How to Deal With Setbacks and Challenges

Learn to recognize your coping style.

Posted Jul 09, 2018

We all have to face setbacks in our life from time to time, whether in our personal relationships or in our careers. But some people tend to deal with setbacks and challenges better than others.  It is interesting to look at the ways in which people cope.

Psychologists have identified three broad ways of coping that they have labelled: problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping and avoidant coping.

Problem-focused coping involves attempts to resolve difficulties by taking steps to remove threats and find solutions. Those who use problem-focused coping are able to narrow their attention to the problems at hand and not let other competing activities get in their way. If they need to, they get help from others. They don’t get distracted from what they need to do.

Emotion-focused coping involves managing one’s emotions. When we are upset we need to be able to do this. Commonly we may seek sympathy from friends and talk about how we are feeling. Emotion-focused coping generally involves talking through experiences with supportive others. Like hands shaping a piece of modelling clay, conversation trans­forms the meanings that we make about our experiences. Through conversation, we are able to allocate blame and praise more objec­tively, seek new perspectives, correct incorrect perceptions and find new insights.

Avoidance coping is when we try not to think about the situation or we find ways to shut out our feelings. Turning to alcohol is, of course, one way, but people find all sorts of ways to disengage from their feelings or distract themselves from what needs to be done.

Sometimes a bit of avoidance can be helpful, protecting us until we are ready psychologically to confront a more traumatic experi­ence. But when avoidance is the only coping method for a prolonged period of time, problems begin to pile up. Avoidance prevents people from dealing with their problems and working through their emotions.

My experience is that when confronted with a setback, problem-focused copers do best. They look at the situation from different angles, seek solutions, and move forward in new directions. That’s not to say that sometimes it is not also important to deal with ones’ emotions. If we don’t deal with our emotions it can be hard to think clearly about our problems, and when faced with a setback that’s ultimately what we need to do.

Research studies show that compared with people who have an avoidance coping style, individuals who use active problem-­focused and emotion­-focused coping strategies generally do better. In my book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth I discuss the research that has shown that those with more problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies are able to turn their challenging and often traumatic experiences around in growthful ways.

Like riding a bicycle, which involves knowing when to shift your weight, when to bear down on the pedals and when to hit the brake, coping is a skill that can be learned. The first step must be to recognize our own patterns of coping. If we find that we are locked into a habitual avoidant way of coping then it is worth thinking about getting some guidance and advice from an experienced coach or therapist who can help us develop our skills.

References

Joseph, S. (2011). What Doesn't Kill Us. The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth.  New York: Basic Books