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How to transform setbacks into possibilities

3 steps for shifting gears from negative experience to positive action

Image: Garrett Anderson
Image: Garrett Anderson

For most of us, there comes that time when life is not working out the way we envisioned. When setbacks throw us off our game. When the unexpected comes knocking on the door and it’s not a welcome visitor.

Right now, for many people, everyday living during the global health crisis is that time.

Setbacks and challenges come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve personally been through some fairly large examples of life throwing you a curveball, and I have coached many clients through a range of adversities. What I have learned as a result is that how we respond plays the largest part in how we experience what comes next. Sometimes, getting to the other side of change can seem like an arduous journey, even when you trust that, eventually, you’ll get there. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to navigate that journey in a positive, empowered and effective way:

First, a few things that don’t work.

In my experience, the ability to develop a negative change into a path to new possibilities doesn’t come from most of the advice that well-meaning people dole out during difficult challenges. It doesn’t come from stuffing down your feelings so that you can put everything else first, “fake it until you make it” or make others feel more comfortable.Affirmations and rose-colored glasses can be useful tools, but they are not always authentic to our human experience. And all that talk about being fearless is… just talk. (Fear is human. Just don’t let it drive.) Moving from challenge to opportunity — both in your mindset and in action — is a creative and organic process. That’s good news because it means that you can influence your results by how you respond. And you don’t have to deny your experience to get there.

Awareness + choice + practice is what transforms setbacks into possibility.

Awareness

Be honest about what you’re feeling. Emotions provide a lot of great information. Acknowledging the many emotions that come with change (especially unwelcome change) is the first step to creating a strategy for moving into what’s next. It doesn’t serve you to shortchange yourself in gathering this information.

Follow your train of thought. Often, how we’re feeling has a lot to do with what we’re thinking about the situation. Acknowledging how you’re truly feeling allows you to track back to the thoughts that are eliciting those feelings. Can you find the connections?

Open up some space. Clarity is hard to find in a cluttered mind. Carve out space in the ways that work best for you. (Now is also a great time to experiment with new ways). Meditation is one that is well-backed by research, and one that personally works for me. You might also choose prayer, a daily run to clear your head, walks in nature, yoga, journaling or simply sitting quietly for 10 minutes.

Choice

Choose love (or joy, inspiration, amusement…). In her research on positive emotion, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that we can naturally create more positivity in our lives by choosing activities, experiences and interactions that elicit positive emotions. It’s an upward spiral. The awe you feel while standing on a mountaintop, the movies that make you laugh or the warmth of tea with a close friend — seek out those opportunities as much as possible. The more positivity you invite in, the more upbeat you feel.

Reframe authentically. There’s never one right way to see things. When you tell the story of what’s gone wrong and why, and where you are as a result, listen. Do you absolutely know all of it to be true? How do you know? What other ways might you — or someone else — view the same events? Could there be a lesson in it? An opportunity? Could the opposite also be true? Try on a few potential perspectives and find the ones that feel more energizing or empowering.

Set your vision. What are the possibilities that you’d like to see open up in your life and work? Choose to dream and allow yourself to expand your options wider than you might have previously. Don’t set limits or go by what’s been previously happening for you. Ask: What is possible for me now? What is it that I really, really want?

Practice

Experiment with new ways of being. Find one daily practice that reflects an empowering, inspired perspective. Nail that. Add another. Find small ways to expand your comfort zone, until it becomes easier and easier. Say yes more often and see what possibilities start to emerge.

Nourish yourself. Feeling good creates its own momentum. Know what nourishes your body, mind and spirit, and practice those things as much as possible. Care for yourself at a deeper level than you have previously. Set a higher standard. Set good boundaries. There is always room for improvement, and the investment in well-being always pays off.

Connect to what’s possible everyday. Your vision won’t be doing much good hidden under a stack of papers or stashed away. Bring it front and center. Write it out and read it regularly. Create a vision board and post it where you’ll see it. Find talismans that remind you of what’s possible and keep them visible. Create a mantra, a theme song, a playlist. Make a checklist from your vision and start ticking it off. Set a few related goals and put them on your calendar. Share your ideas with people you trust.

Embrace mistakes and missteps. Don’t worry that things are not going perfectly or that you aren’t “doing it right” (or doing it “all”). Perfect is the enemy of forward progress. Trust that you know enough for your next step. Take that one and let the next ones reveal themselves. Be willing to fall down. You’ve already proven that you can get back up.

How else might you put awareness + choice + practice to work in service of what’s possible for you? When we’re adjusting to ever-changing times, we need all the strategies– and practice– we can get.

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