What to Do When You Have a Setback



how to recover from a setback“I went off the rails this weekend…”

“I feel like I lost all my progress…”

“I couldn’t make it a day without eating a piece of bread…”

The path to success is often paved with setbacks. And the fact of the matter is, if you haven’t had one yet, you probably will sometime in the near future. Is that a reason to freak out? No. But it is a reason to arm yourself with the tools to, as they say, make the comeback stronger than the setback.

Changing behaviours takes time and patience. Trust me, I see this with most of my health coaching clients. And, like I always tell them, there is no expectation to knock a massive lifestyle change right out of the park on your first try. I don’t care if you’re trying to change your diet or your workout routine or your sleep habits — it’s never a linear journey. There’s always a combination of successes, plateaus, and setbacks.

What Is a Setback?

By definition, a setback is an event that delays your progress or reverses some of the progress you’ve previously made. It can be frustrating, humbling, and can likely trigger some negative self-talk. After all, you put time and energy into this endeavor. Maybe you spent money. Or you told all your friends and family what you were doing. And now what?

Listen. A setback, or even a few setbacks, doesn’t have to be the end of your story. In fact, quite the opposite. A setback might be exactly what you need to get where you want your health to go.

Can Setbacks Make You Stronger?

Researchers in this study 1 conducted in-depth interviews with 85 elite athletes and coaches, seeking to understand the motivating factors of what breeds success. Turns out, most of the top athletes interviewed had suffered a significant setback early on in their career. That’s what fueled their success. They found a way to turn the defeat of a setback into a reason to push themselves further the next time they competed.

In another study, 2 UVA economist Adam Leive compiled a database of medal winners in Olympic track and field events to see how their lives played out after winning. He found that the athletes who just missed out on getting the top podium spot were more ambitious in their post-sports careers than their gold medal counterparts. The trauma of not securing the top spot actually seemed to have made the athletes stronger. And, they actually lived longer.

But it’s not just athletes who are able to reap the rewards of setbacks. Researchers have studied diverse groups from students3 to scientists 4 and found the same thing — failures along the way can make you stronger than those who never had a stumble.

4 Steps to Overcoming Setbacks

In light of this research (and about a decade of helping my clients through inevitable setbacks of their own), I wanted to share my personal strategy, designed to take you from setback to success.

1. Look at the big picture. Sure, you had a setback, but my guess is you also had some successes along the way. Despite slipping back into your toast-and-cereal-for-breakfast routine or discovering that your favorite pants are currently too tight, ask yourself what’s gone well over the past few days, weeks, or months. What changes have you made that have contributed to a more metabolically flexible lifestyle? What habits have you implemented since you began your journey?

Also, take an objective look at what didn’t work. Was there a stressful event or period of time that interfered with your progress? Did you get overly hungry or not eat enough protein? Get really honest with yourself and write down your successes and your struggles. Seeing them on paper without emotion can help you move forward more easily.

2. Recognize your obstacles (and have a plan). If summer BBQs trip you up, have a plan. If vacations make you loosen your commitment, have a plan. Key takeaway here? Have. A. Plan. Figure out what situations, places, or foods are your triggers and learn how to navigate them. Or avoid them all together until your confidence around your ability to choose gets stronger. It’s one thing to consciously enjoy a cookie at your favorite coffee shop; it’s a totally different story if you accidentally ate one and decided you “screwed up” so you might as well binge on sweets for the rest of the day.

Keep in mind the theory of cause and effect too. Binging on carbs over the weekend will likely send your brain begging for more pastries, pizza, and pasta come Monday morning. And if you’re someone who subscribes to “food as a reward,” those pints of Ben & Jerry’s can look awfully tempting after a few weeks of “being good.” Acknowledge your obstacles and find a way around them.

3. Surround yourself with support. In a world of whole-grains-this and low-fat-that, not to mention old-school doctors who whole-heartedly believe that saturated fat will send you right to your grave, it can be a challenge (to say the least) to get the support you need to make lifestyle changes that last.

That’s why it’s so important to have a network of people who have your back, whether it’s our community here on Mark’s Daily Apple, a health coach like one from the Primal Health Coach Institute, or a group of friends and family members who understand the science behind why your heart won’t explode by following a diet free of refined carbs, sugar, and industrialized oils.

4. Take a step forward. Ditching your whole efforts or punishing yourself with a grueling workout after a setback won’t get you any closer to your goal. As I mentioned earlier, the journey is never linear. It might feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back, but eventually you will get there. Your path is still there. There’s always a next step. You just need to choose to take it.

Think about what you can do right now to start making progress. It doesn’t need to be a huge sweeping change either. It can be as small as going for a walk, preparing a big-ass salad, or getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Having a long-term goal is great (and something I highly recommend) but getting there requires you to take the first step.

Remember, setbacks can actually make you stronger. So, if you’re in the midst of a massive change and wondering what to do to get back on track, put aside your frustration and follow these four steps:

  • Look at the big picture
  • Recognize your obstacles
  • Surround yourself with support
  • Take a step forward

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