Let’s Talk About… Setbacks

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.

This is Episode 77 and this week I’m talking about setbacks. In this episode I’ll cover what setbacks are, why dealing with them in a healthy way matters, and how to manage setbacks for the sake of your wellbeing. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Watch Episode 15 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m sharing some of the common warning signs of mental illnesses (mainly depression and anxiety) and what to do about them.

Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:

This podcast episode was originally released on 2 May, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 77, and thanks so much for joining me! 2021 is The Year of Wellbeing here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, and each week I’ll be exploring ways you can make a positive difference in your own life.

This week is all about setbacks. There’s this weird idea that’s been sold to us time and time again that everything is supposed to get better and better every day, however life operates less like a straight line of ever-increasing happiness and more like a toddler driving a dodgem car — going all over the place and having the occasional crash. It is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of life that we endure setbacks from time to time, either in terms of negative impacts on our progress or broader events that have an effect on us (I mean, if you’d have said a year and a half ago that billions of us would be dealing with never-ending setbacks for well over a year, I don’t think anyone would have believed you… but here we are!). Setbacks can make the already-challenging business of life even more challenging and even sometimes outright horrendous to deal with. But even through the darkest of times, there is always a glimmer of hope shining through the cracks… so today I’m going to be talking about how to get yourself through setbacks — both small and monumental — in order to keep on moving forward. 

Before I get into that, two quick updates which will take me just a minute or so. First, Episode 15 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is out now on YouTube where I’m sharing five common warning signs of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety as well as what to do about them. The episode is out now on YouTube and the content I post there is completely different to this podcast — watch it now on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube.

So my other update is that Episode 1 of my other YouTube channel, No-Nonsense Advice for Living, is out now! In this episode I talk about five benefits of growing older (and since we don’t really have a choice about ageing, we may as well look at the positives!). I post new videos on that channel every Saturday, and you can watch it now on YouTube or head to www.jeremygodwin.com.au. You’ll also find the links for both YouTube channels in the episode description text on whatever podcast service you’re currently using. 

So, with that said, on with this week’s episode about setbacks… 

Introduction

I believe it was the collective of British philosophers known as Chumbawumba who, in 1997, sang, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never gonna keep me down.” Now aside from the rest of the lyrics of that song reading like a diagnostic manual for alcoholism, that particular song (Tubthumping) was everywhere in the late 90’s and it speaks to what I hope is the attitude most of us have towards setbacks; we might get knocked down, but we know we need to get back up again.

Let’s be honest here: that ‘getting up again’ bit is fairly difficult, especially when you feel as though life has knocked the wind out of your sails and you’re left flailing around on the floor like a turtle on its back. I’m sure we’d all love it if we never had to deal with problems or setbacks in life, but then again if everything was permanently rosy and perfect then this would be a fairly boring existence. 

The thing about setbacks and difficulties is that, as challenging as they are, they force us to adapt which in turn helps us to grow. Now I’m not saying that we need problems to grow, however many of the biggest lessons you will ever learn in your life are tied to having to deal with issues as well as needing to learn from your mistakes.  

There’s a saying by an unknown author that goes, “We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” For me, I consider setbacks to be one of those aspects of life that you can either try to fight (and at this point I’ll remind you of the wise words of the Borg: resistance is futile) or you can choose to find ways to use these types of situations as a catalyst for personal growth. So, what are setbacks and how do they relate to mental health? Well, let’s get into some definitions…

What are setbacks? 

When I talk about setbacks I’m referring to problems and difficulties that we might face, whether small or large. From struggling with unexpected bills through to a relationship breakdown or the loss of a loved one, through to the entire economy shitting itself overnight and putting millions of people out of work, setbacks very often show up unannounced and turn all of your carefully-considered plans into mush. 

None of us are immune to setbacks. From internal factors (like your physical or mental health) through to external situations that directly or indirectly affect you (like relationships with others or your work or even, more broadly, local or global events). All of us have things that can potentially affect us. 

