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.