coping-with-a-setback

Coping with a Setback

It’s tough to cope with a setback. Setbacks stink, and they, well, set us back. How often have you started with a specific goal in mind only to find that something gets in the way of completing it? It might be a person dragging their feet on a project, a health obstacle, or poor timing, so it doesn’t work out.

Every Sunday, I set a small goal for myself for the week: complete my chores each day promptly so I might spend more time with Jai. I might start off strong, get ahead by two days on Monday only to have something happen Tuesday and Wednesday to get me rushing to finish my chores if they get finished at all. As the week marches on, I get farther and farther behind on my tasks until its Sunday again.

It never seems to fail that each time I get two steps ahead, something sets me four steps behind.

It’s frustrating when this happens. Every time I set a goal for myself, with or without expectation, something gets in the way. The trouble is, it isn’t every time that this happens. It only seems like it due to negative bias. But often it’s enough to leave me to feel discouraged that I am getting nowhere near achieving my personal goals.

The Source of Setbacks

When I recognize that I am slipping down a discouraging path with a setback, I try to reach a space where I can understand what is happening. Some delays are out of my control: the car needs an oil change, and thirty minutes last two hours because the car is due for a maintenance check. In this scenario, I have a choice to make: deal with the issue at hand, and get the car checked out, or skip-it and allow a possible issue fester into an expensive problem.

I choose the setback because I know not dealing with the critical task at hand, maintaining the health of my vehicle, can cause more stress in the future. Yet, time was lost that I planned to devote to something else, and that feels frustrating.

Another source of the setback may be of my own making, typically through self-sabotage. I am aware enough to know that I am the source of it, yet sometimes I continue to engage in the self-destructive setback. This may be dropping the ball on a project, not responding to essential communications, or participating in toxic behavior to avoid dealing with the situation.

When I get a setback that is out of my control, I get more frustrated. When I create my own impediments, I have only myself to blame. I can choose to change my behavior to have a favorable outcome. But when the setback is external, I get more discouraged because I don’t know how to fix it. It’s out of control, which makes me feel out of control.

But I am learning how to better deal with it.

Self-Compassion and Gratitude

When I feel out of control, especially amid a setback, I have to find a healthy way to control the situation. There is only one thing I can control, and that is my reaction to the setback. Through this, I can manage the next couple of steps I take. This is my response, how I deal with my response and deciding what my options are.

Depending on the scenario, a setback might feel like a permanent roadblock, but it does not have to be. I have options for finding a way around it. If I react like I’ve hit a dead-end, I won’t try to find an alternative. If I respond like I can turn around and try a different path, I am more apt to consider my options.

And sometimes a shut door is a shut door. There is wisdom in knowing that there are no other options over assuming there are no alternatives.

To healthily manage my reaction to a setback, I engage in self-compassion and gratitude for the situation. I tell myself, “it’s okay that this might not be your ideal situation, but you will do the best you can with it.” I follow it with gratitude that I am given a chance to learn more about what I can do. Adversity, via setback, is often the best tool to teach us about ourselves.

I don’t seek out setbacks, nor do I martyr myself in the middle of one. Rather, I take the “life gives you lemons,” approach: if I am stuck dealing with it, might as well make the most of it.

Despite what it sounds like, I don’t believe life purposely sets out lessons for us. The lessons are always there, it’s just a matter of, are we listening to them? Setbacks are one of those lessons we can’t avoid, so we should look to them not as keeping us back, but teaching us patience perseverance, and humility.

Each setback isn’t an addition to a lesson, it’s just a chance to deepen or refresh what you’ve previously learned.

Maintaining Focus

There isn’t one ideal way to handle a setback. But I have found one thing, besides self-compassion and gratitude, that helps me get through it: maintaining my focus.

A setback often derails us mentally and emotionally. We might want to complete a particular task this week, and an injury prevents that from happening. Rather than focusing on the injury beyond healing, focus on what can be done in the meantime.

Keep yourself focused while moving forward.

Sometimes it hard to keep that focus if it’s a long-term setback. If that’s the case, consider re-evaluating your goals, if only temporarily. Refocus on another goal that might help you achieve your sidelined goal. Look for alternatives, but keep yourself focused on moving forward rather than staying stuck in one place.

