Responding to Setbacks: Hope, Courage & Progress

Have you ever set a goal that required daily effort?  Maybe you set a goal to train for a race.  Maybe your goal is to get out of debt.  Maybe you want to write a book, save up for a car, or lose weight.  Or maybe your goal is to escape the chains of an addiction to alcohol, tobacco or pornography.  Regardless of your goal, chances are that you are going to encounter setbacks along the way.

We all experience setbacks.  It’s a part of being human.  However, how we view those setbacks can affect our success in achieving our goals.  Our perspective can make the difference between the end of the road and a bump in the road.

In this post, I wish to share two ways to look at setbacks and relapse.  The first way is a common but unhealthy way of viewing setbacks that often leads to feeling discouraged and giving up.  It is especially common among perfectionists and individuals who are shame-prone, including those struggling with addiction.  The second way is a healthier, more encouraging model and is associated with progressing.

The Cliff Model: How to Feel Hopeless


The Cliff Model: Leads to feeling hopeless, ashamed, and overwhelmed

This first model is what I like to call the Cliff Model.  I also like to refer to it as the “counterfeit” model.  In this model, progress is conceptualized as a steady, upward climb.  Each day represents further progress.  Until a setback happens.  Then it feels like falling off the edge of a cliff.  All progress seems to be lost.  Your mind begins playing a demoralizing script:  You failed.  You have fallen.  You are broken.  Alone.  Weak.  Defeated.  Hopeless.  Stuck.  If you believe these messages you end up feeling overwhelmed, ashamed and discouraged.

Shame tries to fill you with thoughts such as “I’m a failure”.  “I’m weak”.  “I deserve to be alone and miserable”.  “I’m flawed and irreparably damaged”.  Shame sends the message, “You don’t have what it takes to get out of this mess”.

And if someone buys into the Cliff Model, it is pretty easy to believe at least some of shame’s lies.  After all, how are you supposed to make it back to where you were, let alone progress beyond it?  dayas without accident

This mentality reminds me of work accident signs:  It has been 151 days without an accident!  Scratch that.  O days.  Oops.  Which means that it would take five months to get to where you were earlier that day.  That sounds mighty intimidating to me.  It can be pretty easy to lose hope and give up trying.


Why should we care about hope?  Because without hope, effort ends.  And without effort you are not likely to see progress toward your desired goal.  When we are discouraged to the point of hopelessness, then we stop trying.

Have you ever dissected the word “discourage”.  It consists of the prefix dis, which refers to a “reversing force”.  And Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”  Courage refers to the ability to do something difficult and intimidating, and to having strength in the face of challenges.

Discouragement isn’t about feeling sad and mopey.  Discouragement is losing our courage.  We no longer feel that we have the strength or the ability to act in the face of resistance.  We feel inclined to surrender our courage and cease to try, and that is when we have truly lost.  The Cliff Model leads to discouragement.  This model doesn’t depict failure, it deceptively leads to failure.

The Growth Spiral Model: How to Progress


This model, while it has regular backsliding, and both ups and downs, its overall trajectory shows progress.

I now want to present to you an alternative model for looking at relapses.  I like to call this the Growth Spiral Model.  If I were a better artist, the individual loops would be closer together, and the peaks and valleys would be more pronounced.  The concept here is that the growth doesn’t come in an uninterrupted upward climb.  It is a general trajectory that involves ups and downs.

If you were to zoom in on an individual loop, you would notice an upward swing, followed by falling.  And while there is some falling backwards, and some falling downwards, it ultimately falls and moves forward.  It isn’t falling off of a cliff, or a wagon, it is stumbling and falling back a little bit before getting up and moving forward again.  This model helps look at things in a more hopeful perspective.

Here is another way to thinking of viewing mistakes:  Rather than thinking that it has been O days since the last accident (and mourning the lost 151), think of it like an efficiency rating. You could say that in the past 151 days you have a 99.34% success rate.  Can you see the difference that perspective gives in maintaining hope?  I can’t imagine that many students would look at a 99% grade and think that all is lost and want to drop the class because of it.  If they do, that is some pretty severe all-or-nothing thinking.

If we make a mistake or encounter a set back, we don’t need to despair.  But this doesn’t mean that we can be casual or should feel indifferent when we backslide.  The message I am hoping to communicate here is not a call for complacency; this is a call for courage.  The message isn’t “don’t worry”.  It is “don’t lose hope”.  Just as discouragement prevents action, so does indifference and complacency.

