How to Recover from Major Setbacks, Part 1

how-to-recover-from-major-setbacks-part-1Back in 2008, I had a client who was a star performer at his large company. (As with all my posts, I have his permission to use his story.) When you hear his story, you think his parents should have named him Midas, because everything he touched turned to gold.

He went to all the right schools and earned full scholarships.  He landed in all the right jobs and climbed quickly.

He had huge accomplishments for someone his age.

He was not only very smart, but he really knew how to relate well to others.

It seemed like he had the complete package.

When I asked him about his failures or his setbacks, he thought for awhile and then mentioned things that seemed so harmless and inconsequential that I wanted to say, “That’s it?”  I thought to myself, “Wow, I did not know people like you existed.”

If you noticed in the opening line what year this was, you could probably guess that in 2008 he got a taste of serious failure.  When the recession hit, his company was devastated.  They laid off many, many people.

He was assured that he was not going to be cut.  But as the recession lengthened, that is exactly what happened. He was released from employment.

After coming out of his boss’ office the day he got that news, he was stunned.  But he was absolutely shocked at those who got to keep their jobs. He could not understand why he was let go and they were not.

For the first time in his life, he did not make the cut.

When he came to my office he was noticeably numb.  It seemed he was trying to harden his heart so he would not feel the pain that he was in.

It was obvious that he needed to process what he was feeling, but he was unwilling.

His numbness went to rage, then to depression, then back to numbness, and then his emotions just bounced around.

As much as I tried to encourage him to describe what he felt, all that came out of his mouth were facts.

I stopped trying to encourage him to describe his feelings, and focused on empathy instead.

He talked for another 10mins and then said he needed to go.

He never returned.

That was the start of a long, bitter, downward spiral for him.  Even though he landed on his feet before the severance package ran out, I learned a few years later that he had never fully recovered from that setback. He remained angry and bitter.

Recently, he gave me a call and wanted to start up again.

Now he is actively fighting to heal and continue his growth.

He sees how much was stolen in the last eight years and doesn’t want to lose any more.

It is true the vast majority of us don’t have a story like this.  However, we have been impacted by career setbacks.  There may be one setback in particular that stands out.

Have you fully recovered from it? 

If you don't know, then ask yourself:

  • What were you like before the setback happened?
  • What has changed for the worse?
  • Are you still playing it inappropriately cautious?
  • How has your life been impacted?

If you are not stronger and better, then you probably have not fully recovered from the setback.

Here are 5 steps that may help:

  • Describe the Pain You Feel Without Using Facts

Recognize the shock, denial, hurt, betrayal, grief, depression, anxiety, and whatever other emotions you feel from the setback, and fully embrace them.  You were meant to feel what you feel.

In order to process your emotions, stop Judging yourself, Accusing yourself, or Calling out facts (J.A.C.- yes, you can laugh now), and just M.O.P. -- that is, describe your emotions using Metaphors, Other emotions, and Physical sensations.

The more you describe what you feel (not think), the more you will sense yourself going through the emotions and emerging stronger on the other side.

I like to MOP via journaling so I can catch when I start to JAC.  Others like to MOP with others. So for example, during one coaching meeting an executive’s MOP was:

“I feel angry like a bull seeing red in an arena.  I feel frustrated, annoyed, enraged, anxious, really hurt and completely betrayed.  I feel like a dad who lovingly cared for and raised his son, only to have the son spit in his face and run away when he most needed him. My heart is pumping fast.  My breathing is heavy.  My blood feels warm.  I can hear my heart pounding in my ear.  I am fighting back tears.”

His MOP continued from there for a bit, and then he got calm and wanted to make a plan to move forward.

When you describe your emotions this way, don’t be surprised if they intensify before you get to a calm place.

By the way, can you guess what happened that led that executive to feel all of that?

I will share why he felt all of this at the bottom of this post.  Don’t peak!

  • Stop the Self-Flagellation

I can beat the crap out of myself when I have a setback.  Man, I am hard on myself.  But I have learned from personal experience that beating myself up only brings me more problems.  Instead, I need to do step one above, and then move directly to step 3.

If you don't want to bypass the self-flagellation, or are not ready to let go of it, save the rest of this blog for when you are.

I've found that when I'm in a place where I don't want to grow or heal, it does no good for someone to give me helpful tips or advice because I will never believe it will work. My desire to shame myself is too strong.

If you find yourself there, then MOP what it's like to not want to grow or heal, until you find yourself wanting to heal and grow.

If you need to own your setback to your boss, then read a previous blog post for tips on how to handle that conversation.

I’ve seen the power of complete ownership, with no marketing, at work in my life and in the lives of others.  Whoever you need to own things to, do it.

One of the side benefits of such ownership is that you will start to gain control over the setback instead of letting it control you.

  • Flip Tool- How Could It Have Been Worse?

Now take the setback and really exaggerate it out.  How could the setback have been worse?  Really get into this.  Give it details.  Don’t be ridiculous with the step, but really look for ways that it actually could have been worse.

