Sunday, January 25, 2015

Three Ways To Transform A Setback


A job loss. A heartbreak. A lost opportunity. A lost loved one. Setbacks can be really hard. And when they happen, we are all likely to feel temporarily stunned, shocked, and even paralyzed.

But as much as we wish setbacks didn’t happen, we also know that they do. And in many cases, there is not much we could have done to prevent them.

The one question we can ask is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to let our setbacks transform us — turn us against ourselves in a spiral of negative emotions — or, are we going to transform the setbacks — and use them for to propel a spiral of positive growth?

Here are three ways to transform a setback.

Find The Good In It. Find the good in anything, or feeling a sense of gratitude, is something that has a multitude of advantages. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, cites gratitude as one of the most effective ways to increase happiness, and in just a short five minute exercise — recalling five things you feel grateful for — has demonstrated significant increases in happiness. And gratitude doesn’t just work to boost your mood, gratitude also powerfully pulls you through a setback. Research done by Tedeshi and Calhoun (2004) has consistently shown that survivors of major life setbacks — such as death, accidents and natural disasters — commonly report feeling more grateful after these things happen. This research has been seconded by Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology and author of several books on the subject, including, Learned Optimism, who cites a study using the VIA strength inventory — an inventory created to measure many character strengths including gratitude — where survivors of 911 were tested before and after the event, and showed amazingly, that gratitude scores increased after 911 (McCullough, et al., 2007). It seems that getting through a setback depends on finding something to be grateful for, whether that is life itself, the small moments you can find joy in, meaningful relationships, your ability to help others, or your ability to pull through. And there is always something to be grateful for — even in terrible disasters like 911.

Find The New Opportunity. What setbacks do is close many roads, and suddenly the case becomes startlingly clear. You can’t go on the way you were going. This road is now blocked. However, it is precisely because the road is blocked that you are forced to find another way. Much in the same way that a detour forces you to venture onto a new street, a setback forces you to consider alternatives you had never thought of before. For the paraplegic it’s a new career. For the heartbroken person, maybe it’s time to reach for help. For the bereaved person, maybe it’s a time to find solace in helping others, and in doing so, a new way to live. Whatever the case, in blocking the road we are traveling on, every setback offers the opportunity to find a new way. And not surprisingly, those who do make it through devastating losses, often report being open to new opportunities much more than they were before the loss (Tedeshi and Calhoun, 2004). This is because setbacks — if we are going to transform them and not just get through them, but be made better by them – require us to find the new opportunity.

Find The Strength. Yes, setbacks make you feel vulnerable, unsure, uncertain, and many times, devastated. But even when you feel this way, you still have to find a way forward. And it is in this struggle forward that strength is built. It’s in the persistent push forward, even when the way is not clear and you question yourself, that you find you can go on. As you do, you develop confidence, trust in yourself, and your resolve builds, because every day that passes, you realize you have survived — and are surviving — more than you could have ever thought possible. In looking back over their setbacks, those who report growth consistently recount an increased sense of personal strength, along with the recognition that they made it through something they didn’t think they could (Tedeshi and Calhoun, 2004).

As much as many of us would like to avoid setbacks altogether, they are a very necessary part of life. What every setback offers, is the opportunity for strength. And this strength may not come right away — as it’s very normal to feel knocked off your feet after a setback — but when you can transform your setbacks, using them to build gratitude, openness, and strength, they soon cease to be setbacks.


Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York, Virgin Publishing

McCullough, M., Kimeldorf, M., Cohen, A., (2008). An Adaptation for Altruism? The Social Causes, Social Effects, and Social Evolution of Gratitude. Current Directions In Psychological Science. Vol 17-Num 4.

Tedeshi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Post-traumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1