How do you handle setbacks? This question deserves a close look, because we can create needless suffering for ourselves if we are unwittingly carrying beliefs about what setbacks mean about us.

Spring in Rochester can break your heart. The cherry and magnolia trees bloomed madly last week…and then we got two days of snow. As I admired the beautiful but lethal haiku of snow on cherry blossoms, I also mourned that our tree may not produce cherries this summer.

This would be a setback, for us, but only a minor one. Not so for our local fruit farmers. Peaches, apples, plums, and cherries grow here, along with every berry you can imagine. One hard frost at the wrong time can ruin the crop.

We each deal with setbacks daily. Some are minor: others are life-changing. Either way, our response to these obstacles has a profound effect on our quality of life. To handle setbacks well, we need both psychological skills and spiritual strength.

On the psychological level: exercising your “20/20 hindsight”

I love the expression “20/20 hindsight.” That’s typically the first thing we do when we experience a setback. We look back and indulge in a few rounds of “woulda, coulda, shoulda:”

I would’ve left earlier if I’d had any idea I’d be this late.
I could’ve bought half a dozen if I’d known we’d use them up this fast.
I should’ve left well enough alone.

We all need the catharsis of a good, loud “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” I find it deeply satisfying to bellow, “I should NEVER have done that in the first place! WHAT WAS I THINKING?!” When you give yourself the freedom to “go off” like this, you get some frustration out of your system by “letting the jackal show fly,” to use Marshall Rosenberg’s evocative expression.

However, handling your 20/20 hindsight is like handling a firearm. You need practice and precautions to do it safely. With the “woulda, coulda, shouldas,” you enter the land of judgment, blame, and criticism. Once those jackals are howling, you can’t linger for long, or your deep-processing sensitive mind can spin into anxiety.

Translating your judgments

Instead, imagine your jackal show is diamond ore, and immediately start “mining” your judgements to unearth the feelings and needs they contain. You can “mine” for needs by rewriting your sentences so they start with “if only:”

If only I had known there’d be construction on Norton Avenue, I wouldn’t have cut it so close. I’d have left earlier, and I wouldn’t have been late for work. I’m so sorry because this did not meet my need for self-responsibility and reliability.

Through this process of clarifying my needs, I give myself empathy. I can mourn that I didn’t know then what I know now. If the setback involved my own actions, I can also mourn the effect of my choices on me and on others.

Then, if the setback was preventable, I can set up a new system, or make a mental note to act differently next time. If the setback was out of my control—like a lost cherry crop due to a late-spring snow—I simply mourn the loss.

Going deeper: “Who is handling the setback?”

Some people can move quickly from “jackal land” to self-empathy after they experience a serious setback. But many of us struggle. Why? Because we are trying to handle the setback from a part of ourselves.

The “bigger You”—also called your Loving Adult, or Self-in-Presence—can hold all your emotions and reactions with relative ease. But our inner parts can’t. Unfortunately, when painful things happen, we easily become identified with these parts.

For instance, the “bigger You” doesn’t slap labels on you. However, your parts will:

“You are irresponsible!”
“You are never going to change this terrible habit!”
“You are so clumsy!”

Without fail, if you unwittingly let a self-critical part take over and try to handle a setback, you are in for a painful experience. Inner Bonding clarifies this dynamic, explaining that at any given moment, you are either in the intent to learn, or the intent to control.

Our shaming inner parts are in the intent to control. Illogically, but faithfully, they try to protect us from pain— by shaming, judging, or criticizing us, or by taking action to numb or distract or minimize our feelings. In the end, the intent to control is futile. It just creates more pain.

But your parts don’t know that. In fact, only when you create a space in yourself big enough to hold all these parts—and the pain itself—can you get real relief. You begin to create this space when you move to the assumption that all your parts, painful as they may be, have their good reasons for acting as they do. 

With Inner Bonding and Focusing, you can develop a relationship with your inner parts. Eventually they will trust the “bigger You” to take over the job they have been doing.

The spiritual level: What kind of world do you live in?

Unfortunately, no matter how skillful you become at managing your 20/20 hindsight and making sure you are in your “bigger self,” your response to setbacks will be painful if you hold painful beliefs about God and/or the universe. (If these terms don’t resonate with you, please substitute ones that do.)

For example, if I believe in a punitive, judgmental God, I will perceive even the smallest setback as yet another confirmation of this belief. One client described to me the stab of inner distress he felt when he noticed his shoe had come untied. He realized that he was seeing even this small thing as one more proof that God was punishing him.

In her book about Inner Bonding, Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by God, Dr. Margaret Paul describes eight common false beliefs about God:

  1. God doesn’t exist.
  2. God exists, but not for me.
  3. God is a controlling, judgmental man whose love is conditional. In order to be loved by God, I have to change who I am, give up my freedom and be who God wants me to be.
  4. I won’t ever be good enough to please God.
  5. God uses me to help others, but does not come to me just for me.
  6. God has favorite people and showers them with blessings.
  7. God made me come here to this planet.
  8. If I sacrifice myself for others, I don’t have to take care of myself. God will do it for me. God owes me for all the good I do.

Do you hold any of these beliefs?  If so, pause for a moment. What kind of world do you live in, when you tell yourself this? Through what lens do you perceive setbacks? What do you conclude about yourself, the world, and God when something bad happens?

Reclaiming your definition of God/the divine/the universe

The most powerful step you can take to increase your resilience in the face of setbacks is to cultivate a view of the universe (or whatever term you use) that makes you feel safe, not unsafe; compassionate, not judgmental, and empowered, not helpless.

In one of my favorite Harry Potter moments, Albus Dumbledore expresses this bigger perspective to Harry. He says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

We all have the ability to choose our view of the universe, as Vicktor Frankl so powerfully described in Man’s Search for Meaning, his reflection on his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. You begin by doing inner detective work to uncover your current beliefs.

In the process, remember that setbacks, while painful, offer you a superb opportunity to see more clearly if you are holding beliefs that create more suffering for you. Life throws enough challenges at us as it is. We don’t need unnecessary rocks in our backpacks.

Photo © 2021 Duke Duchscherer. Thanks Duke!