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Coming Back From a Setback

I set myself a challenge recently, and I’ve been failing at it.

I decided to only eat bland food, with no variety. The month is only 2/3 over, but I’ve struggled much more than I’d anticipated.

It’s such a minor setback, but it’s made me feel a little depressed sometimes, and I’ve wanted to quit more times than I’d like to admit.

I didn’t quit, mostly because I thought that sticking with it might help someone else going through a struggle.

The Struggle with Setbacks

I’ve had bigger setbacks before: getting a divorce, losing a job, having all my possessions wiped out by a typhoon, failing to make ends meet because of crippling debt, deaths in the family, unable to quit smoking or start exercising.

Interestingly, all these setbacks felt very similar to this much smaller setback for me.

Mostly because I was burdened by several things during each setback:

  • My ideal didn’t materialize: When we start on a new project, a new habit, a new relationship … we have an idea of how this is going to be once we get started. This idea often turns out to be entirely wrong. People don’t behave the way we want, or we’re not as disciplined as we thought when we signed up for the gym, or life isn’t as pleasant and perfect with this new change as we thought. We had a fantasy and thought it would be reality, and it didn’t turn out that way. And this disillusionment can be really discouraging. My life isn’t what I’d hoped it would be, and that sucks! Every setback I’ve struggled with contained this element.
  • Self-doubt: The setback inevitably causes me to doubt myself. Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? Am I strong enough or good enough? Am I worthy? This self-doubt never feels very good, and is an additional setback on top of the setback I’m already facing.
  • Helplessness: Usually I feel less in control, less able to effect change in my life and the world around me. If I can’t make it through this challenge, can I do anything? Often I feel I can’t, which is yet another setback.
  • Feeling bad about feeling bad: As I get all these bad feelings, I feel bad that I even have them. I want myself not to feel bad. I want to squash these bad feelings.

So that’s some of what I go through during a setback, and I think lots of people feel similarly.

The good news: there’s hope. In every single one of my setbacks, I’ve found a way to pull out of it. Maybe I didn’t meet the challenge I originally set out to do, but I find a way to survive, to feel better, to do something good, to learn.

The Way Out

Looking back on how I got out of my past struggles, it’s instructive in my current struggle. I’ve always gotten out, and these are some of the things that worked:

  • Embrace reality: So my ideal/fantasy didn’t materialize … so what? The reality of life has always been perfectly fine, great even, only bad if I compare it to the fantasy. An example: my grandfather died, which was immensely sad for me … but actually the reality of my life with him no longer alive wasn’t bad unless I compared it to the impossible fantasy of him still being alive. The reality was that I still had my life and health and a job, I had wonderful kids and a great wife, I had my amazing grandmother, mom, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends. And that’s just the start of how amazing the reality is. Now, reality isn’t always full of “Hooray” … sometimes it has unpleasantness. But you can embrace that too, rather than wishing it matched up with your fantasy.
  • Embrace who I am: Self-doubt plagues me because I desperately want to be somebody I’m not. I want to be perfectly disciplined, for example, and I doubt my ability to be that person. Well, fine … but the person I actually am is pretty great. I just need to see that, and embrace the reality of me. I’m not disciplined as I’d like, but I’ve had some successes. I am kind and loving. I am human and I make mistakes. I get angry, but I make amends. I struggle, but I learn. I ache, I play, I read, I cook, I run, I lift, I get tired. All of these things are me, and they’re not all “good” … they’re just the reality of me. And I embrace them.
  • Embrace feeling bad: By not wanting to feel bad, I make my bad feelings worse. By allowing myself to feel bad, and realizing we all feel bad sometimes, I give myself space to feel this way. I give myself permission. In fact, I embrace it as part of being human. Too many people want to feel happy all the time, positive 100% of the time, but that’s not reality. We all feel bad sometimes, and that’s OK. When you give yourself this space, and embrace the suck, you aren’t fighting with it. It happens, then it goes away, like a cloud.
  • Realize it’s just temporary: Setbacks have inevitably been short-lived, in my experience. They happen for a day or two, maybe a week or two, but never forever. Even when I was going through a divorce, and feelings of depression would come off and on for months, that went away. It would come and go on a day-to-day basis, so each little bout was temporary. It’s easy to get caught up in a bad situation and think, “The world is over!” But actually, this bad feeling, this bad situation, is just a passing cloud. It’s just part of a constantly-changing experience, and while it’s not always pleasant, it will pass like everything else has passed.
  • Find gratitude: This always sounds corny, espousing gratitude as a solution, but it has always worked for me. Every time. I often make a list of the things I’m grateful for, going from big things like being a live and having loved ones, to little things like I’m glad I can smell chocolate, or see sunlight shafting through my windows, or read Hamlet, or have a computer with access to the Internet (!!!). Holy crap life is great.
  • Help someone: My setbacks are usually about me, wallowing in self-pity. That doesn’t sound great, but we all do it, even every day in small bits without noticing it. I don’t wallow in self-pity a lot these days, but it does happen. And when I see it, I now know that the best antidote is to get outside myself, stop being self-centered, and become other-focused. I try to find a way to help someone else. It inevitably, infallibly, makes me feel better.

And so, in this struggle I’m having now, I embrace the reality of me and the reality all around me. But then I find the reality of someone else who is struggling, and see how I can help them.

That’s why I drank nothing but bad-tasting shakes yesterday. Not because I’m super-disciplined, but because struggling with it might teach me something that will help someone else in their struggles.

And so, if you’re struggling with a setback today, know that you’re not alone. I’m there with you, struggling, so that we can do it together. And it will pass. We’ll get through. And this getting through: it’s making us stronger. It’s worth it.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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