In this model, growth is depicted as being slow, messy, and gradual.  It also shows that it is steady and constant.  Even when moving backwards, individuals are moving forward when considered from this perspective.  Even if on a temporary downward trend for several cycles, eventually, things pick up and progress.  There is always hope.  And hope leads to courage.  And courage precedes action.  And action leads to change.  And with that gradual change, courage and hope wax stronger and stronger and growth continues.

Simple Solutions


In June I went camping with 120 girls between the ages of 11 and 17.  I had the wonderful responsibility and privilege of mentoring and overseeing the 16 and 17-year-old youth camp leaders.

On the second day of camp, the youth leaders over the 11-year-olds expressed concerns that the girls were becoming grumpy, homesick and mean to one another.  The adult leaders started consulting about what to do.  Some suggested an intervention, others volunteered to teach a team-building class, and others gave various advice to the leaders of those girls.  People were feeling worried and stressed and the feeling was contagious.

The next day, I spoke with another of my youth leaders about the situation.  She seemed very relaxed and told about an experience that she had had earlier that day.  She explained that the girls were being negative and catty, and were grumpily and lazily complaining in their tents.  When this youth leader approached them, they complained of how hot, humid and uncomfortable they were in their tent.  And do you know how she responded?  She asked them why they didn’t unzip the window to their tent.  “We can do that?!” was their response.  They unzipped the wall cover of their tent and were soon enjoying a pleasant breeze and their moods noticeably improved.

Sometimes in life, we recognize or hear about a problem and we get all hyped up about it.  We envision some great response to try to solve what we assume to be a complicated problem.  And we end up experiencing more distress from our worry than from the actual stressor.

And, most amazingly, often, the solution we need isn’t one that we would directly link to the symptoms.  Those girls needed a refreshing breeze, not an intervention.

Oftentimes, people don’t need medication or therapy.  They do need a friend to talk to.  They need to take time to rest, to laugh, and to spend time doing things they love and with people they love.  Perhaps they need to sleep more, eat healthier, and exercise more regularly.

If you aren’t happy, before you turn to anti-depressants or therapy, consider if you are missing any of these simple solutions in your life: exercising, spending time outdoors, focusing on family, making time for friends, finding meaning in work, contributing to your community, and getting enough sleep at night.

Perhaps making one of these things will be the open tent window you need.  Remember, simple solutions are often all that is needed to resolve complex problems.  “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass”.

Should Mental Illness be a Taboo Topic?


This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week.  In an effort to promote awareness and dialogue about mental illness, I want to share a little bit about why I believe mental illness is often treated as a taboo topic, and why I believe that it shouldn’t be.

When I think of the word “taboo”, I tend to think of two things:

taboo cards First, I think of the party game, Taboo.  In this game, you are presented with a card with several words on it.  There is one word on the top, which is the word you want to help your teammates identify.  Beneath it is a list of words commonly associated with the initial word that you cannot use in eliciting a correct response from your team.  The rules of the game restrain utilizing certain words, and requires a degree of inventiveness and creativity.

Second, I think of Voldemort.  Lord Voldemort, previously Tom Marvolo Riddle, is the name of the antagonist in the popular Harry Potter series.  In the wizarding world, Voldemort is so greatly ???????????????????????????????feared that no one dares to even speak his name aloud.  Instead, he is referred to as “the Dark Lord” by his followers, and as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” by the rest of the population.

In a conversation between Harry and his mentor and headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, Harry was given this sage advice: “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

One definition of “taboo” is “a prohibition imposed by social custom or as a protective measure.”  In the example of Voldemort’s influence in the wizarding world, the taboo was instigated as a protective measure. However, the wizards who accepted this socially-imposed taboo were only protected from their own discomfort and from being reminded of their fears.  And, ultimately, avoiding the topic proved to be detrimental to the safety and well-being of society.

This may well be the case with the treatment of the topic of mental illness in the United States.  The subject, and the people associated with it, are misunderstood, feared, and avoided.  And the silence that results from this fear is detrimental to the well-being of our society.

taboo mental illness

These words should NOT be automatically associated with the mentally ill.

