When I sat down to write my first blog post six months ago, I set only two parameters for myself—I would chronicle my one-year journey of transformation, and I would be brutally honest with how I was actually feeling. What became quickly apparent was that my emotional well-being was not destined for a steady upward trajectory, but rather, I was strapped into an emotional roller coaster that at times felt unbearable. Any type of radical change leaves one prone to setbacks, and our ability to put those setbacks into perspective is what ultimately determines whether we have the fortitude to push through pivotal periods of transformation.
One of the bitter ironies, in my first 6 months, has been the appearance of immense challenge at the exact moment when I feel ripe for entering the next level of self-realization. I’m currently reading Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she eloquently describes the universe’s ability to hit us with a stiff jolt of reality when we are on this precipice of transformation. “The precision with which the devil or evil or darkness (whatever you want to call it) worms into our own lives is breathtaking. It’s like a tailor-made radioactive isotope calling into question our identity as children of God. And nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light: sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, a toxic thought or a particular temptation.”
As a competitive runner, I’m used to dealing with setbacks all the time be it a freak injury, weather sabotaging a race, or even an unfortunate complication due to a nutritional issue. Where I brush up most against setbacks is in my recovery program for drug/alcohol addiction. I have an ongoing fear of relapse, and many others in my position might call that a healthy fear. Nevertheless, at times, it doesn’t take much for my sobriety to become precarious. Even almost 17 years clean and sober, I still fight with those inner demons that tell me whenever life gets too heavy, numbing those feelings of anxiety and depression with a drink or drink might be the answer. I was talking with a fellow recovering addict just yesterday, and I told her that every day I think about drinking, and the only thing that keeps me sober is when I ask myself: “Will drinking make this better?” —The answer has always been “no”. I know I’ll be in serious trouble the day that the answer to this question is “yes”.
So, if I can’t avoid being sideswiped by setbacks, how can I learn to cope with them realistically and rationally?
1. Triage your problem.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets overwhelmed by the immensity of the complications in life. Sometimes it simply feels as though everything is broken, and I have no idea where to direct my energy to make things better. I have the most success in overcoming my setbacks when I step back from the chaos and honestly determine what the primary issue is that needs my attention immediately. Often, it’s as simple as getting more sleep or eating better—both of which put me in better stead to deal with greater problems. Robert W. Service said it best: “It isn't the mountain ahead that wears you out; it's the grain of sand in your shoe.”
2. Live your life like you play the stock market.
Whenever I feel a regression in my life or even a painful stagnation, my natural tendency is to beat myself up for not being further ahead in my life. It’s like that old adage, that if you hear 200 compliments and only one criticism, you tend to zero in on the critical comment. I need to continually remind myself that I should look on my life as an investment in the stock market. Little ups and downs are inevitable, and the real goal is to have an overall trend of growth.
3. Cut the blame game.
The easiest thing to do when something goes pear-shaped is to immediately look around to cast blame. What’s worse is when that blame becomes internalized and I fall prey to the voices in my head that tell me I’m not “good enough”. Unfortunately, blame leads to only one place--shame. Nothing good has ever come from a position of shame. This has been a hard lesson for me to remember, so it’s something I struggle with daily.
4. Find a positive in a negative.
There’s an African proverb that says: “It’s the valleys that make us appreciate the mountain peaks.” Some of the greatest strides I’ve made have come on the heels of a setback, obstacle, or even a devastating loss. Reframing failure or a setback as an opportunity for growth makes me more appreciative of the successes and peaks on my journey.
5. Redirect and connect.
By far and away the most important step to overcoming a setback is to reach out to someone else. 16 years in a 12-step program has taught me that sharing a problem lessens the burden of carrying that problem. I don’t necessarily find a solution in communion with others, but I do find a reprieve from my isolation. It’s in this space of connection, that personal challenge may ultimately be a bridge to transformation.