Health scares, forgotten deadlines, missed promotions, and failed classes are just a few of the unexpected setbacks that life can toss our way; and most of us have or will encounter some sort of setback in life. These obstacles can be disheartening at best. At worst after facing an obstacle or multiple obstacles, we may feel like we have no control and resign to accepting the failure as permanent. We may feel depressed, angry, defeated, frustrated, experience a depleted sense of self-worth, or even all of those at once.
While they may skew our outlook temporarily, learning how to constructively deal with setbacks and other obstacles can actually improve psychological health by helping to build resilience. This resilience not only helps us bounce back from failures and defeats, but helps us thrive in future efforts.
Risk and Reward vs. Fear of Failure
Risk and reward seem like they go hand-in-hand with fast-paced military life, and service members are often thought to be fearless. When we’re successful at something we took a risk on—whether a difficult mission or an advancement exam that took months to prepare for—our brains release a chemical signal called dopamine that makes us feel good. This builds our confidence and contributes to more success. Unfortunately, it can also impact our ability to handle failure1.
After a major setback or series of repeated ones, just the thought of failing at something can be discouraging and can ignite fear. Fear is an understandable feeling, but it often prevents us from taking the risk of trying again because our brains begin to associate that risk with a threat, leading to avoidance. Courage gives us the mental and moral strength to move forward even when facing challenges. It is honesty about fears, willingness to be vulnerable, the desire to succeed and the preparation for a potential failure. Engaging in courageous acts helps break down fears. Avoiding risks may seem like the best way to avoid failure, but the reality is that you fail at anything you don’t try.
Self-Care for Setbacks
Failure after taking a risk doesn’t have to signal the end of your effort. In fact, failure can breed some of our most creative moments that can lead us back to the rewards of success. Here are some ways to productively deal with setbacks:
- Take a step back. Naturally, after dealing with a setback, you will want to replay it, figure out what went wrong, and fix it. Just as illnesses or injuries need time to heal, so do you after encountering an obstacle. Take the time you need to process what has happened, but try not to ruminate and cause yourself additional stress. Utilizing a breathing exercise can help you stay relaxed.
- Take ownership without blame. Once you have dealt with a setback, acknowledge it and own it. Blame is a common response to a setback, but transferring the responsibility, whether to yourself or to someone else, will not eliminate or change the situation, and it may discourage you from trying to find solutions. Journaling is a great outlet to express and understand stress, increase self-confidence, boost mood and let go of negative thoughts after dealing with a setback.
- Find support. Looking to the family, friends, and shipmates who you trust can help you feel better when dealing with setbacks. Encouragement from those you are connected to can be reassuring during times of disappointment. Also, spirituality helps many people feel motivated to persevere, and it can help you recognize your purpose and understand the potential reasons that a situation did not work out as you wanted it to. Chaplains can help you explore spiritual factors when dealing with disappointment and uncertainty from setbacks.
- Regain control. While certain factors that caused a setback may be unrelated to your actions, remember that you still have control. Being able to face setbacks and understand how you can apply lessons learned in the future is empowering. Try making a list of your proudest accomplishments or your favorite personal attributes to remind yourself that you have the ability to succeed and are not defined by your current circumstances.
While setbacks are disheartening, they can be a catalyst for progress. Maintaining positive thoughts after facing an obstacle can help you better navigate stress and feel encouraged to accomplish potential goals. Engaging in self-care after a setback can alleviate stress and frustration. And getting SMART about your future goals can help prevent future setbacks.
Take some time after encountering a setback to avoid rushing into finding solutions before thinking through the options. Acknowledge the setback and realize that many factors may have contributed to it. Lean on friends, family, and shipmates for support, and remember that spirituality can be helpful for understanding purpose after a setback. Keep your cool after a setback to response positively and feel empowered to make needed changes for future opportunities. And always remember that even taking a risk is a sign of courage. If things didn’t go your way this time, don’t feel defeated. See a setback as an opportunity to learn and grow. Even if you have failed, remember the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”