How to Recover After a Setback
Photo courtesy of eflon.

How to Recover After a Setback

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Confidence

This year I’ve experienced a constant stream of setbacks, of varying degrees of seriousness: minor administrative life hassle, major family tragedy, missed career opportunities, painful emotional entanglements, idiotic breakages, unexpected financial demands.

At times, it’s felt as if the universe was sending me regular doses of deliberate punishment.

Each problem on its own wouldn’t be so bad. Especially since I recognize that I’m actually pretty lucky—I have my life mostly together, along with strong coping strategies and a solid support network.

But when problems come thick and fast—and, this year, another one kept appearing before I’d had time to process the last one—it can be too much for anyone to handle. When you’re already struggling, the smallest setback can tip the scales and dump thousands of final straws onto the camel’s back*.

*with hindsight, putting all those straws on scales above a camel was an avoidable mistake

How to bounce back better

So perhaps it’s a major design flaw in the universe, but everything doesn’t happen exactly the way we want, at the precise time we would prefer. What’s funny is that even though I know this to be true in general, I’m still terribly surprised whenever any particular setback shows up. Whether a minor inconvenience or a major depressive spiral, I’m often left reeling by unanticipated obstacles.

I’ve recently decided it’s time to develop an improved process for recovering from such setbacks. 

Because I (and other multipods) tend to have many projects at any one time, there’s a higher likelihood that one might come crashing down. Which means we have extra incentive to get good at handling disappointments. 

My existing process is… not great. It includes elements like cursing, shouting, looking sadly out of windows, complaining, binge-eating, and thinking about writing terrible poetry (but never actually inflicting that on the world, mercifully). I don’t recommend any of this.

Of course, what you need to do will depend entirely on the particular circumstances of whatever setbacks come your way. But here are some lessons I’ve learned lately, which will hopefully be helpful to you too:

1. Let Go of What Might Have Been

It’s easy to imagine a universe where this setback didn’t happen. You got the job, or secured the date, or you didn’t drop your wallet on the way to work, or you packed your suitcase better so you didn’t break your laptop during a five-minute walk down a flat street (this particular one might have happened to me very recently).

But we only get to live in one universe, and it’s this one. Unless we’re able to learn specific lessons from these regretful thoughts (like: pack your suitcase more carefully in future, you fool), then they serve no purpose.

We must accept that this setback happened—which is far easier said than done, particularly for larger setbacks. Acceptance is tough, and everybody’s process will be different. I find it helpful to consciously sit and feel the emotion (regret, sadness, anger, frustration)—then clear my thoughts, breathe, and acknowledge that the bad thing has happened and there’s nothing I can do to change that—I can only change my response to it.

2. Ask: Can It Be Fixed?

With the initial wave of emotion out of the way, it may be possible to see a comparatively straightforward solution.

Sometimes things are simply over—a failed job application is going to stay failed, and turning up at their office to desperately sing the company song isn’t going to improve things.

But if we’ve received an unexpected bill, or broken something, or upset somebody, then perhaps we can simply take action: pay the bill, fix or replace the thing, or have a conversation to clear the air. Sometimes the situation may not be fixable, exactly, but perhaps it can be improved. If there’s some practical action to be taken, then do it.

The sooner we put the difficulty behind us, the sooner we can get on with our lives. (And ignoring a lingering problem will only make things worse.)

If there’s not an immediate action to be taken, it may be helpful to revisit the “let go” stage above. For a big setback, it could take many revisits.

3. Find Support, if you Need It

If you’ve stubbed your toe, you might be able to vent via a pithy tweet or a text. But if you’ve suffered a serious setback, don’t be afraid to lean on friends, family or even appropriate professionals for help. Carrying it alone only makes it harder to deal with.

Perhaps it would help to find somebody who’s been through this themselves. For example, after your first rejection from a publisher, it might be reassuring to hear from a veteran writer that this is totally normal.

It often feels as if we’re the only person ever to suffer a misfortune, which is why it’s so valuable to build community to share our joys and struggles with.

(And if you can’t find a specific community for your struggle, the Puttylike and Puttytribe communities are always here for you.)

4. Find Some Joy

As famous comedy character Alan Partridge says, we need some positives after a disappointment.

It doesn’t have to be big, but finding some joy will distract us from the desire to wallow in self-pity and remind us that there’s still some good in the world, even if this particular good thing didn’t work out this time. Time for a treat, scheduling something to look forward to, taking time with a friend or family or pet, or whatever will cheer us up.

5. Reconsider Your Goals

Persistence is often crucial, and—once we’re ready—it’s good to get back on the horse and try again, aiming to achieve whatever it was we didn’t quite manage this time.

But sometimes a failure is a good moment to reconsider the direction we’re traveling in. Do we actually want this thing, or have our priorities changed?

There’s no need to go too deeply into it; too much questioning can be paralyzing. However, a few minutes of reflection is always helpful for allowing ourselves the possibility of change.

6. Take New Action

Hopefully we’ve accepted the loss, done our best to improve the situation, found some support, and done some nice things to cheer ourselves up. Now it’s time to look to the future and actually take action to get whatever we want.

That might mean applying for more jobs, rebooting or replacing a project, finding another date, whatever it takes. If there’s something we want, and it’s worth trying (again) to get it.

All Our Problems Are Solved Forever (Ha!)

Obviously, I’d like to wish you a life free of setbacks, but we all know that’s impossible. I’m trying to move forward in the certain knowledge that more things will go wrong… and that hopefully I’ll be better placed to handle it when they do.