Here’s the thing: all setbacks can be overcome and you are not a victim. Sometimes, stuff just happens with no real reason why. It’s OK to be upset and hurt and all that stuff, but what isn’t OK is to then let those feelings dominate you and detract you from the process of adapting to and overcoming whatever the setback is.

What feels like a setback to you is highly personal and it doesn’t matter what other people think. I am going to tell you one of my own from the shit-show that was 2020 that I’m not entirely sure everyone will understand, but I’m sharing it because it feels relevant — don’t judge me! As regular listeners know I had a lot of setbacks last year, with the biggest being our 17-year-old cat dying in April which broke my heart, and this might sound odd to some but around the same time all that was going on, Eurovision was cancelled and it hit me hard. I know not everyone gets it, but Eurovision is the absolute highlight of my year; it’s fun and joyful and it is without a doubt the most diverse musical spectacle of each year, and if you ask anyone who knows me they would agree that I begin counting down on social media months before the big week each year. So when it was cancelled last year thanks to that evil mongrel bastard of a pandemic, it felt like a slap in the face on top of everything else that was going on. Now obviously I know now that my reaction was more about everything else I was dealing with (thanks to the good-old 20/20 vision in hindsight) but it was definitely one of those things that was completely out of my control and which I had to learn to adapt to. And thankfully it’s going ahead this year because I could not have coped going another year without Eurovision, no thank you!

Here’s my point (I do have one in amongst all that!): we cannot necessarily control what happens or the emotional reaction we have to the setback, but as always we can control what we do, say and feel next (and more specifically, what we do with our feelings)… and I’ll be talking through more of that shortly. First though, let’s talk about…

Why does dealing with setbacks in a healthy manner matter for your mental health? 

It matters because learning how to deal with setbacks more effectively then helps you to deal with the bigger ones if and when they come along. Now, I might sound a bit lecture-y here but I’m going to say this anyway: very few things in life are black and white but when it comes to coping mechanisms, it’s either healthy coping or unhealthy coping.

When you deal with setbacks in an unhealthy way — like drinking away your feelings, using food as medicine, snorting your way through the pain, lashing out at others or just generally doing all the stuff that’s bad for you — you are going to wind up making more of a mess than doing any actual good for yourself. On the other hand, learning how to deal with the inevitable setbacks that we all face from time to time in a healthy manner enables you to learn what you need to learn from them. Why does that matter? Because that is how you grow. Growth isn’t easy; it takes time and effort and perseverance, and more often than not it’s painful. Caterpillars don’t just go into a cocoon and have a nice little sleep before they magically grow wings and emerge as a butterfly; they go through a total metamorphosis where they’re basically turned into goo and rebuilt from the ground up (I mean, that’s an oversimplification but this is Let’s Talk About Mental Health not Let’s Talk About Larval Biology…). 

Growth is about metamorphosis; it’s about moving forward. Setbacks often prevent us from moving forward and so if we get stuck in using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with them, then we end up stuck (or, worse yet, going backwards). A setback isn’t a permanent dead-end; it’s an obstacle that needs to be overcome and so sometimes that means you need to find another way around just like when you hit a roadblock in traffic and your GPS needs to re-route you. You can either sit there yelling at the roadblock (and wondering why that doesn’t do anything) or you can find a way around it, even if that takes you a bit out of the way or makes your journey take a bit longer. Either way it’s probably going to be painful to deal with, but the difference is in whether or not that pain is helping to lead you to a better place in the longer term. 

And just throwing your hands up and giving in to the setback isn’t going to do you any favours; it’s like the prime example of our throwaway society and short attention spans rolled into one: “Oh well, I give up”. Does anyone remember that episode of The Simpsons where Ned’s beatnik parents said, “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas”? It’s very that. 

The thing is nobody is going to do the work for you in life and there are always going to be setbacks, so you can either throw your hands up in the air without ever trying anything (and then wonder why you’re not getting anywhere) or you can do the work… and even if it hurts like hell it’s still up to you to do the work.

