Cheryl Richardson: Setback Survival

Years ago, I learned a powerful lesson about the upside of disappointment. After being passed over for a business opportunity -- one I spent almost a year preparing for -- I called my friend Max to share the news.

It isn't easy to see your disappointments in life as "gifts." But often, that's what they turn out to be. Frustrated and sad, I questioned my judgment about having invested so much time in the project. I saw this loss as a major setback. But Max had a different take. "What if this disappointment, and everything you're going through, is all preparation for an even better next step?"

Leave it to a best friend to see the bright side. As soon as she uttered the words, I felt hopeful. It hadn't even occurred to me that this disappointment might lead to an even greater opportunity -- one I couldn't yet see. Although I knew it would take some time for the pain to subside, I now had something positive to hold on to. (Sure enough, I embarked on another project even more fulfilling than I suspect the first would have been.)

Since then, I've come to see letdowns, even those from my distant past, as breakthroughs. For example, when I look back at the difficult breakup I had in the relationship before my marriage, I can see that the suffering and subsequent growth prepared me for a more mature and lasting relationship later on. I didn't know it at the time, but the devastating disappointment forced me to grow. It challenged me to face my fear of living alone. It prompted me to get my butt into therapy. And it ultimately helped me to develop more self-respect. As a result, I learned to treat myself better, which in turn raised my standards for how I would allow others to treat me in the future.

We've all had setbacks, times when things didn't turn out the way we'd hoped or planned. For you, it may have been the year you moved to a warmer climate, excited about finally leaving the snow and cold behind for good -- only to discover that you missed your family and friends much more than you'd expected. Or perhaps it's when you landed an exciting new job with a company that seemed aligned with the values you care about most. Problem is, it turned out to be a little too much like the job you just left.

No doubt about it: Disappointment is the inevitable result of taking chances and reaching for what you want. What we do with a difficult turn of events, however, makes all the difference. You can let it take you down, leaving you bitter and cynical, or you can look for the light in the dark and use it to find an even better self. How do we turn setbacks into stepping stones? Make the decision that you'll learn -- and grow -- from the experience. It's not as hard as you think.

Find the Gold
Think about your life. Is there something going on right now that might ready you for what's around the corner? What if your current challenge is a call to action, the kind of rallying inner growth that will prepare you for a next phase? To get an idea of what I mean, try this: Choose one thing that you feel disappointed about -- a breakup, a family problem, the slow growth of your business, the loss of money on an investment. Then think about the following questions:

If this were happening to help strengthen a part of me, which part would it be?
We all have spiritual muscles that need flexing and toning as we make our way through life. Maybe you've been passed over for a promotion, and you can now see the value of speaking up for what you want. Viewed this way, this experience has helped you realize that your assertive side needs a boost. Perhaps you didn't get the house you recently bid on -- and that helped develop your capacity for what the Buddhists call "nonattachment." When you see the loss from the perspective of personal growth, you know that you're getting a chance to cultivate patience as you wait for something even better to come along.

What can I learn from this experience?
Life is a classroom. We're always being offered lessons that help us evolve into a better version of ourselves. If your relationships keep going sour, for example, you may need to face the reality that you're the common denominator in every one. You might need to get help to heal some emotional wounds. Likewise, if a grand home-improvement project turns out to be a complete bust, you won't walk away from the experience without a few lessons learned -- practical information that you'll put to good use next time.

Who can help me transform this disappointment into an opportunity?
This is the most important question of all. Rather than shoulder all of the burden yourself, find support. Identify a mentor at work who can guide you toward the knowledge and experience you need to get that promotion you've wanted. Ask a close friend for a referral to a therapist so you can move on from a painful divorce. If you're just not sure where you're going in life -- financially, professionally, or otherwise -- gather people around you who can help you brainstorm strategies to move you forward.

How can I use what I've learned from this disappointment to help others?
Here's where this process gets transformative, as your greatest disappointment may be the vehicle for your greatest contribution. Think about Candy Lightner, who lost her daughter more than 25 years ago to a drunk driver. She used this tragedy as a motivating force to start the nonprofit organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Your disappointment might be nowhere near as devastating as Lightner's, but you can still turn a bitter experience into a valuable gift for others -- even if it's just in sharing what you've learned with them.

As I've dealt with my own challenges over the years, I've held onto Max's view of disappointment as preparation for a great next step. It's my reminder to see a purpose in suffering and pain. When we get to the other side of a letdown, there awaits a great opportunity to use what we've learned in service to ourselves and others. Every day, in some way, we're all being prepared for something better.

Need Cheryl's Coaching?
Cheryl Richardson is a life coach who helps Body+Soul readers work on challenges like career change and relationships. Write to Cheryl, describing your situation.

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