How To Bounce Back From A Major Setback Stronger Than Ever

Understanding what it takes to recover from a big disappointment is half the battle.

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Middle aged man with grey goatee sitting contemplatively in a gym

A once-happy relationship falls apart. That big promotion ends up going to someone else. A sure-thing investment tanks and is now worth next to nothing. An injury takes you away from your training. Setbacks are a part of life. But damn, can they hit hard.

Even though we all understand that disappointments and failures are inevitable, it can be difficult to not let them affect self-worth. Instead of accepting disappointments as a normal part of life, it’s common for people to get angry at themselves, or at others. They might withdraw, or go on a bender, or spend too much money, or get swept up in a cycle of bitterness and self-pity while Why am I such a failure? plays on repeat in their minds.

Self-destructive behavior can be irresistible after something bad happens, even though, ultimately, it can make everything worse. But many who feel stuck in angry disappointment or depression after a setback simply don’t know what else to do.

Misusing substances, for a common example, can feel good and like a fine way to distance yourself from uncomfortable emotions, says Jaryd Hiser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The problem, of course, is that such behavior doesn’t really work to make you feel better.

One reason people might wallow in a self-destructive spiral after a setback is because, as researchers have found, humans seem to be hardwired to dwell on the negative and typically find it more difficult to focus on the positive when facing adversity. What’s more, many people lack the coping skills needed to move on emotionally after a disappointment or setback. It doesn’t help that some common advice for recovering from disappointments, such as rushing to enumerate what you’re grateful for too soon, isn’t actually helpful.

Recovering from disappointment — that is, really listening to yourself, coming to terms with what happened, and moving forward afterward — requires real work. But that work is necessary for coming out on the other side with a new perspective. If you’re dealing with a major setback, here’s what can help you to start feeling better.

1. Take Appropriate Time To Grieve

Significant setbacks such as losing a job or the unraveling of a relationship are a loss and are therefore likely to have emotional baggage attached to them, says William F. Northey, Jr., Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Wilmington, Delaware.

It’s important, then, to give yourself permission to take some time to grieve the loss. People can be in a rush to feel better, or to at least to feel productive again, particularly those with small children, Northey notes. Parents might worry grieving is a self-indulgence they don’t have time for.

But rushing through grief and telling yourself you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps too soon won’t make you feel better. The feelings you’re pushing down will still be there.

Now, the question is how to grieve? Discerning the difference between cathartic grieving and unhelpful wallowing isn’t easy. The length of time you might need to process a setback will depend on how significant the loss is to you. If you’re struggling for what feels like too long a time, it might be time to join a support group or book a session with a therapist.

“It’s okay to feel bad and take time to process a loss,” Hiser says. “But once we start to notice it’s having an impact on our lives — like you’re noticing that you’re feeling irritable, lashing out, ignoring friends or avoiding work or social situations — that’s the point that suggests the loss is having an important, or maybe even clinically significant impact.”

2. Ground Yourself

Chances are, post-setback, you’re feeling angry or sad or frustrated or a grab-bag of various negative emotions. Think about the emotions you’re feeling and rate them on a scale of one to 10, suggests Hiser. “This can help you be realistic about your coping skills,” he says. “If your emotions are near a 10, just going for a walk won’t be super helpful. You’ll need a different set of skills to deal with high stress or emotion.”

If your stress is very high, “grounding” can be beneficial. The term simply means using sensory information to bring you back to the present moment. For example, standing in a very cold shower can be helpful during times of high stress. “When you’re doing that, it’s very difficult to think of anything other than, ‘Why am I standing in freezing cold water?’” Hiser says.

In a more general sense, grounding can help you regain calm and focus when stress and negativity are swirling around in your head. “It is physically and mindfully attending to your body,” says Debra Kissen, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety and the author of Break Free From Intrusive Thoughts: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managing Fear and Finding Peace. If one of her clients is overwhelmed with so many thoughts and feelings that they can’t do anything, Kissen will ask them to take time out and tell her how they feel in their head or in their neck or shoulders in order to help focus their mind.

It can also help to talk more slowly. “When we speak really fast, it keeps us in that fight or flight mode that shuts down higher-level thinking,” Kissen says. “Just talking more slowly can be physically calming.”

3. Locate The Biggest Cause Of Stress

Thinking of stress and negative feelings like a pie can make problems feel more manageable. If you ask yourself what you’re feeling stressed about during highly charged emotional periods, you might say, “Everything! Everything is causing stress!”

Imagining what’s causing stress as a pie chart can help narrow your focus. If, say, parenting is 70% of your stress, you can first focus on that and not the 30% piece that your boss is making your job difficult.