Respecting the Setback and Ourselves

The key to dealing with a setback is respecting the lessons and our ability to listen. Delays aren’t inherently a bad thing, though they do get a bad rap. They are frustrating simply because they put a pause on our expectations, and makes us feel stagnant. Yet, a setback can be a good thing.

I view setbacks as an opportunity to take a break. When I create the hindrance, often it’s because I am doing too much and not listening to my need to slow down. I unconsciously self-sabotage because it’s the only way I will listen to taking a breather.

When the setback is out of my control, it allows me to regroup, figure out what happened, and decide on my next step. Delays will enable us to take the time to reassess what is going on in our lives, especially if we usually don’t give ourselves permission to do so.

It is hard to cope with setbacks, but we can and will each time we experience one. And that’s okay.


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Celebrate Life

Today I wanted to focus on celebrating the big things since we discussed celebrating the small stuff on Monday. So, why not go for the most significant thing worthy of our celebration, and that’s life itself? Why not celebrate life?

Living with a chronic illness makes celebrating life hard, but it can be done. We might wish things were different, hope that we were healthy. But let’s be honest: if we were healthy, there would be something else to make celebrating life difficult. It’s in our nature to skew towards the negative.

We all wish for what we don’t have, no matter how rich or healthy we might be. We are always desirous of something, and with that, we sometimes forget the most important thing out there: that we have our lives.

Using Mallory Smith as an example, let us celebrate each day despite the setbacks we encounter.

Appreciating Victories (Big and Small)

Each day we wake up is a small victory. If you wake up with no pain, a victory. If you wake up with no exacerbation, a victory. If everything is going well, then that’s a victory! That is a moment worthy of celebration.

Maybe you don’t take each (relatively) good moment for granted, but there might be moments where you forget. I often forget to appreciate the exacerbation-free days. I am reminded to recognize them when I am in the middle of a particularly frustrating exacerbation episode. At that point, it’s too late. I am in the past, appreciating what I had; or in the future when the event is over.

Neither of these options is ideal because I am struggling to maintain my mindfulness practice, which can help me manage my discomfort and stress.

It’s difficult to appreciate life with a chronic illness. The absolute uncertainty of when we’ll experience a flare-up is frustrating. Deep in the moments of an exacerbation brings us to the breaking point. Yet, we have to press on. The moments our illness minimally impacts us are worth appreciating.

Allow yourself to celebrate the mundane. Try not to feel weird about it because it’s something everyone, healthy or chronically ill, should do. Celebrate over social media if you need to, let others know what’s going on in your life but do not worry about getting validation. You probably won’t get it, or you’ll get a negative person trying to bring you down. Ignore them because it’s your celebration. Not theirs. If it’s important to you and you are the only one who matters.

Putting it into Perspective

A few months after my diagnosis, I was in the position of being “at least I’m not them,” for some stranger. It was not a good feeling to be the subject of someone else’s perspective-check. Yet, it’s a mindfulness exercise, recognizing that while your life might not be where you want it, there is always someone worse off than you.

To put it into context: I was in group therapy at the time, and it was my final session. As I was doing the “graduating out” exercises, the person taking my spot overlapped and was in their first session, seated beside me. I described my life with MS, how I was coming to terms with it, and I noticed this new person writing furiously in their journal.

I later learned that it was poor form for the facilitator to allow the journal into this safe space.

Curiosity overcame me, and since they were sitting next to me, I peeked over to see what was on the paper. I saw the words “…she has MS, at least that’s not me. I am lucky not to be her.” I was humiliated to see those words. No one else in the group had MS, so it was clearly about me. I could feel my anger towards this person rise and towards myself for being put into a position of pity.

Was that a breach of privacy to peek at what they wrote? Perhaps, but they didn’t exactly try to hide what they were writing. The journal was wide open and tilted towards me. Not knowing this person or their situation, it’s possible they wanted me to see what they wrote.

I recognize the importance this practice plays in our lives. It allows us to acknowledge that while our situation is not ideal, we could have it worse. Often it is said to us by others either as a means to comfort us or get us to be quiet about our situation.

