Real Leaders

Get Unstuck: 3 Easy Ways to Shake Off Setbacks

“It’s history. Why bother thinking about it?” 

That’s the phrase a college wrestler named Sam turned into a mantra. Alongside strength training and perfecting his techniques in duck-unders and takedowns, Sam rehearses this phrase in the days and hours leading up to an important match. During a match, he doesn’t want any setbacks to linger in his mind, not even for a second. He has to endure a grueling seven minutes of intense physical and mental battle against a strong opponent, and he can’t afford to let negative thoughts intrude. If he did, it would be like letting a psychological gremlin into his system. 

Instead, Sam cultivates a state of mind athletes call being in the zone. Sam is squarely in the present moment, automatic and fluid in his motions, and in a non-thinking mental space. He’s in the sports version of mindfulness

How to Cultivate Mindfulness

Mindfulness helps you to stop judging and appraising every action you take. It allows you to experience life as a constant flow of experiences. There’s not always a need to stop, to consciously evaluate, and to fix; that can come later if necessary. Setbacks are simply acknowledged and let go of.

How do people bring this kind of mindfulness into their day-to-day lives? How do they cultivate it and practice it? They turn to these three simple strategies:

Attach a Positive Emotion to Failures or Mistakes 

Many top athletes bring a positive emotion into their mind immediately after a failure or mistake. They wedge it in there, fast. You can do this yourself: Think back to your last misstep and imagine that instead of berating yourself, as you probably did, you told yourself, “You’re doing great!” 

It sounds strange to congratulate yourself after a setback, but we’ve all seen sports players bumping fists after their teammates miss a free throw or penalty shot. They know the power of inserting a positive emotion into a negative moment. It neutralizes the negative, unhelpful emotion that a bad play or missed shot brings about. 

Shake it Off With Confidence

Here’s another strategy in a different setting. Susan is an experienced executive in her fifties who has learned to practice letting go of bad moments in her high-stress job. Self-possessed and self-assured in her role as a chief financial officer for a large business, it’s hard to believe she wasn’t always so poised and confident. “I used to be the kid who never raised her hand in class,” she told us. Her biggest fear was making a mistake in front of her teacher and the other students and feeling like a failure. 

Fast forward to today. Susan regularly gives important presentations; her quarterly meetings typically have over fifty people in attendance. “Mistakes? Errors?” She laughed. “Are you kidding? They happen all the time.” Susan told us about a problem she experienced during one of her most important meetings for the company’s senior executive team and a group of outside investors, many of whom had flown in for the day for the offsite meeting. 

“I was one slide into my crucial presentation when my computer crashed,” she explained. “I was standing there flooded in blinding light. The room went dead quiet. Some of my senior colleagues got nervous, looking like deer caught in the headlights.”

“I decided to just keep moving,” Susan continued. “I walked over to the projector, turned it off, and without missing a beat said, ‘Well, fortunately, I’m a better CFO and strategist than I am a slide projector operator.’ Everyone laughed. The tension in the room disappeared. We had one of the best back-and-forth exchanges we’d ever had at one of these presentations. The slides weren’t why they were there.”

Susan isn’t any different than many of us who have felt shy, experienced awkward moments, and have worried about making mistakes in front of others. She’s learned how not to beat herself up and obsess when the mistakes come. She accepts that mistakes are normal, part of life, part of what makes us grow. Let her confidence find its way into you.  

Don’t Catastrophize

If this kind of confidence seems challenging, try to understand why you have a hard time letting go of errors or missteps. In psychology, we often warn people not to catastrophize—imagining worst-case scenarios and worrying that you will never be able to fix a mistake you’ve just made. Catastrophizing is particularly risky immediately after a setback. If you catch yourself falling prey to this way of thinking, don’t buy into it. Practice your mindfulness instead.

As part of your personal training to cultivate mindfulness, try out meditation, focused breathing, or positive imagery. You’ll experience the power of being more present in the moment and able to focus on pleasant thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. 

Then, the next time you experience the negative emotions of a setback, you can draw from that mindfulness reservoir. Immediately remind yourself of your worth. Remind yourself that the moment was just a moment. Tell yourself, “That wasn’t a big deal; the next opportunity to show my stuff is on its way.”A deeper, richer, and more fulfilling experience can be had when you allow yourself to let go of a mistake. It’s history. Move on. Get ready to take another swing.

PAUL NAPPER, Psy.D., leads a management psychology practice. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.

ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.

Their new book is “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms.”

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