How to deal with a setback? Ask yourself these 3 questions.

When you have a setback you’re often put on a nasty emotional rollercoaster. So what is the best way to deal with a setback and recover faster? Try asking yourself the 3 questions set out below.

Sometimes I’m asked what was the hardest part about taking on the trans-Atlantic rowing race. Well, oddly, it’s not the sharks or the storms, or the seat gnawing away at your backside, or never sleeping more than an hour at a time. In fact it’s nothing to do with the race itself – the hardest most painful task, that requires the most tenacity and resilience happens before you leave shore. It’s raising sponsorship. You’re spending thousands and thousands of dollars as you burn through your limited savings paying to get the boat built and buy equipment, and so you’re desperately knocking on doors day after day, to keep the dream alive but you keep hearing no after no after no.

Top tip – If you’re lucky enough to get a sponsorship meeting with Bell Tea and the CEO asks you if you’d like a tea or a coffee – the correct answer isn’t coffee.

With all the setbacks I was having I started to get very down on myself. I’m not the only one. When you’re having knock after knock it’s really easy to blame yourself, to really unhelpfully stick the boot in, to obsess about your mistakes, and get lost in doubt. That’s what happened to me.

But then I was very lucky to come across this technique that helped me process setbacks a bit faster and allowed me to get some perspective and hang in there. It didn’t solve my problems – but it allowed my head to get back in the game.

The Setback Recovery Process

Because when you have a setback there’s a process you are going to go through. You start off in your happy place then you get knocked down into the well of despair with the sharks of self-loathing and then you ‘reflect’, you ‘reframe’ you ‘reconsider’, and slowly, slowly you float back up to the top and you feel something like normal again.

Now you know that, depending on what put you down there, you can go down very deep, and spend a lot of time with the sharks before you do finally float back up to the top.

What if there was another way to deal with setbacks? Wouldn’t it be great if you could speed things up a bit, not go down quite so deep, get through it a lot faster, and possibly even stick it to the shark on the way through!

There is a way, and here’s how it works. If I were to ask you WHY you were feeling bad you could DEFINITELY tell me why. For example, ‘My customers have stopped calling’, ‘I don’t have any money’. You just insulted me and now I’m offended.

Something has happened to cause you to react. You have reasons for how you feel. Reasons based on facts.

Well … actually, it can’t be the ‘facts’. I mean it’s not the sound waves from your voice that is causing the offense (unless you’re shouting). Those sound waves had to get turned into meaning inside my brain. So strictly speaking it’s my interpretation of the facts that is causing this emotion.

But surely there is only ONE possible interpretation of the facts? My son has just flushed my iPhone down the loo. I’ve just lost my job. I’ve just got a duck in the final of the cricket world cup. There is only one way to feel! You would have to be insane to be anything other than miserable. Right?

Well, there might be only one way … but it seems unlikely. Have you ever been in a situation where other people, in the exact same circumstance as you, have a completely different reaction?

Here’s a little exercise to go through that will help you to test and challenge the white knuckle death grip you have on the SACRED RIGHTNESS of the story that you’re telling yourself about what has just happened. The story that is creating your emotions.

Here’s how it works – if you’ve just had a setback there’s only THREE questions that you are asking yourself that determine how bad you feel.

  1. Who’s to blame?

  2. How long will it last?

  3. How big a deal is it?

And for each of these 3 questions the answer tends to lie on an axis from ‘It was all me!’, to ‘I was just a part of it’. From ‘This will last forever’ to ‘This too shall pass.’ From ‘ everything has gone wrong!’, to ‘It is just this one little thing that has gone wrong. The rest of my life is fine.’