So it’s a mixed bag as to whether this type of perspective check is healthy or not. I am not going to endorse it one way or the other beyond recognizing the importance of maintaining perspective.

For this person, perhaps I was able to provide small comfort in their life. It was incredibly humiliating and yet positively humbling. It would take a few more years before I had a better perspective, but I learned at that moment that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. It humanized me to myself. I know that sounds weird, but for years, I had an inflated sense of self as a coping mechanism. I was out of touch with reality, and this private journal entry broke through that.

It gave me perspective in a different way that it gave the writer perspective. I suspect, given what I remember of what little they shared about themselves, I probably gained more from the whole experience than them.

Mindful of the Moment

Practicing mindfulness is a chance for us to appreciate life.

When we celebrate the moment, at the moment, everything melts away. I am fortunate enough to spend a week or two on the shores of Lake Michigan every year. Looking out at the endless watery horizon, I can put everything aside and focus on that moment, staring off into the distance. It grants me an opportunity to put my life into perspective, but also recognize how fortunate I am.

We may not be able to spend a few moments in a place conducive to personal reflection, but we can spend time being mindful of our life. We can appreciate being able to breathe on our own; our ability to walk or if we can’t, the tools available to us so we can remain mobile; and we can appreciate the support network available to us, regardless of its size.

Take time to connect with the ground beneath your feet, the chair you sit in, or your bed. If you connect with the earth, reflect on all the other people who stood in that spot throughout time. Feel a connection to the faceless masses over several millennia. The animals, the plants, and all of life that experienced the same place you are in right now. Feeling that connection to others, allows you to feel a connection to life itself.

Celebrate that life.

It’s typically in these moments I feel small, but not in a negative way. I recognize my space and place in the universe. My existence is not even a blip in time or space. My problems, concerns, and worries will not matter in the end.

What is important is what I do with my blip in time.

Celebrate Life

Take some time to celebrate your life, as it is, no matter where you are in life. Put it into proper perspective, experience the benefits of mindfulness, and take time to decide how you want to spend your time. Do you want to engage in negativity beyond healthy expressions, or do you want to enjoy the time you do have, as imperfect as it may seem?

Choosing to celebrate life will help you feel better, lower stress, and find the personal satisfaction you might be searching for, despite your chronic illness.


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Learning to Manage Expectations

Learn to manage your expectations.

It’s one of the first things your healthcare specialist says to you after receiving your diagnosis. While my neurologist never explicitly said it to me, it’s implied. Granted, they have high expectations for my wellness, often higher than I had for myself. But when I was in the hospital, pre-diagnosis, that was one of the first things the hospital neurologist said to me in response to my health concerns.

Whether it’s been said or not, it’s something we learn quickly with a chronic illness. We must manage our expectations because we have no choice.

For many of us, we have the following expectations in life: we’ll be healthy, achieve personally, and go far professionally. Often these expectations get scrapped in favor of coping with a chronic illness diagnosis. We might have pain to manage that prevents certain exercises. Our fatigue gets to be too much that we cannot do the same personal tasks we once did. Or our workplace can only accommodate our illness so much before we see colleagues surpassing us.

The expectations we once had slip away and we feel nothing but discouragement. But do we have to let those expectations go?

John Gary Bishop says in Unf*ck Yourself that we should “expect nothing, but accept everything.” It’s perhaps the healthier way to approach the “manage your expectations” conversation. We should scrap all the expectations we have for ourselves and accept whatever life sends our way with an open mind.

This refers to the positive and negative expectations we place upon ourselves.

Why We Set Expectations

Why do we even set expectations in the first place?

In childhood, expectations are placed upon us and for us. Parents might expect us to take on a level of responsibility around the house, or they might share their desire to see us succeed when we become adults. We extrapolate this external expectation and internalize it for what we think we’re capable of doing. Expectations drive our dreams and our desire for achievements.

But rarely are limits placed on these expectations, and as a child, why should it be limited? We imagine being firefighters, doctors, and presidents as our career goals, not wanting to pick between the three. We expected to achieve anything, especially when told we can be whatever we want when we grow up.

Illness or not, we learn quickly that there are limits to our expectations. Not all of us will get into an Ivy League school. We will have to choose between a firefighter, doctor, and president for a career, if only to pick one to focus on at a time.