So how do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…

How to manage setbacks

Alright, so let’s start with some specific steps to work through and then I’ll cover off on some general mindset things that I’d encourage you to think about. So the first step to managing a setback is…

Acknowledge how the setback is affecting you — and this one can be really tough because it requires you to have one of those honest conversations with yourself that probably makes you feel really uncomfortable. But unless you face it you may find yourself pretending it’s not affecting you when, really, it is. Be honest with yourself in an objective way about how the setback has impacted on you and your life, as well as the lives of those you care about, and acknowledge your feelings as well as any potential problems the setback has created. This is not about dwelling on the feelings (and I’ll come back to that in a minute) because if you dwell you’re going to get stuck, however if you don’t take time to at least acknowledge your feelings then you may find they come back and bite you in the backside later on (because unresolved feelings tend to get a bit pissy the longer you ignore them). So that leads to my next point which is…

Let the emotions out and let it go — sometimes you need to feel what you need to feel, and sometimes that involves getting it out… so get it out. Write your feelings in a journal or speak to a therapist (I say ‘therapist’ here rather than ‘friend’ because bless your friends but they are emotionally invested in you which makes it harder for them to be objective). Not everyone needs to vent but I certainly do, and I’ve found over the years that in most cases just getting rid of the emotions allows me to begin to think more rationally and thoughtfully. Part of that also involves my next point, which is… 

Do not linger on the negative emotions — whether or not you let the emotions out is up to you and comes down to your preferred style, however I need to say this about negative emotions: when you hold onto them (like, really hold onto them) they can turn you into a negative and bitter person. Please don’t be that person that people shy away from because being around them is like being slapped in the face with misery. To quote The Cranberries, “Do you have to let it linger?” The answer is no. No you don’t. FYI if you’re prone to lingering on the dark side you can work through all that stuff by working on your mindset (which I explored in Episode 31) and your sense of realistic optimism (which I covered in Episode 47). OK, so back to the steps to take for dealing with setbacks. Next… 

Assess the situation objectively — when you feel a bit traumatised by a setback (or a lot traumatised!) it can set off a whole bunch of irrational thoughts. I think I might have mentioned this once before (either that or I did but I cut it from the final edit; if so here it is anyway)… when the pandemic took off one of the first things I did was order a portable solar battery so I could still power my devises, like my iPad, in case the world turned to shit and the power went out. Now, what the hell did I think was going to happen, a zombie apocalypse?! I mean, honestly, I’ve been watching too much bad apocalyptic television! But fear can manifest in random and unpredictable ways, so being able to let go of those emotions and then look at things more rationally to make a more objective assessment of the situation will help you to deal with things in a calmer way. And while you’re doing this, be objective about what is within your control versus what is not then focus on what you can control. I find a good way to do that is with my next point…

Focus on today and tomorrow rather than weeks and months into the future — if you try to think or plan too far ahead you’re likely to run into more obstacles, especially when dealing with major setbacks, because you may not be thinking about all of the potential things you need to deal with. Instead just focus on two days: today and tomorrow. Get yourself through those and take baby steps to keep moving forward. My next point is…

Choose to grow from the setback — and yes I am being serious here. We grow more from our difficulties than we do from all the things that are going wonderfully in life. Why? Because difficulties and setbacks challenge us to adapt and they force us to try different approaches that we might not have otherwise considered if we were just happily plodding along doing the same thing we’ve always done. Nothing in life is permanent and you can either fight that fact and cause yourself pain, or you can embrace it and use it as a tailwind to push you forward. If your old approaches to things aren’t helping you to deal with the setback, you need new approaches and that usually means having to step way out of your comfort zone. That’s a good thing, even if it feels painful. You cannot resolve issues with the same thinking that created them. Whatever setback you’re dealing with, learn the lessons it has to teach you, make changes in your life where you need to, and grow. Then when the next setback inevitably comes along, repeat the cycle all over again.   