In a study in England, over 400 14-year-olds were asked, ‘What sorts of words or phrases might you use to describe someone who experiences mental health problems?’  They ended up with a list of over 250 words, most of which were derogatory terms, described negative emotion states, or were related to violence.  If they were asked to create a taboo game card for mental illness, I would imagine that it would end up looking something like this:

And this is a problem.  This narrative of mental illness breeds confusion, fear, and negativity.  People end up pigeon-holed and caricatured in a way that does not reflect their humanness, their strength, and their need for respect, compassion and social support. This, in turn, leads to avoidance of individuals associated with mental illness and avoidance of the topic.  Views are warped, in part, because there are very few serious conversations involving informed and sensitive parties.  For many, mental illness is a taboo topic.  And it shouldn’t be.

Taboos exist in our world. Some are functional and are appropriately censured in casual discussion and in general contexts. However, there are some situations, including this one, in which the fear of a topic and the creating of a taboo around it removes individuals from understanding and responding to people and problems.  Furthermore, having taboos reinforces stigma, and stigma leads to all sorts of problems.

According to the Mayo Clinic, harmful consequences of the stigma associated with mental illness include:

  • Reluctance to seek help or treatment
  • Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others you know
  • Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing
  • Bullying, physical violence or harassment
  • Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental illness treatment
  • The belief that you’ll never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation

Silence inspired by fear is damaging. An inability to understand and reach out to another in their time of pain leads to unnecessary loneliness. Ignorance about depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses can lead to insensitivity, mistreatment, unmet needs and inappropriate discrimination.  It can lead to a lack of civility and towards alienation of those who are in need of compassion and support.


One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year.

There is risk associated with silence. It is natural to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. And things that we don’t understand make us uncomfortable.  There is a vicious cycle there:  We don’t understand it so we avoid it.  Because we avoid it we continue to not understand it.  But ignoring a problem does not make it go away. And ignoring a problem that affects approximately one in four people is ridiculous.

A lack of education and continued silence on the matter prevents you from using your power and influence to help another person.  Take time to become better educated regarding mental illness and the people affected by it.  Learn how to be a support and an advocate.  An educated and purposeful voice makes a powerful difference.

In Defense of Rests


Back in 2005 I attended a conference in which I listened to an address by a music producer and composer.  Among other things, he taught about rests.  In music, rests instruct you to stop playing or holding a note for a short amount of time.  Intuitively, it would seem like a rest would be the opposite of music since it restricts sound.  But musicians have learned otherwise.

Composer Claude Debussy has been credited as saying, “Music is the space between notes”.

According to Mozart, “Music is not in the notes, but the silence between”.

And according to the presenter I listened to, rests are an important and powerful part of music because it is often in those moments of stillness that the power of the music can enter into the hearts and minds of the listener.

In other words, rests, the space between the sounds, are an important part of music.  Not a lack of it.

There is a principle here that also applies to people.  Just as music is enhanced by the presence of rests, life is improved by taking time to rest.

It is common to have never-ending to-do lists.  Sometimes, some people (myself included), tend to equate how good their day was with how busy they were during it.  We either end up thinking that we don’t have time to rest, or we feel guilty when we do.  We mistakenly think that taking time to rest means we are avoiding life and neglecting responsibilities. But just as rests are part of music, not an absence of it, taking time to rest equates to enhancing life, not escaping it.

Breaks can be beneficial.  Consider these research findings: Taking a break from work to check your smart phone periodically can increase productivity.  Having recess at school helps kids focus so that they can learn better in the classroom.  Taking two minutes every 20 minutes to stand up and walk around contributes to improved health.  Twenty-five minutes of mindfulness exercises a day helps to reduce stress levels.

This concept of rests applies to taking care of yourself and it also applies to taking care of your relationship.  Take time to do activities that rejuvenate you.  Take a time-out during an argument to cool down.  Find a babysitter and make going on dates with your partner a priority.

Making and taking time to rest is an investment that pays off.

If your life is like a song that is constantly at a fast-paced tempo with no rests, you may find that it isn’t a song that you can easily ponder during or find peace in.  If you feel like you always have to be busy and that you can’t or shouldn’t take any time for yourself or your relationship, please believe that you can and should and give yourself permission to.  Well-placed rests won’t interrupt life.  They add power to life and help make it beautiful.