Life will not work out the way we expected. And then we get our diagnosis.

The Problem with Expectations

The obvious problem with expectations, at least at first, is that we are often unprepared for the letdown. When we don’t achieve the way we expected, it can feel like a failure. For some, that can lead us to shutdown and get stuck.

When we set expectations early in life and achieve them, it’s often viewed as a good thing. Rightly so, you set a path for yourself and achieved your goal. Rich Karlgaard writes about the problematic relationship Western culture has with early bloomers in his book Late Bloomers. Western culture is so hyper-obsessed with the Mark Zuckerbergs, Elizabeth Holmes, and Malala Yousafzais, that it overlooks those who quietly grind away to achieve their success later in life (30s and beyond).

Because there’s an intense expectation for early success, often when we leave high school or college without making some “30 under 30” list, there’s a feeling of panic. This can bring our personal expectations down, or cause us to stall out for a few years.

This is one problem with societal expectations: we misplace expectations on people who may not be emotionally mature to handle the pressure (for reference: Elizabeth Holmes, Martin Shkreli). When young people are pushed to succeed early, they forget that a window does not close as soon as they turn twenty-five. That window for success stays open their entire lives.

If you are alive, you still have the chance to bloom and succeed.

The second problem referenced in Karlgaard’s book is that early bloomers do not know how to handle failure in the same way late bloomers do. When you are a late bloomer, you get used to “failure;” you get used viewing it not as a failure but as a learning experience. Late bloomers are better equipped with managing their expectations.

Learning to Manage Expectations

In life, there are two sets of expectations: “positive” and “negative” ones. This is a false binary, but I am going to use it for clarity sake. Positive expectations are the goals we set for ourselves that we want to achieve. Negative expectations are the times we don’t believe we can achieve it.

At the time we receive our diagnosis, we might drop our positive expectations: career, family, personal goals; and replace them with negative expectations: lack of mobility, exacerbations, and limitations.

For example: before my diagnosis, I intended to become a University professor. After my diagnosis, I dragged my feet because I assumed I wouldn’t be able to handle the rigorous testing due to memory issues. I replaced a positive expectation, “career goals,” with a negative one, “my memory prevents me from achieving.”

If you are like me, a late-bloomer, hopefully you know how to handle disappointment and also view perceived failures as learning experiences. Transfer that awareness to how you view your illness: manage your expectations away from the negative reasoning of “I can’t do this,” to positive “why not try it anyway?”

Often after a diagnosis, we work our way through grieving for our health. It’s a healthy and necessary process, but sometimes we decide to get stuck on the negative thinking. It’s easy to look at all we think we can’t do, rather than focus on what we can do.

But you might surprise yourself if you take a moment to release the expectations you place on yourself. Yes, you may be struggling to walk or get out of bed today because you physically cannot do so, but does that mean you should indulge in the negative expectations of what you can’t do?

No.

There was a time after my diagnosis where I didn’t think I could run or do anything active due to numbness and fatigue. I was in a negative expectation mindset. I actively decided to remove all expectations on myself and said, I can do something. It won’t look the same as a person without an autoimmune diagnosis, but it will be something.

The moment I removed all my expectations (negative and positive), I found I was able to achieve.

I actually found I went farther than before my diagnosis because I removed all expectations I placed upon myself and my abilities. Even when I was “healthy” I had numerous expectations that prevented me from achieving.

This is because when we manage our expectations by removing them, we remove the mental obstacles that prevent us from attempting in the first place. We go out and attempt to achieve without thinking about the limitations we might have. We may still stumble, but it isn’t a failure as much as it’s a learning experience.

If you were an early bloomer, this is your opportunity to bloom once again. Or, as it is in my case, my chance to bloom later in life.


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Book Review: Declutter Your Mind

After finishing Unf*ck Yourself, I did what many readers do and look for more books to read. I find that similar books help commit what I want to learn. One of the books that popped up was S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport’s book Declutter Your Mind. I figured I would give it a go, considering July is all about mindfulness and loving ourselves. One thing often stands in the way of my own journey of love, and that’s the clutter that takes up space in my mind.