And now for some general advice on dealing with setbacks, starting with:

Remain objective — and what I mean by that is to focus on the facts rather than being influenced by feelings or opinions. That means not blaming yourself or others for whatever has happened — which can be hard to do, especially if someone has hurt you… but all finger pointing does is stir up even more negativity. You don’t resolve negative situations by throwing more negativity at it. Remind yourself that when setbacks happen it’s not personal and you cannot control what other people do or don’t do.

Remember: it’s not permanent — no setback is permanent, and there is nothing in life so big that it cannot be overcome with enough time, effort and perseverance. Setbacks are obstacles to be managed, and if you remind yourself to look at them in that way it helps you to begin to see different ways to tackle the issue. Whether you believe you’re stuck or you believe you can overcome setbacks is up to you; either way, what you believe is what you get.

Look at the bigger picture — there’s a reason why I often encourage you to ask yourself, “will this really matter in five years?”… because 99% of the stuff that we think matters today really just won’t be important in the future. Step back and consider the situation in the broader context of life.

If you made a mess, accept responsibility — look, sometimes we’re the ones who make a monumental mess of things which then lead to setbacks. If that’s the case, be an adult and own it. Accept responsibility without excuse or blame, and if you can then make it right. I talked about mistakes back in Episode 2 as well as accountability in Episode 16, so you may find those helpful as well.

Manage your self-talk — I covered this topic all the way back in Episode 9 so I’ll just touch on it here to say that the way you talk to yourself matters, because it influences your sense of self-worth (which is actually the topic of next week’s episode so look out for that one). Choose to be kind and supportive to yourself, and please don’t berate or insult yourself because all that does is eat away at your self-confidence and even your sense of hopefulness. Which leads me to my next point…

Develop and nurture healthy coping mechanisms — I talked about this before so I won’t bang on about it too much, but basically find healthy strategies that work for you like getting outdoors every day or spending time with friends and so on, rather than the unhealthy stuff that will end up making you feel worse about yourself.

And finally, tackle things as soon as possible but also have patience — There’s an anonymous saying that goes, “Tackle any difficulty at first sight because the longer you leave it the larger it grows,” and I think that serves as a great reminder not to leave things to drag on because they usually do have a tendency to become even bigger issues if you do that. Now having said that, once you start doing the work to deal with a setback be patient because all things take time, effort and perseverance.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to setbacks and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Things happen to all of us from time to time that can throw us off-course or make us feel like we’re being pulled in a different direction, but the thing about setbacks is that they are opportunities to learn and, more importantly, opportunities to grow. Even the darkest of days has something to offer in the long-term; for example, I chose to turn the years I spent battling with depression and anxiety into something positive by doing this. But if you’d have told me nearly 10 years ago when things started to turn to shit that someday I’d be using those experiences and setbacks and heartaches to help other people, I don’t know that I would have believed it. Because the thing with setbacks is that when we’re in the thick of it, it can be almost impossible to see the bigger picture… but trust me when I say that it’s a work of art. You will be OK and, with time, whatever setbacks you might be dealing with will be fertiliser to help you grow. All you have to do today is make the choice to see the light at the end of the tunnel and take small steps every day towards it. 

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an anonymous author, and it is:

“The difficulties of life are meant to make us better, not bitter.” 

Anonymous

Next week I’ll be talking about self-worth. Our self-worth is about how we feel about ourselves; whether we think we’re ‘good enough’ or ‘worthy’ of love and belonging from others and from ourselves. Sometimes our sense of self-worth can be out of whack and that can lead us to do and say things that might not be in our best interest in the long-term. So how do you manage your self-worth in a healthy way? Well, next time I’ll be talking about what self-worth is, why healthy self-worth is vital for your wellbeing, and how to improve and maintain your sense of self-worth.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 9th May. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday, along with weekly episodes of No-Nonsense Advice for Living every Saturday on my other YouTube channel [or visit www.jeremygodwin.com.au]. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for exclusive updates, my weekly newsletter and the transcript and audio links for all episodes. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.

You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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