“Separating out problems and not just stressing in a big blob can help sort out where to begin,” Kissen says.

Kissen also suggests asking yourself, If you had a magic wand and could change one small thing in your life, what would it be? “Get really specific,” she says. “That can help you focus on something manageable.”

4. Reframe And Write It Out

Many people experiencing a devastating setback quickly turn to self-criticism, notes Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., a psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, Colorado. This can create a negative spiral out of which it can be difficult to pull yourself.

“It’s common for people to generalize and have all-or-nothing self-condemning thoughts like, ‘I’ll never find a partner again,’ or ‘I’m unemployable, I’ll never find another job,’” he says. “It’s helpful to steer thoughts away from that tendency toward some other ways to interpret what’s happening.”

Noticing those thoughts takes practice; writing them down can help. “Sometimes all it takes is to see those sorts of thoughts in black and white,” Fisher says. “Then you can notice, ‘Hey, that sounds kind of extreme,’ whereas if the negative thought stays in your head, you don’t notice it as much.”

Another tip is to write down spiraling thoughts when you’re having a bad day and read them out loud, Fisher adds. This can help you gain some perspective about out of control unhelpful thinking and learn to counter those thoughts when they come up.

5. Work On Reframing What Happened

When something disappointing happens, it’s really easy to fixate on it. Moving that spotlight onto anything else can be difficult, Hiser says. What can help is working on reframing setbacks to gain perspective.

To find perspective, think about the setback as objectively as you can, Northey says. When analyzing what happened, ask yourself, How do I make sense of this relative to who I am as a person?

This may sound obvious, but it’s important to realize that a breakup or missed promotion doesn’t define who we are as people. Remind yourself that the negative thoughts you’re having are not necessarily true.

“It’s normal to have intrusive thoughts and to be disappointed sometimes,” Hiser says. “Self-compassion, the idea that we deserve to be happy and free of pain and suffering, is really tough for a lot of people. But we all have things we can point to that are successes.”

Your support network can be helpful in helping you reframe, too, if they’re willing and able to be a sounding board for you. They’ll probably be on your side regarding whatever happened, for one thing. In addition, they can help you reframe issues that might feel like the end of the world to you in the moment but might not once you’ve gained some perspective, Northey says.

6. Consider What Happened And Look For The Takeaways

Thinking about what you’re grateful for can help keep you in the present and feeling more positive. But a significant setback might make the process of gratitude difficult, at least for a while, Kissen says. If that’s where you are, it might help to set sights a little lower.

“You can overshoot it with some people if you ask them to notice and write down what they’re grateful for or what they’re proud of. They might want to say, ‘Nothing!’” Kissen says. “It’s less ambitious but still helpful to ask, ‘What’s one thing at this moment that is just okay?’ It could be just, ‘There’s a salad near me to eat, that might taste okay,’ or ‘The weather is pretty decent today.’”

Don’t seek cop-outs, lessons, or trite aphorisms to help you right away. When the feeling of disappointment is fresh, these are about as useful as snow pants in summer.

“Rushing to look for lessons too quickly can feel cheap, like putting a Band-Aid on a problem,” Fisher says. “Initially, you have to be present after a major loss. When people try to be helpful and tell you to look for the silver lining, it can feel invalidating.”

After you’ve processed a setback or disappointment, however, some self-reflection about what you can learn from the experience can be helpful. Sometimes. Other times, there might not be any lesson or takeaway from a bad experience, so don’t berate yourself if you can’t find one.

Regardless of what happened, you can always consider how you can grow the experience, Fisher says. In the later stages of your recovery from a setback, you can start to figure out actions you can take to make your life better going forward.

7. Focus On The Future

It’s easier to move on from disappointment when you have something to look forward to, whether it’s a vacation, a book you want to read, or a new hobby.

What also helps: considering some preparation strategies for future setbacks. Sure, it’s impossible to plan ahead for every bad thing that might happen.

A lot of people don’t even want to think about what would happen if, say, their partner left suddenly or they lost their job. But it’s worthwhile to plan for setbacks.

“If we struggle with responding to big life stressors, we fall into this trap of waiting for bad things to happen and then figuring out how to respond,” he says.

It comes down to making sure you’re taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and just doing enjoyable activities. Instead of ruminating about an issue all day, be proactive with stress strategies that work for you, such as calling a friend or taking breaks during the day instead of mindlessly worrying.

“It has a lot to do with just being in the present moment as much as you can,” Hiser says. “Think of it as a buffer.”

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