Don’t just describe the facts of how it could have been worse, but describe what you would feel if those facts had happened.

Once you have it clear in your head how it could have been worse, and you have described your emotions so well that you are actually feeling them in the present, then go to step 5.

  • What Good Might Have Come If The Absolute Worst Had Happened

Now with the more horrible version of the setback in mind, create an exhaustive list of what possible good could have come if the absolute worst had happened.

At first you may not be able to come up with much, but stick to this step and don’t bypass it.

You want to stretch yourself here.

Some questions that might help you get unstuck, and put more potential good on your list, include:

  • How could people be supportive?
  • What opportunities could arise through it?
  • How would I be better, having fully dealt with everything I experienced?
  • What could I learn through going through this process?
  • How would I be better if I learned it?
  • How would my character grow?
  • How would I be able to help others because of this?
  • What good would the newfound humility do for me? My team? My leadership?

You want such a long list that you can't help but feel hope, that despite the worst thing happening, you could be so much better.

Next week, we'll explore 5 more ways to recover from major setbacks. This week, I encourage you to take time to sit and reflect on the major career setbacks in your life. Write out the details, how you felt, how it impacted you, and how your life has looked as a result of it. We'll continue this conversation next week.



Ryan C. Bailey is an Executive Coach who helps business leaders develop in-demand high performing teams.

Five Small Steps to Get Your Passion Back

ryancbailey.com404-421-8120 Life has become a matter of existing.  It has become a matter of fulfilling obligations.  Joy is fleeting.  Passion is waning.

Here are 5 small steps to get your passion back:

  • Start a Gratitude Chronicle

One of the reasons why our drive diminishes is that we are so focused on the bad that we don’t take the time to see all the good that is happening around us.  We need a tool to remind ourselves to be grateful.

On a Google Doc or some other web-based word processing document, take a little bit of time every day to describe, in detail, one time when you were really grateful for something.  Perhaps you were incredibly grateful when a dark time ended, when you received a gift that really hit home, or when a deal landed “from out of nowhere."  Whatever the reason, write one story every day of a time when you felt grateful.

In order for this to work, you need to describe not only the facts of the story, but what you felt about those facts.

When you run out of stories, just start making lists of what you are grateful for.  Don’t take anything for granted (i.e. Did you sleep on a bed? Have you eaten?  Do you have decent clothes?). As you remember that you are not entitled to any of the things you have been given, your heart will start to melt.

Now, whenever you are starting to go negative, turn to your smartphone, bring up the document, and read some of the accounts of times when you were grateful.  Afterwards, take the occasion to add to your list the things you can be grateful for at that moment.

  • Simplify the business

Many business leaders have spent so much time putting out fires that they have “forgotten” why they got in the business in the first place.

What was your vision for your role when you first started?  Has your vision evolved?  Take small steps towards nailing your vision and you will see drive come back.

After nailing the vision, look at how you spent your time over the last week or two.  How much of that time was spent on the core part of that vision?

Have you been trading what is essential for what is urgent, but not essential?

It is time to get back to basics.  If you knew there would be no negative consequences to your spending the vast majority of time doing what you do best to drive the greatest results, how would you spend that time?

Now develop a transition plan to get there.  You will need to delegate, delete, diminish or delay certain tasks.  Get on it as fast as possible.

Know that something is going to have to drop.  Don’t let it be what is essential in favor of what is urgent.  Choosing the urgent is probably what zaps your energy the most.

Proceed with the transition in small steps.  See if you can free up just five minutes from the urgent to give back to the essential.  Once you start, it will be addicting.  You will become proactive, and most of your day will be spent building the business instead of putting out fires.

  • Really connect to others.

Here is a novel concept....  When was the last time you really connected at a heart level to someone else?  That is, you just let yourself be, and they let themselves be--no marketing.... no positioning.... no façades.... no hiding....  You just let yourself be.

For most of us, we have given up on having those types of relationships.  We are too busy.  We have too much anxiety.  We are scared of being judged.

If you are married, I bet deep down, your spouse longs for this with you.

If you are not married, who can you go deep with?

Once again, start small.  Don’t verbally vomit everything that you’ve been hiding.  Start with being real for a little bit with someone you want to get closer to.  See how they respond.  Once you get going you will find it refreshing.

  • Make time for once-loved hobbies.

What did you used to love to do that you have not done in awhile?  For me, it is tennis.  I used to play all weekend in my teens and 20’s.

What is a small step you can take to get that back in your life?  I have not touched a racquet in 10 years.  I can start by spending 5-10 mins per week hitting against a wall and building on that until I get my game back.  What’s your version?

Taking small steps is the key to getting your drive back.  Just five minutes will generate momentum to help you come back to life.

Chew On This:

  • Which of the five steps will you start with today?

Ryan C. Bailey is an Executive Coach who helps business leaders develop in-demand high performing teams.