by Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D.
Facing Failure, Disappointments & Setbacks
When I was 19 years old I moved over 1000 miles away from friends and family to attend college. Everything was an adventure at first, exploring the city, meeting new people and making new friends, while pursuing a major I enjoyed. After about a year the newness was beginning to wear off. By year two, three of my best friends decided living in the desert wasn’t for them, and moved back to the east coast. The isolation and loneliness associated with living alone in a large city, coupled with the physical adjustments to the hot, desert climate began to wear on me. In the third year of living away from home, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It felt like the rug kept being pulled out from underneath me, and I had absolutely no solid foundation to stand on. The guy I had been dating proposed to me and shortly after getting engaged, I began noticing a tightness in my chest, shallow breathing, and perpetual lump in my throat. I contributed it to allergies but one day, as I was stuck in traffic on a 117 degree day, I experienced a full blown panic attack. Over the next 2 years these became debilitating to the point where I was afraid to drive, or even drive in the car with others across town, and especially in heavy traffic. It was so bad that it got to the point where I didn’t even want to be left alone. It wasn’t living day by day, but sometimes minute by minute and the overwhelming anxiety soon brought a horrible depression. Wondering whether or not that circumstance would be my future.
We all experiences struggles, disappointments, and setbacks throughout our lives, but how do we find the strength and motivation to pick ourselves back up and try again? Especially when setbacks are so profound and life altering? It takes courage, strength, and hope, and ultimately FAITH. It requires a belief that our efforts, regardless of how little they may seem, will eventually add up to make a difference. Sometimes life events can be so life altering that we lose our sense of self confidence. We begin questioning our skills and ability to succeed, questioning the impact of our efforts, or even our value as a human being.
How do people who have lost their limbs find the strength and motivation to move forward and pursue new goals that seem impossible? How does someone who has experienced debilitating anxiety find the courage, hope, and strength to put forth the effort to overcome crippling panic attacks that leave one feeling like they are dying? Or how does the person who has lost their job find the motivation to keep sending out resumes and applications after receiving countless rejection letters? How does the person who experiences a cheating and/or abusive spouse find the courage and trust to enter into a new relationship?
When we experience debilitating setbacks or heartbreaks, a narrative is formed. Sometimes the narratives we tell ourselves may inspire effort, determination, and courage. Other times these internal dialogs foster fear, apathy, and a sense of learned helplessness. These stories we tell ourselves seem to be on “auto-play,” looping through our minds, forming well worn paths. Shame, perfectionism, mistrust, fear, and self doubt all have debilitating effects, so when these thoughts dominate, we must reprogram our minds and re-write our self-narratives. We need to break through old thought patterns and limitations, form new strategies, and always remember that failing at something is not the same as being a failure! We need to learn how to silence the "monkey chatter" in our heads, assaulting us with the poisonous darts of self doubt. The most effective way of doing this is by changing the internal dialog, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, focusing on the possibilities more than the current situation. And, by learning to embrace failure as it is always trying to teach us an important lesson. Disappointments and setbacks might be trying to tell us that we are with the wrong partners, pursuing a career that isn’t aligned with our skills or passions, or that we need to practice applying new strategies in order to achieve different results. We often lose sight of the fact that those who have had the greatest successes have also experienced some of the most difficult and heart wrenching defeats. The difference is that those who overcame did so by refusing to give up. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and tried again, and again, and again, and again!
There is no doubt that failures and disappointments are difficult. Yet, these “failures” can also be our greatest teachers, IF we take the time to listen to what they are trying to teach us. In my case, the debilitating anxiety was telling me that I was making a wrong choice in my relationship. After moving to a new city over a thousand miles away from my childhood friends and family members, my need for relatedness was thwarted. My well-being was contingent in part, upon establishing close, reciprocally caring relationships with others. Yet, in a short time three of my best friends moved away, and another one suffered a stroke in her Junior year causing her to lose all memory of her college experience. She thought that she had just graduated from high school and finished her last year at summer camp. In response to loneliness, I accepted a marriage proposal that my spirit knew was wrong for me. The shortness of breath, tightness of chest, and lump in my throat were all trying to tell me this was very bad choice. Yet, I kept pushing those physical symptoms down, refusing to listen. It took having a full blown panic attack in stand still traffic on one of the hottest days of the summer (all things I had no control over) to finally gain my attention. And yet, the confusion, self-doubt, and fear of the fear itself began looping in my brain, spiraling me further downward.
The universe is always sending us signals—the problem is we often fail to pay attention to these messages until it reaches a critical point. It is often pain or illness that finally manages to grab our attention as it brings us to our knees, forcing us to stop what we are doing and take notice. There were many lessons I learned from this experience, and although I would not wish this on anyone, it was also one of the most effective teachers of my life. It caused me to turn my life around and catapulted my spiritual growth forward at warp speed. Among the many lessons I learned was to let go and to trust God, and in doing so I would find the strength and courage to take the necessary steps to healing, but also find hope for the future. The first steps that you take to change your life are always the hardest, but also the most important.
I also learned to change my diet and eat healthier foods, avoid alcohol and caffeine, get plenty of rest, and regularly exercise in order to keep stress levels down. Another very important lesson I learned was to pay attention to the inner dialog playing in my mind and consciously change it. To replace unhealthy, fearful, or critical thoughts with positive ones, and to be careful of the words I spoke over my life. I learned to avoid people who were toxic influences in my life and surround myself with encouraging, uplifting and supportive individuals.
What lessons can you learn from the failures and setbacks in your life?
Suggested Activity: “What is the Universe Trying to Tell You?”