Whether it’s losing a job, going through a heartbreak or cheating spectacularly at a new diet, we all know the sting of disappointment after a failure. And while our natural inclination is to beat ourselves up and feel weak and unworthy, that only makes us hurt more.
But top psychologists say that failure is not only healthy, it makes us stronger. Here, three experts in resilience share their 10 simple strategies to help show ourselves compassion, better deal with failure, and bounce back—fast!
1. Remember it’s okay to hurt
When we find ourselves reeling from a perceived failure, the first thing to do is . . . nothing. Simply step back for a moment and breathe to allow your reactive nervous system to calm down. Once you’re more relaxed, you’ll have a broader perspective on your emotions, promises Katherine L. Bracken, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Raleigh, N.C., specializing in trauma-informed treatment of depression, anxiety and anger.
“It’s important to validate what you’re going through by acknowledging often conflicting feelings,” she says. “For example, you may be hurt and angry or feel regret and relief, especially if part of you is ambivalent about the goals you set for yourself.”
Though your emotions may seem contradictory at first, they’re all valid. “Simply taking a moment to acknowledge everything you’re feeling will help deepen your understanding of yourself so that you can begin to problem-solve.
2. Remember you’re not alone
Rather than chiding yourself after falling short, show yourself compassion, encourages Tracy Hutchinson, PhD, who serves on the graduate faculty at William & Mary and is a psychotherapist in private practice. “Being kind to yourself is proven to boost success by increasing your motivation to try again and take smart risks,” she says. “Just tap into your ‘common humanity’ by reminding yourself that everyone stumbles at times and tell yourself, ‘I’m not alone with my hurt.’”
Such empowering self-talk allows you to reflect on the bigger picture, she promises. “Self-compassion lets us be realistic about challenges while at the same time seeing the potential in those same roadblocks because they may steer us onto a different, better path.”
3. Share your feelings with trusted friends
It’s easy to catastrophize when we experience a setback and start to believe that one failure in one aspect of our life means we’re a complete failure in all areas. But this is just a distortion, says Hutchinson, adding that the allowing yourself to be a little vulnerable with trusted friends is key to bouncing back.
“Everyone experiences setbacks, and it doesn’t make you any less capable. We know that sharing the universality of this experience with people we trust reminds us that we’re not alone and we can overcome challenges.”
She explains tapping your social circles boosts a central part of inner strength called Instillation of Hope, a term for the optimism we gain from sharing our struggles, coined by renowned psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, MD. “This helps us tap into our rational mind and remind ourselves of all our successes.”
4. Separate goals from values
When we fail to achieve what we set out to, our entire identity or how we see ourselves feels like it’s been sucker punched, tanking our self-esteem. That’s why it’s so helpful to draw a distinction between goals and values, says Bracken. “While goals are specific and changeable objectives, values are higher-level aspects of who you are. Reflecting on the value tied to the goal can help you overcome a setback.”
For example, if you didn’t get a job you applied for, ask yourself which of your values it represented. It might have been your desire to take on a leadership role or your love of challenges. “Then ask yourself how else you can act on that value, like tackling a leadership role on a volunteer committee. Even if we fall short of our goals, pinpointing our values helps us find other ways of acting on what’s important to us.”
5. Talk to yourself this way
Setbacks tend to make us think in absolutes: I’ll never get that job; I’ll always struggle with X. But using one simple word can get you back on the proverbial horse in no time, promises expert Polly Campbell, author of You: Recharged and host of the Polly Campbell, Simply Said and Simpoly Write podcasts.
“One of my favorite strategies to spur action after a disappointment is simply to use the word ‘yet.’ Instead of saying, ‘I’ll never find a diet that works for me,’ for example, you might say, ‘I haven’t lost the pounds yet,’ or rather than, ‘I’ll never overcome X challenge,’ tell yourself, ‘I just haven’t figured it out yet.’” Once you use ‘yet,’ your brain automatically starts looking for solutions, and instead of focusing on the past, you’ll open up to the possibility of growth and learning.”
Also smart? Try dialectical self-compassion, adds Bracken. “Dialectics is the concept that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time.” If you’re having difficulty showing yourself kindness after a failure, for example, instead of forcing faux positivity, say to yourself, “Things didn’t go as planned this time, and I can recover.” This gives equal weight to the very real regret you may feel as well as the fact that you can bounce back.
6. Pay yourself for every ‘failure’
No doubt about it, rejection just plain stinks. But taking the sting out of it is as easy as, well, ‘tipping’ yourself,” says Bracken. “If I’m working with a client who’s applying for jobs, for example, but they keep getting rejected, I’ll suggest they pay themselves a dollar for every ‘failure,’” she says. “And when it gets to a certain amount, you can buy yourself something small—this uses reinforcement to chip away at some of the punishing aspects of pursuing goals so that you don’t get discouraged.”
There’s a famous business fable that goes something like this: A man makes a huge mistake on the job, one that costs the company he works for $1 million. He shuffles in to see his boss and offers to tender his resignation. His boss takes one look at him and says, “What? After I’ve just spent $1 million on your education?!” Every mistake is an opportunity to learn — reward yourself for that learning.
7. Visualize letting go of regret
Research shows just picturing success boosts resilience and helps us stay the course in the face of setbacks. Indeed, the brain interprets a vivid visualization as the real deal—and seeing what’s possible is the first step to making it inevitable. But when it comes to bouncing back from failure, visualizations are not one-size-fits-all, says Bracken.
“It depends what kind of energy you need in the moment,” she explains. “If you’re trying to let go of regret after a setback, for example, consider picturing bubbles containing the problems or failures of the past, and watch them as they pop or disintegrate in the air—or follow them as they float away on a stream or drift away from you as clouds.”
Or if you need to harness more of a fighting spirit to bounce back from a setback, she suggests picturing yourself kickboxing and making mincemeat out of challenges. “Just thinking about what you need most in the moment and let your imagination take you to that safe space.’”
8. Reward yourself now
One of the best ways to boost your bounce-back-ability from failure is with reinforcement—a fancy word for “reward.” But while most of us reward ourselves after we meet a challenge, Bracken says taking a moment to pat yourself on the back while you’re in the middle of it is arguably more effective.
“Just taking a moment while you’re doing something hard—particularly after you’ve had a setback—to acknowledge, ‘Okay, this is hard and I’m doing it,’ actually creates more long-term, sustainable change, helping you bounce back from failure.’” She adds that simply being mindful of your momentum while it’s happening helps speed momentum.
9. Make sure to note your progress
Along with acknowledging your ongoing efforts, take a minute to look back into your past. “Just think about on all the ways you’ve changed or made progress over the last year,” adds Hutchinson.
She notes these “wins” don’t necessarily need to be “successes” in the traditional sense—they can include shifting the way you think or becoming more aware of others. “For example, simply being empathetic or learning to see something from another person’s perspective counts as a ‘win’ that you should acknowledge because it means you’re growing.” Success, she says, has many different definitions and it’s up to us to recognize our progress.
10. ID the ‘next right action’
When it comes to truly turning the page after a setback and starting a new chapter, the tiniest steps often trigger the most momentum, observes Campbell. “Just identify the ‘next right action,’” she urges.
“This could be as simple as getting a cup of coffee or washing your hands to symbolically remove negative energy and get going again.” Even simply sending a friend a text of appreciation can move your forward because such small acts of gratitude make us more energized and future oriented. “Setbacks are a part of life, and they can be a good thing because they mean you’re trying and pushing yourself— just knowing this moves us closer to our goals.”
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.