Let’s test it out. Think of something that has gone wrong and then say, ‘It’s all my fault, it’s always going to be this way, and it’s a huge deal’. I guarantee that you will feel worse and if you ARE feeling bad about something right now, then you’re almost certainly thinking one of more of those things, “I’m to blame, my situation is totally f’ed up permanently. Here is the clever bit. Without changing any of the facts, you can very often choose an interpretation that is equally as true, but that is more to the right-hand side. Because very often you were just a part of it, this too shall pass and you still have a great family, you still have great work colleagues, you still have your health and all your skills and capabilities and you still live in a great country. So next time something goes wrong try asking yourself three different questions. Question 1. How much did I personally control the outcome? Well I’m guessing if your problem is to do with Covid 19, there is nothing you did. Next question. Question 2. Will this still be a big deal in a year’s time? Don’t ask yourself, ‘Is this a big deal?’ because the answer in the moment is clearly ‘Yes!’ The question is, based on your experience of life, will you STILL be feeling this way, with this intensity in a year’s time? You know you’ve been through some huge speed bumps that absolutely rocked your world at the time that have long since receded into the rear view mirror. Now, you might be thinking this time it’s different. Well if that’s what you think consider this:

In the long run it’s very likely your happiness will return to average

Studies have shown that even the happiness levels of Lotto winners come back to normal. Even people who become paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, they definitely go through a period where life loses its charm – but eventually their ‘everyday pleasure’ rebounds.

Movies often end with the theme music soaring, everybody happy, the emotions at their peak and…..Freeze frame! Then slow fade out to black, roll credits and you waft out of the cinema on a high.

We know life doesn’t work like that, if they’re riding off into the sunset now … it means they will be setting up camp in the dark, with a sore arse.

That romantic couple might be snogging in the rain now, but next week they’ll be sorting the recycling and arguing about the dishes. On average life returns to average.

Are you doing the same with the image in your head about how bad things are, or are going to get? Are you stopping at the WORST possible moment? If so, don’t stop there, keep playing the movie out. What happens then? What happens then?

Can you be absolutely sure that what has just happened is a bad thing?

(Caveat – If the answer here is ‘yes’, then go to the next point.)

Otherwise, can I suggest that you won’t actually know how this shakes out for a while, perhaps quite a while?

You’ve had this happen before. You’ve had a good employee quit – only to be replaced by someone even more capable.

You’ve broken up with someone – only to meet your future partner.

You lost your job – only to get a better job.

There will be opportunities that come out of this. Is this a huge setback or is it the time you pivoted your business or your career? Only time will tell.

Question 3. How much of the rest of my life is unaffected?

How much of the rest of your life is UNAFFECTED by what has just happened? Do you still have great kids, a great partner, great work colleagues, great business connections, great mates?

Can you think for a moment about all the things that you have achieved to get to this point? You won’t want to of course because successful people like yourselves almost always focus on the tip of the spear – on the bit that is going wrong and needs all your attention. But sometimes it can be helpful to think about everything that you’ve achieved, all the obstacles that you’ve overcome, to get to this point.

Let me put it another way.

How would you rate your situation at the moment out of 10, with 0 being sh$t awful and 10 being ‘couldn’t be better’?

Got a number? Ok. Good. Now why didn’t you choose a lower number? No really. Why didn’t you choose a lower number?

Is it because some things in your life are still great? You’ve got a platform that you can build from?

Next time you have a setback do this

If you feel like the garbage truck of life is backing you up and crushing you against a wall, then try asking yourself these three questions to give yourself some breathing room.

  1. How much did I personally control the outcome?

  2. Will it still be as big a deal in 12 months time?

  3. How much of the rest of my life is unaffected?

This technique didn’t solve my problems – they stayed exactly the same. But it helped turn the stress down from 11 and got me breathing through my nose. It gave me some altitude, some perspective.

I was facing a big problem that was true. Just like all the other big problems that I had faced and overcome (or at least moved through) in my life.

It stopped me obsessing about the worst case so that I good keep persevering at knocking on doors and trying to find the money. I figured it didn’t matter how many ‘nos’ I got, I just needed a couple of yeses.

And then, out of the blue one day, it happened. The money came in and I was on my way and my life hasn’t been the same since.


Seligman, Martin. Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books. 1998.


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