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What If Setbacks Aren't Setbacks?

Posted Aug 23 2011 5:28pm

One time a few years back, a friend and I were exploring my belief, "Setbacks are failures." She was facilitating my inquiry on the thought, when at one point she interjected, "Setbacks aren't failures. Setbacks are setbacks!"

In The Work of Byron Katie, we call that "taking the client out of inquiry." She said that to get me off of the "yeah, but I'm a failure and I have proof" trip I was on at the time. I appreciated her input; I was stuck and needed that little swat upside the head.

Later, when I'd gained some perspective on my issues, it occurred to me that setbacks might not be setbacks either.

I looked up the definition of the word "setback." The main meaning is the one we all think of: something that thwarts, frustrates, hinders, impedes, or—worse case scenario—reverses or defeats.

I was also amused to learn that set-back is a term used in surveying. It means the interval by which a chain or tape exceeds the length of an area being measured.

So when "surveying" the field of my thoughts, I may discover that this hindrance or defeat I am experiencing isn't as big as I originally thought.

This is not to say we don't experience less-than-optimal situations and respond to them emotionally; it would be ridiculous at best simply to stand back and smile in such instances, and we've all been through them...whether a job is lost, the computer crashes and the project data is gone, a major client goes elsewhere, the car is totaled, we get sick, there's a death in the family, the house loses its value when we need to sell, or the dream of "soulmates forever" turns into a rude awakening when a partner leaves. From the individual's perspective, these are all "acts of God" every bit as much as an earthquake or a tsunami, and we may not feel up to, or happy about, the task of rebuilding our lives after such an event.

When we're not getting what we wanted, planned for, or expected as our due, we call it a setback, meaning we're off course, we have to start over, all our good work was for nothing, the good times are over, and it's going to be hard if not impossible to get some semblance of control and satisfaction back.

What if we had no reference for "setbacks"?

Here's my Work
"Setbacks are setbacks."

Is that true? Yes.

Can I absolutely know that it's true? No. (Where the "no" came from: specific examples from my life where I made lemonade from lemons, gained renewed energy from my experiences put towards beneficial new directions, or was spared from what I thought I wanted. I could also draw from inspiring stories I have heard about others whose losses or tragedies resulted in better outcomes than they could have imagined.)

How do I react when I believe the thought, "Setbacks are setbacks"? (Short version)
I'm tired, low-energy; I retire to the fainting couch. I doubt myself and my abilities. I whine. I procrastinate. I make excuses. I "yeahbut." I don't ask for help. I bat away helpful suggestions. I don't feel or accept support—"It's hopeless, can't you see?" I isolate. I feel shame. I ruminate about the event that I call a setback, have 20-20 hindsight, I beat myself. I resent others, and reality. I pity myself; I seek pity. I see myself as unlucky. I don't want to try anymore. I fear more loss. I waste time on the internet, or shopping, or napping, or dithering. I go to the comfort foods. I imagine worse-case scenarios for the future, and the resulting fear keeps me from trying anything new or getting back up on the horse. I get overwhelmed.

Who would I be without the thought, "Setbacks are setbacks"?
I would take stock of what's still working and be appreciative. I'd inventory my resources and use them. I'd reach out to people for help, collaboration, feedback. I'd look forward to fresh starts. I'd do research. I'd take better care of myself—exercise, take a vacation, take a bubble bath—the better to regroup. I'd chunk down my tasks and do one at a time. I'd keep in mind that that there is much support and love in my life. I'd stop living in the past. I'd trust that I'm where I'm supposed to be, and notice that I'm fine in the moment. I'd be creative and pro-active. I wouldn't get mired in drama. I'd be more available to others, more of a giver as well as receiver. I'd share my gifts and acknowledge them to myself.

Turn the thought around:

"Setbacks are not setbacks." Examples: 1/ Taken at face value, losing boyfriend X was simply: "Man leaves relationship"...not everything I thought about what it meant for my future ("I'm old and he was my last chance at finding love." 2. Stock market "crashes" can be seen as stock market "corrections," indicating that it's time to rethink one's investments. 3. A death in the family need not be seen as the end of happiness, security, etc. but a natural occurence about which it's normal to grieve.

"Setbacks are opportunities" Examples: 1. Losing my job at X Corporation lead me to going into business for myself, earning up to six figures for a few years. Losing that business lead me to doing what I do now, work that I love. 2. In the wake of the 9-11 terror attack there was an opportunity for many New Yorkers like myself to take stock of our lives, count our blessings, start afresh, be available to those in need, be grateful for our lives as they were. 3. The decline in my health afforded me time at home to do things I haven't made time for in years, including writing, painting and reading books.

"My thoughts are setbacks." Stressful beliefs keep me from seeing what's available, what's possible and what's good.



©2011 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.
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