Setbacks can be opportunities for growth

Setbacks can be opportunities for growth

Sometimes, despite careful consideration and continued efforts, we do not achieve the results we want. Setbacks can be when something turns out to be different from what was expected, a delay or an obstacle that prevents progress. They may be unpredictable and can catch us by surprise.

Our first reaction is likely to be frustration, disappointment and worry about possible negative consequences. It may feel like we are stuck or sliding backwards, not knowing how to move forward.

Questioning your decisions?

Our decisions can be influenced by our memories of past setbacks. Looking beyond the problem may seem difficult at first. We often dwell on what we did wrong, wondering how we missed something that now appears obvious in retrospect.

We forget that at the time of making the decision, we were working with the information we had available at the time. In addition, we tend to overlook the wider context, where external factors could have influenced the outcome.

We tend to view setbacks negatively, so we want to avoid them. Some people may interpret these as an indication that they are not good enough at what they do. An underlying fear of failure can trigger tension as we imagine the worst case scenario.

These can trigger thoughts that cause further tension or distress, such as “What if I don’t get the job?”, “What if I lose my job?” or “What if I cannot do it?”

Fear of failing?

When we start something new (degree, job, business) we focus on what we want to achieve. We do not expect failure. However, we need to factor in the possibility of setbacks.

These can be difficult to manage because we tend to question ourselves, doubting our ability. We also may wonder whether it is worth continuing to invest our time and effort in our project.

Our society praises exceptional achievements, giving the impression that perfection is easily achieved. Often the effort required, and the toll it takes on people, is hidden from view.

An underlying drive for perfectionism may intensify the fear of failure, so we view any setback as unacceptable. As a result, we tend to avoid complex tasks, and are less likely to try new challenging goals, limiting our opportunities for growth.

For example, if we are thinking of starting a business or a degree, or changing jobs, we might wonder whether we can manage the workload and the uncertainty of how things will unfold. In addition, we might be concerned about financial difficulties that could prevent us from achieving our goal.

Dealing with self-doubt

When we have self-doubts, we think this means we lack confidence, undermining our belief in our ability to persevere and do well. Our ability to deal with self-doubt is strengthened by experimenting and trying new ways of doing things.

To build our capacity to take action in times of uncertainty, we can motivate ourselves by focusing on the progress we are making. As we learn to trust ourselves that we can cope with challenges, we build confidence in our ability to manage setbacks (Molinsky, 2017).

Strategies to make progress:

Increase self-awareness: Take time to explore what happened and identify the situation that triggered your reactions. Acknowledge them, and observe and reflect on emerging thoughts and feelings. For example, you can ask yourself “What is happening?” How are you interpreting the situation? “What other alternative perspectives are there to interpret the event?”

Setbacks are always possible, and they can happen to anyone. For example, J.K. Rowling has talked about her experience of submitting her manuscript and being rejected several times. She persevered, and eventually got her first Harry Potter book published.

View setbacks as opportunities: We can view setbacks as another type of problem to be solved, and that can provide a different perspective. Setbacks are something to be expected when trying something new, so it is unrealistic to think they should not happen to us.

Often, it is our perception that we have no option, or that we have lost something (time, money, an opportunity) that makes us view setbacks as failure.. This perspective reduces our motivation and erodes our confidence.

We tend to focus on the consequences that may follow, and this can prevent us from persevering. We can turn things around by acknowledging that it takes time to process a difficult experience.

It also helps to trust that we gradually adjust to the situation. Patience and belief in ourselves help manage challenges (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2015).

Manage expectations: When setbacks occur, our frustration and concern may be the result of our perception of having limited time and as a result, we feel under pressure to find a quick solution.

We worry that we may not meet our expectations, and so delay getting started or continuing with the task. We may worry that we are letting ourselves and others down. Expectations can hold us back from taking risks and embarking on a long-term project.

Practising self-compassion, where we acknowledge our humanity, can reduce negative self-talk. It improves mood, restores energy and allows us to continue working on our tasks (Neff, 2011).

We tend to focus on setbacks without considering external factors not under our control. If we take a broader perspective, and focus on what we can control, we can navigate them more effectively.

Rather than construe a setback as an insurmountable problem, view it instead as feedback. It is information that helps us improve (Dweck, 2017). Asking ourselvesWhat matters most to me?”What do I hope to achieve?” “How will I know I have achieved my goal?” can clarify our expectations and enable us to identify the steps we can take to reach our goals.

Do something: We can manage challenges when we trust in our ability to learn and persevere with tasks. Self-efficacy refers to the belief in our ability to handle situations and trust that we can achieve our goals with our effort (Bandura, 1997).

We can boost our motivation by taking action. Every small step counts. This way, we develop the skill of starting. Once we start, the next step is easier.

As Dweck (2017) identified, it is essential to emphasise effort over ability. A challenging goal will be difficult, requiring hard work. It is not a sign that it is impossible.

We have the capacity to learn and develop our skills to manage it, although it may take longer than we expect. The challenge itself is motivating (Bandura, 1997).

Focus on possibilities: When we focus on past setbacks or mistakes, we develop stories about them and miss other options. For example, we may say “I should have known,” or “I can’t get things right.

We can reframe these thoughts by focusing on what other ways of interpreting the event we can find to create an opportunity to make positive change (Wilson, 2011).

Instead of thinking “I cannot do it” we have a choice to act. For instance, we can say “I can do something different now and see what options open up.” As we practise the skill of reframing or changing perspective, we can boost our confidence to stretch beyond our comfort zone (Molinsky, 2017).

Develop self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to manage difficult situations. It is trusting that we have the ability to persevere that strengthens our confidence in our ability to manage challenges (Bandura, 1997).

When we focus on an ideal outcome, we hesitate making it less likely that we will follow through with tasks. As a result, we hold back from developing our skills and achieving our potential (Pink, 2022).

To boost confidence and prevent feeling demotivated, work in incremental steps, and keep track of progress. As we trust ourselves to cope with setbacks, we can manage our emotions and be better prepared to find ways to reach our goals (Dweck, 2017).


Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company..

David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V.H.(1995) The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological review, Vol 102 (2), 379-395. American Psychological Association Inc. 

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015) The power of negative emotion. How anger, guilt and self-doubt are essential to success and fulfilment. London: Oneworld Publications.

Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. London: Penguin.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.

Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.

Schwartz, B. (2004) The paradox of choice. Why less is more. New York: Harper Collins.

Wilson, T. D. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Allen Lane.




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