your boss refuses to recognize your contributions, there’s nothing more you can do. To regain control, realize there is more that you can do. For example, ask yourself what your boss considers important and what they "see" of your work. You and your boss may have different priorities—you may prioritize your actual work and your boss may prioritize what makes their life easier, what makes them look good to their boss, or whether you make them feel like a good manager. Further, bosses don’t see everything we do. Figuring out what your boss values, and being strategic about how you can demonstrate those specific things so they "see" them, is a great way to take action and regain control.
  2. You failed yet another diet. And now you believe you simply lack the willpower to succeed. To regain control, you have to recognize that most repeat dieters tend to fail at similar points each time, like two weeks after starting, or when work gets busy—and they tend to get tripped up by the same situations and temptations. To regain control you have to realize that your success does not depend on willpower alone. Figuring out your traditional failure points, and building in incentives and plans to manage them—planning ahead and making healthy meals so you don't have to rely on fast food or vending machines, or bringing a thermos of coffee to work so you don’t have to go into the break room at work and have pastries wink at you—is a great way to regain control and feel more hopeful about trying again.
  3. You aren’t getting any dates on dating websites. You’ve written to a number of people but they haven’t responded or followed through and few people have written to you. You believe you’re just not attractive, smart, successful, or interesting enough to attract a partner. To regain control, you have to realize that you can work on your profile or pursue other venues. For example, ask a friend to look at your profile and give you feedback. Remember, online profiles are marketing tools, and as such, might need several rounds of tweaking both of content and pictures, until you get results. Second, look at sites like for people interested in activities that reflect your areas of interest and passion. Such groups are a much better platform for meeting people with common interests, as it already gives you something to discuss and share with the other person.

The bottom line is there are always ways we can take control of a situation even when we initially believe we cannot. This is an area in which our mind’s way of responding to failure and setbacks is misleading and potentially damaging. We have to override the defeatism we feel and find ways to assert control. That alone will help us move forward.

For many other tips on how to overcome failure check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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