This book seemed like the perfect follow up to Bishop’s book since I still had some clutter holding me back. I wanted to get some new techniques, ideas, and perspectives to removing the clutter that prevents me from fully loving myself.


Note: I was not compensated to review this book, I am sharing my thoughts as it might help readers on their journeys. All links are unaffiliated and I receive no monetary benefit by providing them.


Book Information

Title: Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking 
Author: S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport
Date Published: 2016
Publisher:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Pages: 156
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help

Goodreads Link
Amazon US Link


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Gratitude

Looking for an easy way to hack your brain? Consider practicing gratitude on a daily basis. It’s rather simple, but sometimes hard to do. When we practice gratitude, we are stating to ourselves and those around us that we are worthwhile and we appreciate our life. Gratitude is so important to our overall well being, it really does re-wire your brain to focus more on the positive and make healthier choices.

Gratitude can help you manage your stress, your illness, and how you operate in the world on a daily basis.

In the month of November, I try to focus on gratitude in some capacity. I decided to do it a few months early this year because gratitude should be a year-round thing. Doing it for a month out of the year, a week, or a day, is not enough to make meaningful changes.

Gratitude should come as a daily practice if we want to truly rewire our brains to be healthier.

The Science of Gratitude

Often we look for quick and easy solutions for our problems. Living in an age of instant gratification dulls our ability to be patient, so finding a solution to a long-term problem is difficult sometimes. With that in mind, gratitude is one of those easy to do exercises that offers a short-term response with long-term ramifications.

Have you found yourself feel better after doing something nice and unexpected for someone? Or when you express your appreciation for someone without cause? It might be a temporary good feeling, but science backs up that these moments, when added up, can re-wire your brain to be more receptive to positive experiences.

But when you are dealing with a chronic illness, sometimes the last thing you want to do is express gratitude for yourself or the world around you. After all, your body’s betrayed you. Often all we can think about is what we lack, such as our health, and not what we have.

When we take the time to incorporate more gratitude in our lives, despite our illness, we rewire our brains to spend less time on the negative aspects. Focusing on the positive brings us into a space to make healthier decisions for ourselves and can lower our overall stress.

And stress is something we strive to avoid in chronic illnesses.

Creating Space

We must be present in our lives, chronic illness or not. We choose to take a chance to do what needs to be done, or we choose to let life happen to us. If you struggle, like I have, with incorporating gratitude, consider creating a five-minute space to practice one instance of gratitude each day. Often the recommendation in the morning to set the tone for the rest of the day, but if that’s not possible, do whatever time works for you.

I learned this lesson recently: there’s an expectation to do things at a specific time because “that’s what’s right,” but that may not work for you. If your moment of gratitude is in the middle of the day or before going to bed, then do it then. When it happens does not matter. Just that you are doing it.

Try to set the alarm at your preset time if you often forget to do something, and commit to a short practice of gratitude for five minutes. Five minutes out of all your day is but a drop and passes by rather quickly.

Practicing Gratitude

Find the practice that works best for you, there are so many ways to practice gratitude. Try until you find something that works, don’t settle on what you think you’re supposed to do. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Buy a gratitude journal and follow the prompts
  2. Think of something silly about yourself that you love
  3. Do a random act of kindness for a stranger with no expectations of a acknowledgment/validation (i.e. don’t post about it on social media)
  4. Compliment a stranger on something you genuinely like about them
  5. Create and maintain a list of things you appreciate everyday. Add a new one during your gratitude time
  6. Find a silver lining in a difficult situation
  7. Relish a challenge or adversarial situation, rather than taking on a victim role
  8. If you are able to, volunteer your time
  9. Surround yourself with people who are grateful and make you feel good about yourself
  10. Find a gratitude rock or object that you can keep near yourself at all times to remind you of being grateful

The Importance of Gratitude

We don’t have to wait until November to practice gratitude in our daily lives. If you want to work towards rewiring brain towards a more positive outlook, just start with gratitude. It’s still going to take time to undo what might be years of negative thinking, but it gets you into the head space you need to be in to be receptive to change.

That’s the best space to be in: open to making positive changes in your life if you’ve previously struggled with it. Gratitude truly is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get into a positive space for yourself. I am already finding that I let things go a lot quicker than I used to, and appreciate the moments I have more.


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