It’s that time of the year again when we, consciously or subconsciously, look back at the past 12 months and see what we have achieved and what not. It can be an uncomfortable experience to see what did not go well and admit it, but it is also an opportunity to be more constructively critical and engage in positive self-talk.

Let’s be honest – as leaders, we all had setbacks this year! Something that we worked hard on didn’t go through, a sales pitch that did not work well, a job interview that did not materialise and many other big or small setbacks.

Setbacks are part of our progress in our life and career, and they will keep happening. Often, we hear about very successful people and see only what they achieved, but really know nothing about their failures, challenges and difficulties on the way up.

What do we usually do after such events?

We sit and rethink the situation detail by detail, play different scenarios in our head, blame ourselves (or others), feel guilty and sometimes even pain from something that potentially could have happened, but didn’t!

Yes, we feel the loss, and this is part of the process, but if we allow this to overwhelm us, it will lead to anxiety and sadness. Daunting thoughts can be a trap that is difficult to escape if we are not careful.

When we are more mindful and constructive, setbacks have the potential to be become a valuable learning opportunity.

Five ideas on how to get back on your feet and learn from setbacks

  1. Accept it! The first step is to accept that it happened and be honest with ourselves that we can’t change the past. In literature, this is called Radical Acceptance (Marsha M Linehan, 1993). By accepting it, we don’t put the blame on ourselves and neglect the pain but see the facts as they are and stop fighting the impossible. Your internal narrative should be “I’m here, I’m not happy, it is what it is, and I can’t change the past. I can focus on the present and the future.”

  2. Remember previous wins. Be realistic, list your previous wins and see how you got there. Often, we tend to focus on the ‘dark side’ only. Writing down your success story will help you to reconnect with your strengths and good emotions.

  3. What or who helped in the past? Reflect and try to analyse what helped in the past when you had similar experiences. How can your core skills and people of trust help you this time? Go back to your values and see what guided you in your career and life.

  4. Work with a coach. Working with a coach will help you to build new skills, strengthen your awareness, and explore opportunities. Above all, it will give you the time and space to reflect in a non-judgmental environment with someone who will stimulate your thinking and keep you accountable.

  5. Don’t rush. It will take some time to overcome a setback. Once you feel ready – go ahead and chase your new challenges and dreams!

What about positive thinking?

Positivity is a great mindset to have and it is a powerful weapon in dealing with setbacks, but one should be careful and not go to the extreme of toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is the belief that one should apply only a positive mindset and experience only positive thoughts and emotions all the time, and more so in times of difficulty. Toxic positivity is the number one enemy of critical thinking!

How do you recognise toxic positivity? Watch out for key phrases such as ‘Stay positive’, ‘It could be worse’, ‘Don’t think negative’, ‘Positive vibes only’, ‘There’s always light at the end of the tunnel’, and the list can go on and on.

Bonus tip

Be more realistic and rational than desperately positive. Instead of painting a dark picture, let’s see the true colours. They might not be as bright as we want them to be, but they are not black and white only neither. The realistic narrative should sound more or less like this –

The situation: a project deadline was missed.

  • The unhealthy self-talk is – “I’m terrible at my job and I’m of no value”
     
  • The rational and realistic self-talk should be – “Yes, this time it didn’t work! When I look back, I’m usually good at doing my job and the feedback I get is mostly excellent. Next time I will make sure that what is expected from me is clear from the start and I have the support needed.”

The second statement sounds different, right? Not negative and not overly positive at the same time, with acceptance and a clear learning opportunity from the experience that we are going through. 

Mastering this approach requires a lot of self-awareness and practice, and it will take time, but it is not impossible to learn.

If you catch yourself feeling that the unhealthy self-talk is becoming too overwhelming, find someone professional to talk to and they will support you to bounce back and move on!

Dragan is an accredited Coach Practitioner with the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) and can be reached at [email protected] or by visiting www.carobconsult.com

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