How to Deal With Setbacks and Failures

Martin Seligman, PhD, and his research team tested the swim team of the University of California at Berkeley to find out who were optimists and who were pessimists. Then they created a setback for the team members: The coach told each swimmer his time after he finished a heat, but the coach didn’t give the swimmer an accurate time — he gave a time much slower than the swimmer’s real time.

How did the swimmers respond do this setback? Seligman says, “The optimists responded by swimming their next heat faster; the pessimists went slower on their next heat.”

Optimists fight back when they hit a setback. They are resilient in the face of the rejections and disappointments we all face at one time or another in our lives. Optimists pick themselves up quickly and go on. They bounce back.

Pessimists succumb. They give up. They get depressed. They throw in the towel and let life run them over. And the only thing that separates optimists from pessimists is the way they think — called their “explanatory style.” When optimists have setbacks:

1. They assume the problem or its consequences won’t last very long.

2. They don’t indulge in self-blame. Instead they look to see if there’s anything they could do to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

3. They don’t jump to the conclusion that this setback will ruin everything. An optimist will try to see how much of their lives the setback won’t affect.

You can become more optimistic by practicing these three ways of thinking about setbacks, and every inch you move toward optimism means another inch of resiliency. It means you’ll bounce back sooner from the inevitable setbacks of life. It means you’ll have greater personal strength and persistence. It means more of your life will go the way you want it to go.

Look at those three optimistic ways of thinking. Find the one you’re weakest in and work on it. Practice on the little setbacks you experience — the small disappointments, frustrations, annoyances, interruptions in your everyday experience. Learn to think the optimistic way. Practice until that way of thinking is habitual.

When it seems like life is trying to beat you down, fight back with optimistic thoughts.

When you hit a setback in life:
Assume the problem or its consequences won’t last long, see how you can prevent the same problem in the future, and don’t jump to the conclusion that this setback will ruin everything.

This article was excerpted from the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works.

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