How to deal with setbacks in 3 steps

Nobody said life was easy… embracing our setbacks is the key to a better understanding of the world, says Oliver Burkeman


How to deal with setbacks in 3 steps

3 minute read

When you have a problem – in love, work or any other area of life – you want rid of it as quickly as possible. That’s the whole point about problems, surely? But a long tradition in philosophy and psychology, reaching back to ancient Rome, urges another perspective – instead of simply trying to banish our hardships, we should look at them more closely, perhaps even with an attitude of friendliness, because the solution lies hidden within. Or, as the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it: ‘What stands in the way becomes the way.’

Step one is finding the courage to face reality. A lot of the suffering we associate with our setbacks arises not from the problems themselves, but from the subtle desire to persuade ourselves they’re not happening. If your marriage is on the rocks, you’ll face huge internal pressure not to admit it entirely to yourself – because, once you do, scary actions may be required to save it or end it. Likewise, when money worries are troubling you, it’s easy to just look away when the cash machine displays the size of your overdraft. But this is false comfort. Get over the hump of confronting the truth, and you’ll be able to take constructive action.

Step two is to look more closely at the problem. You think it’s clear: you’re depressed and want to feel better; you hate your job and want a new one; you wish your parents would treat you like a grown-up… But wait… As psychotherapist James Hollis points out, psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, are often messages from the unconscious. What might they be trying to tell you about what needs to change in your life? If you only try to squash down your feelings, you’ll never know. Another strategy is ‘the five whys’: ‘Why am I so angry all the time? Because I feel like everyone takes me for granted. Why do I feel as though everyone takes me for granted?’ Keep going, five times; a solution may be your reward.

Step three, though it may sound dispiriting at first, is to realise that your problems are never going away – there’s a strange relief in that knowledge. Hopefully, your worst ones will but, in a broader sense, life is made of problems: how to find useful and fulfilling work; how to make a relationship work or raise a child; how to deal with getting older. We make things worse than they need to be by indignantly insisting we shouldn’t have difficulties. But a life with no setbacks at all would be one with no meaning or purpose – which would be a very big problem indeed.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Image: Getty

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