9 Strategies to Manage a Personal Setback

A slip is not a fall.

Posted Aug 21, 2017

Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock
Source: Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

In several previous posts, I wrote about setting personal recovery goals, developing a successful plan, and putting your plan into action. Sometimes this process goes quite smoothly, but more often than not, you will encounter significant challenges or obstacles along the way.

Here’s a great example from American history. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas ran against each other for the U.S. Senate. The campaign was hard-fought, and after several tough debates and a very close vote, Douglas won. Lincoln later recalled:

     “I remember, the evening of the day in 1858, that decided the contest for the Senate between Mr. Douglas and myself, was something like this, dark, rainy & gloomy. I had been reading the returns, and had ascertained that we had lost the Legislature and started to go home. The path had been worn hog-back & was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way, but I recovered myself and lit square, and I said to myself, ‘It’s a slip and not a fall.’” 

Lincoln was right, as his "slip," his loss to Douglas, was only a temporary setback. Two years later, he became our sixteenth president.

How many times have you worked really hard to achieve a personal goal only to find yourself feeling defeated or hopeless, because your plan got derailed following a significant setback?

Here are 9 strategies to help you manage a personal setback and get back on track toward achieving your goal: 

1. Realize it’s normal.

Less than 20 percent of people successfully achieve their goal the first time around. It’s normal and expected for setbacks to occur. In other words, it’s not if a challenge will happen, it’s when. Knowing this, it’s important to anticipate that the main task will be how to effectively manage the setback when it arises.

2. Don’t deny it.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize a setback. The problem can be staring you right in the face, but you may deny there’s any cause for alarm. Friends or family will voice their concerns, but you still may not be able to accept it. This inability to acknowledge the problem doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It’s just that denial can cloud or obscure your awareness of the issue, even when it may be crystal clear to others. It’s important to be open and receptive to the honest feedback from those who care about you.

3. Don’t beat yourself up.

Just because your plan has gone off course doesn’t make you a bad person. Even though you may have made a bad choice or engaged in unhealthy behavior, it does no good to beat yourself up and say how worthless, inadequate, or helpless you are. This will only make things worse and will make it more unlikely you will take productive action to regain control.

4. Accept responsibility.

Accept responsibility for your choices and behavior, and recognize that some of these decisions may have inadvertently led you astray. Even though others might have had a role in your difficulties, don’t look for someone else to blame for your misfortune. This will immobilize you, because you haven’t taken ownership of the issue, and you aren’t actively attempting to deal with the setback.

5. Call for help.

The quickest way to get back on track is to call someone in your support system and ask for help. Forget your pride and confess you are having difficulties. Ask for immediate assistance, whether the issue is small or large. With help from your supporters, get back into a safe, secure environment where the risk of further difficulties is minimized. Then collect yourself and start to regroup.

6. Know it won’t last forever.

Reassure yourself that this setback won’t last forever. Sometimes it may take weeks or even months before you finally take action again to work on the issue. But there’s no reason to wait that long before starting to deal with the problem. The longer you delay, the more harm or discomfort you will endure. I’ve often challenged people to strive for a “20-minute setback,” meaning you can call for help, get to a safe place, and begin to manage the problematic behavior in about 20 minutes in many situations.

7. Analyze what happened.

After reconnecting with a supporter in a safe environment, stop and analyze what went wrong. The most common triggers for a setback are personal distress, overconfidence, and poor coping skills. Take a look at what happened, where you were, who you were with, what you were thinking and feeling, and any other factors that may have contributed to the setback.

8. Learn from it.

Learn from your analysis of the setback, and adjust your plan to try to prevent similar circumstances from happening the next time. Each time you fine-tune your plan and put it into action again, you actually improve your odds of eventual success. This is because you learn from each misstep, and your plan can become more effective with each subsequent attempt. This is the good news, or "silver lining," from a setback. You don’t want to go through one, but in the end, it can help you achieve your ultimate goal.

9. Remember: A slip is not a fall.

Just as Lincoln rebounded from his "slip" and went on to succeed as one of our most revered presidents, remind yourself that your setback does not take you all the way back to square one. You haven’t lost all of the knowledge, skills, and support that were in place as you actively worked on your plan. After adjusting and rebooting, you can still draw upon these resources to begin to make progress toward success again.

Copyright David Susman 2017