Harnessing the Power of Your Setbacks

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The positive and negative events and circumstances of your life leave a mark. As the chapters of your life story are written, they necessarily influence your current views of yourself and the world, and the behaviors that stem from them. In turn, those influence your future perspectives and behaviors. 

Some of these influences take place below your conscious awareness, but others are apparent in the themes of the story you tell yourself, about yourself. We zone out and replay events from the past, or plan or fantasize about the coming days, weeks, or years all the time, usually unintentionally.

Our minds tell and retell our stories and, as in a game of telephone, the narrative can shift. Some events or whole periods of our lives are forgotten, compressed, overlooked, or ignored, while others are expanded, emphasized, glorified, or just plain mixed up. In the retelling, the story of where we came from and where we’re headed gains a mythical weightiness.

Research in the area of narrative identity shows that the way people construct their subjective life narratives from objective plot points can significantly impact psychological well-being, and that some are more closely associated than others with better mood, higher self-esteem, and an overall greater sense of happiness and satisfaction with life. In particular, having a redemptive life narrative is a major predictor of these things.

Redeeming yourself

Stories of redemption are favorites in our culture and others around the world. Whether in works of fiction, or the lives of talk show interviewees or Olympic athletes, who doesn’t love a story of an underdog overcoming the odds to achieve some higher level of functioning, or even greatness?

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The redemptive life narrative strikes a deep chord in us, because it is evolutionarily functional: striving to overcome adversity is good for survival.

The problem is that our minds often don’t construct our life stories this way on their own. One might expect that people would minimize the negative aspects of the past, or possible anxiety-provoking future scenarios, and some people do.

For many of us, however, the natural tendency is the opposite. Our minds dwell on the injuries and errors we’ve sustained or committed, and return over and over to the things we need to fix or avoid going forward.

Letting go of old stories

As with our affinity for redemption, there is a good evolutionary reason for the stickiness of negative thoughts in our mind: it helps us to learn from our mistakes and avoid problems. However, it can be a problem if your goals extend beyond mere survival.

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Our memories and fantasies are technically figments of our imagination, and whenever we’re living in that cerebral house of mirrors more than necessary we are, in a very real way (including physiologically), re-experiencing them. We can be left with the emotional aftertastes of sadness, guilt, shame, and anxiety more often than positive and empowering ones.

There are many ways to begin working your way out of this predicament. One is to start at the source and cultivate more mindfulness in your life, which helps loosen the mind’s fixation on unpleasant thoughts of the past and future.

Another involves taking a closer look at the structure of your life story itself and re-envisioning it, to produce a different kind of narrative that better reflects the complete, rich experience of your life. Acknowledging your mistakes, struggles, and failures, and also your victories.

If your mind has the tendency to chew and rechew your past and future, why not at least feed it a balanced diet?

Charting your life

If you envision your life as a graph of your ups and downs, then redemption would be a down followed by an up. Major negative life circumstances can produce deep, canyon-like downturns. However, since downturns and upticks come in different magnitudes, so does redemption.

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So, if you haven’t had a major obstacle or tragedy to overcome in your life, don’t worry! We face all manner of obstacles every day that may not even register, and we often overcome them without that registering either.

Regardless of the magnitude of life events, the mind strives for efficiency by streamlining memories and thoughts. It does this by simplifying and generalizing, smoothing out the wrinkles to the point that your life graph seems more like a Hardy Boys plot than your personal War and Peace.

But the thing is, life stories don’t actually have long straight lines, so if you think yours has one, that’s a sign you need to take a closer look. Zoom in and see the jaggedness of the line, and notice that upticks follow every downturn. Always. Even if they are small.

Taking a closer look

For instance, you lost your job a year ago and feel like you’ve bottomed out. That is true. But what else is true?

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Over that time, did you not achieve some victories? Perhaps the realization that even though you’re out of work, the job wasn’t very healthy for you, and now you know something new about what is good for you? Maybe you decided to improve yourself in some way so that you can be more marketable, effective, or happier in your new job, or even change careers.

What about the upticks that had nothing to do with your employment status? The time you made yourself late because you stopped to jump-start a stranger’s car or help a lost child, and felt great about it afterward? Or the moment of life-affirming goofiness you shared with a friend?

When you lost your loved one, or got divorced, or even just got into an argument with someone, did you come to a new understanding of him or her, or your relationship? Even if it wasn’t something positive, can you identify what you took away from the experience that will serve you in the future? Some way in which that experience can be turned into a learning moment? What did you learn about yourself?

At a minimum, if you are reading this, you carried on in spite of whatever it was, so you are strong and resilient. A survivor. Did you know that?

The power of setbacks is in their meaning

Whether things are going well and then fall apart, or you rebound from one setback or another, remember that whenever the graph of your life changes direction, you’ve learned something about the world or yourself that you didn’t know before. What was it?

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It’s worth it to spend some time with this exercise. Get a paper and pen and start graphing the timeline of your life. Then take a straight line segment on the graph, and magnify it on a different piece of paper. Pull out the detail that has been lost to compression.

Your story’s intricate story arcs and fascinating characters can reveal a wealth of themes and lessons, if you just take the time to uncover them. Your life story is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and can be told in myriad ways.

Go back and visit some different pages for a change, and see if your feelings about yourself change a bit, too.