How to handle a setback


If there's one subject I feel qualified to talk about, it's setbacks. I've had plenty—probably more than my fair share.

My biggest setback happened while I was in graduate school. I had a major, life-threatening health scare that upended my entire life over the course of a year.

Talk about a major setback.

But you don't need a setback as crazy as that one to send you off course. (I sure as hell hope not: I wouldn't wish that year on my worst enemy.)

It happens to everyone: you're slogging along, and then all of a sudden... WHAM. Blindsided. 

It could be something small, like an offhand comment from a colleague. It could be an unexpected result.

Whatever the inciting incident happens to be, it throws you off course. It screws with your confidence, your schedule, or your goals (or all three).

Setbacks can be especially tough for high achievers. You're used to getting sh*t done. Getting it done well. So when you hit a snag, it can be completely disorienting. Which can actually make the setback worse, because of all of the feelings it brings up around accomplishment and success and self-worth.

So what do you do when you have a setback? How do you get back in the game?

In spite of everything I went through that year, I still managed to hand in my thesis and graduate on time. This is what I did back then to deal with the setback, and it's what I've continued to do in the face of every other setback I've experienced since:


Take a minute

It's okay to stop. In fact, it's necessary. Take some time to pause and acknowledge what just happened. This might take an hour, or a day, or a month. Take the time you need, but don't wallow.

Feel the feelings

This one is important: let in the fury, the disappointment, the frustration, the fear. Let it invade your body for a while. Then find a way to purge it: exercise, art, screaming—whatever you need to do to for catharsis.

Get support

When you're ready, reach out to people. Tell them what's really going on. This one was really tough for me, but when I started being honest and open with people, it changed my life. This is not about complaining; it's about being vulnerable and connecting with someone.

Find a different perspective

There's a lesson in every setback. When you're ready, take some time to investigate what that lesson might be. What's an alternative interpretation of your situation? Could there be something positive to take away from the situation, or better yet: a new target for your motivation?

Keep on keepin' on

As the great Bob Dylan wrote:

"The only thing I knew how to do/Was to keep on keepin' on/Like a bird that flew"

Do the work. Do the work. DO THE WORK.


What have you done to handle a setback? Tell me in the comments.