Dealing with setbacks and disappointment

Jasper Vogel | april 22, 2022

Dealing with setbacks and disappointment


Disappointment and setbacks are part of life. A failing grade for an exam, a broken relationship, or rejection after a job application. Sometimes it is very concrete (your laptop breaks down) and sometimes it is less tangible (you had expected more from your student days). Sometimes the impact is small (the concert you were looking forward to got canceled), sometimes big (your parents decide to split up). That we have to deal with setbacks is inevitable. What can you do to best deal with them?

Setbacks and disappointment


First of all, it is important to feel the disappointment. Usually setbacks are accompanied by feelings of sadness, anger and frustration. These are emotions that we do not always experience as pleasant, and as a result are often pushed away. The consequence is that the emotions and tension build up inside. This causes you to not fully process the experience. It is much healthier and more effective to give space to these emotions. You can do this by consciously focusing on them with curiosity and concentration. With regular short meditation exercises you quickly become better at this. It also helps to acknowledge your emotions by sharing them with people around you. Talk about your emotions without expecting the other person to do something particular. They don’t have to solve anything, they don’t have to give advice or approval; venting is what helps.



The next step in putting disappointment behind you is to accept the new situation. If you continue to hold on to the initial outcome you envisioned, and continue to resent how things turned out, then you are holding yourself back. You will remain preoccupied by the disappointment and will not be able to take real steps forward. Note that acceptance is not rolling over like a helpless victim and letting it all happen to you. In contrast: acceptance gives you back control: you look at the situation as it is and enable yourself to choose your own direction again.



The last step in dealing effectively with setbacks is to learn from them. What did the disappointment make you realize about what is important in your life? Looking back, what could you have done differently and what are you taking with you toward the future? What has helped you stay upright in times of adversity? When you consciously reflect on this, you bend disappointment into an unexpected added value in life. Thus you make it possible to turn the blow of adversity into growth. 


Post-traumatic growth

Psychologists (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2009) even describe the concept of post-traumatic growth. This is the experience of positive change that occurs after a severe life crisis. Growth manifests itself in increased appreciation for life, stronger interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal power, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life. 


Striving for a life without setbacks seems nonsensical. After all, pain, sadness and setbacks are just as much a part of life as joy, fulfillment and success. What happens to us in life is not always in our control. How we deal with it is. So give space to your emotions, accept how the new situation is and take the lessons with you for the future in which you’ll grow.


Richard G. Tedeschi & Lawrence G. Calhoun (2004) “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence”, Psychological Inquiry, 15:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01

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