Turn any setback into a fresh start

Step 1: Delete the word “failure” from your brain.
Published April 30, 2020

Nailing something on the first try feels incredible—well, so we hear, anyway. For most of us, that’s not how life works. The reality is that success rarely follows a straight line. Some days, we make great progress toward our goals. Other days, we stall or stumble backward.

Even with the understanding that setbacks are normal, some can feel disappointing enough to make our goals seem totally out of reach. But what if we viewed setbacks a different way—as opportunities to learn and grow? 

In fact, that’s exactly what they are, says Suzanne Phelan, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and public health at California Polytechnic State University. With the right approaches, setbacks can enrich our paths to success in ways we might not have experienced otherwise, she says. Here, Phelan and other experts share their best advice on using setbacks to steer forward. 

Draw a starting line right in front of you.


Getting off-track with goals can sometimes feel like backsliding. Luckily, there’s another—more constructive—way to view it, says clinical health psychologist Robyn Pashby, PhD, founder of the counseling practice DC Health Psychology in Bethesda, Maryland. Instead of a slip-up, think of this as a fresh start. The mere perception of a turning point can empower people to pursue change, according to a 2014 study in the journal Management Science. So, if you haven’t worked out in three weeks, give yourself kudos for wanting out of that mini rut, Pashby says. Then, reframe the current moment as the turning point that reignited your fitness motivation. It’s a new day; you got this.


Increase self-compassion with flexibility.


Encouraging yourself to see small setbacks as opportunities can be helpful in creating flexibility around the idea of success. When you’re more flexible in defining success—especially your personal success versus other people’s successes—it may be easier to practice self-compassion, Phelan explains. For example: You’re less likely to beat yourself up for a lapse in your fitness routine when your idea of success is not a rigid "I will run 8 miles per week" but a more flexible "I'll walk for 30 minutes three days this week to get a baseline, then decide whether to step up my game or back off from next week, depending on how it goes."


“Rewind the tape” to shut down self-blame. 


After weathering a setback, it can be tempting to fault ourselves. Eat too many cookies, and we think, “I have no self-control.” Skip workouts for a week, and we think, “I’m lazy.” Such statements aren’t just unkind, Phelan says; they’re downright inaccurate because they fail to account for the myriad factors that shape our daily choices.

To draw lessons without beating yourself up, pretend you’re rewinding a video that captures your whole environment. Hit “play” and watch. There you are reaching for the cookies, but what else do you notice? Maybe the cookies were left out on the counter by a family member. Maybe the news is blaring on TV, which always stresses you out. Maybe the weather is gross that day, and you’re antsy and bored because you couldn’t enjoy your usual walk. Once you consider the context, it’s no wonder those shortbread biscuits were so tempting.

Rewinding the tape can help you step back and ID your tripping points to help set yourself up for a more desirable outcome next time, Phelan says. In the future, you’ll be more likely to stash the cookies in the pantry, take a break from the news, and have some indoor workout ideas ready for a rainy day.


Treat your journey like toothbrushing. 


Ever miss a toothbrushing session by accident? It happens to the best of us: You’re exhausted after a long day, and before you know it, you’re konked out on the couch for the night. Now, think back to how you responded the following morning, Pashby says. Chances are, you woke up, brushed your teeth, and simply went about your day—without viewing the skipped session as a personal failure. Why? Because you recognize that dental care is a series of small actions, taken repeatedly over time, Pashby says. 

It may help to think of your wellness journey the same way, she continues. In many cases, it’s not the setback itself that derails us; it’s the all-or-nothing belief that our success depends on any particular moment. Fortunately, our journeys have wiggle room. Use it to regain your bearings as needed, then continue on your way. 


Jessica DiGiacinto is an associate editor at WW. A health and wellness writer and editor based out of New York, she’s contributed to Popsugar, Bulletproof 360, and Galvanized Media, among other media outlets.