Your Turn

How do you deal with disappointments? Share your strategies with the community in the comments.

Could you use some support from other (really nice) multipotentialites as you need to build a life around ALL your interests? Check out our community!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Amy W says:

    Neil, you always speak to what’s going on with me. I’ve been having several years of setbacks with career and health. My husband tells me occasionally – “You’ve got too much going on.” I’m doing my best to be patient in both areas, but it’s tough not to get discouraged when I can’t find a solution right away. It’s a constant balancing act between doing the things I enjoy and making sure that I’m not spreading myself too thin, especially when setbacks occur. Thanks for your article, Neil.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m pleased it resonated, though of course hope you have fewer setbacks and less discouragement in future! Thank you too :)

  2. Obinna says:

    Hi Neil,

    This is good to hear. For myself, I will get discouraged with some of my goals (not comfortable sharing publicly) and if things don’t happen or don’t happen quickly. It makes me question if I am on the right path. So I will seek out advice from friends or posts like this. This actually started my morning today because of this feeling of setback I had. So I will continue and reorganize as one of your points states. Also, people say how important community is as well. So I will seek this out as well. -Obinna Morton

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Definitely – discouragement is one of the worst feelings, as it sinks our ability to take action to improve things. I hope your reorganisation helps, and that you find more supportive community too :)

  3. Michelle Tucker says:

    It’s been that kind of year for me, and I really needed to see this. Thank you.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Sorry to hear that Michelle, but I’m pleased this resonated and you know you’re not alone in it! Good luck :)

  4. Catherine says:

    What a brilliant post! Thanks for a useful list of ways to help yourself after setbacks ?

  5. Patrick says:

    Beautifully put to words Neil. Dealing with setbacks is definitely the biggest challenge next to all other mutlipotential-challenges. As my accountant once told me when I was struck with yet another setback: ‘If what you’re doing would be easy, then the whole world would be doing it. Noone want obstacles or setbacks. But when you conquer yet another one, you’ll feel so much. True. Very true. Cheers, Patrick

  6. Karen L says:

    These are excellent ideas to ponder and put into action for the inevitable setbacks. Thank you. I find your suggestions to be practical and straight forward, making it more likely that I’ll use them.
    For the many, dare I say relentless, setbacks I’ve experienced for the past ten years, I’ve found it most helpful to remember that what we are doing at any given moment is not as important as who we are being. Its much easier to decide how to react when I first remember who I am or who I want to be in regards to my current situation.
    For example, my knee-jerk reaction to stepping on my laptop, which actually happened, when I’m struggling to pay the rent, and cannot imagine where I’d get the funds to replace it, is to use every profanity I can think of while having an infantile tantrum that would put any two year old to shame. That is definitely not who I am or want to be, although it might have been rather comical to an onlooker, if they could get past the fear that I might assault them. Sheesh, how embarrassing in retrospect! I want to be the person that may sigh heavily at that moment, but takes it in stride and can even find the humor in it, perhaps with the intent of avoiding putting those around me, as well as pets, (the poor things,) through that trauma. When I achieve this, a happy side effect is that my mind stays on, instead of turning into mashed potatoes, so that I can recognize the solution that often presents itself in short order.
    Nonetheless, sometimes I think I’ve gone mad. It helps tremendously to know that others have the same struggles too. So I’m so very grateful for your germane guidance as well as the wisdom found in the comments.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow! I know the feeling – breaking my own laptop at a time when I really couldn’t afford to tested my stoicism very strongly..! And thank you for the kind words about the post – I try to always ground them in something practical we can actually do. It’s all very well reading something good, but I find unless I take action to change things then… well… nothing changes. Hope your life is free of setbacks, or at least that you recover quickly next time!

  7. Elise says:

    Neil, I’m saving this post to read on the many rainy days ahead. You write so well, so memorably.. Your post prompted a saying from another wise man, Winston Churchill:

    “Success is moving from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Elise! You’ve cheered me up on an unpleasant, rainy morning :) I’m pleased the post resonated and I hope it helps you on one of those (hopefully rare) days in future.

  8. Neha M says:

    Hey Neil,
    So happy to read your post because the past 3 years of my life have been exactly like this from life and death situations to the every day small problems all hitting at one go. People have told me to write a TV series on the setbacks I’ve had. Ha!
    I’m also an anxious person and just saw your book on it. I will definitely give it a read now :)
    Good luck and thanks!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Aw, in a weird way I’m pleased to not be alone in this, but I’m also sorry to hear about the setbacks! Hope a TV series does come from it though ;) Good luck to you too, and thanks for sharing, it means a lot :)

  9. Kelli Horn says:

    This popped up right when I needed to read it- thank you for the gentle reminders. So that’s a no on the shouting and cursing?

  10. i was doing right, i just learned that there was nothing wrong with me (after like 15 years of suffering because i thought i was crazy, since after high school i cannot decide what i wanted to be, which means lot of psychotherapy and eventually meds) when suddenly, post-finasteride syndrome (a terrible disease that happens to those who took a hair loss med called propecia) hit me.
    now i’m slowly recovering and yes, i feel a big anger, not only against society but even against those terrible pharma companies.
    the world first told me that i was wrong, then tried to poison me.
    and yes, i feel like someone stole everything from me, and now i want everything back!
    i do not only want to be what i really am (everything) but i want everything back as well.
    i really want to join this community and thank you for this article, like kelly horn wrote, this popped out right when i needed to read it.

    much love

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