- Rebounding from defeat or disappointment is often met with well-meaning if trite advice.
- A swift bounce-back depends on which voice you listen to.
- Behavioural science suggests seven simple strategies.
Life is filled with more fist-pumping triumphs than soul-destroying setbacks. Yet it’s the latter that disproportionately dominates our minds and our moods.
When you mess up or get something badly wrong, it’s hard to get back on the horse. It can feel crushing, especially if the error was caused by your own hand. Whether it’s a relationship breakdown, career setback, psychological trauma, or sports defeat, it's important to know how to rebound quickly.
No one appreciated this more than Nelson Mandela, who said, "Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."
The speed with which you bounce back is based not just on the inner voices you tune into but also on the scornful voices you tune out.
Tuning In to the Right Voices
Behavioral science can help with seven simple strategies and some advice from those who have bounced back.
1. Acknowledge Your Embarrassment. The only way to deal with feelings is to actually feel them. Acknowledging and processing embarrassment or disappointment is a crucial step in boosting well-being. We tend to catastrophize events when we can’t see how the future will unfold—it’s the uncertainty effect. “What do I do now?” What doesn’t help is social media which amplifies and sensationalises error. Or when others seem to relish our mistakes!
Adding further to our agony is the delusion that others are watching us. It's the spotlight effect. “What will colleagues or neighbors think?" Of course, others are so busy self-obsessing that they don’t care—and even fewer have noticed. Our anxiety is often less about coping with our disappointment than coping with the compounding factor of what we think others think. We get stuck in our own spotlight misery.
2. Gain Relative Perspective. The most obvious response is to try to gain immediate perspective and reduce the perceived consequentiality of the error. I find it helpful to look at higher consequence impacts and ask three things: (i) Will you struggle to eat? (ii) Will you lose your bed? (iii) Has this damaged lives? As the answer is most likely "No" to these questions, the issue may not be quite so dramatic. Note the echo of Maslow's survival needs. Compare yourself to those who lose loved ones, face terminal illnesses, have missing children, and struggle to pay bills or feed families. It's the contrast effect that minimizes potential overreaction to what is usually a minor event, albeit one that feels disproportionately large in the moment.
3. Adopt a Positive Mindset. Businesses adapt after a setback or shift which often signifies a turning point. Equally, individuals can regard change as an opportunity for new beginnings. Winners appreciate that time lost in self-recrimination means squandered money, reputation, and opportunity. They know a positive mindset increases the probability of achieving the desired result. Stephen Spielberg was rejected three times from the University of Southern California film school. Similarly, JK Rowling was rejected 15 times by publishers. What voices did they entertain? Self-belief is the essence of getting back up. "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future," John F. Kennedy stated.
4. Forgive Yourself. Some disappointment, self-loathing, and self-lashing is inevitable—at least temporarily. It doesn’t feel much better if others are responsible and you’ve been fired, ghosted, or dumped. The response is different—rejection and ridicule—but no less intense or debilitating. Part of a positive mindset involves self-compassion and forgiving yourself. Aspiring comedians and actors suffer rejection and humiliation all the time. Just as you would to a friend, treating yourself with kindness improves resilience. Accept that you’re doing the best you can. For some, self-esteem can be strengthened through meditation and mindfulness. Others prefer collective optimism. Massachusetts citizens gained solidarity after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings with the unifying phrase "Boston Strong." There is no universal panacea.
5. When It’s Gone, Move On. When Novak Djokovic won the French Open and became the highest-achieving male tennis player, he shared his winning formula that is as useful on as off the court. He urged us to "live in the present, forget the past as the future will just happen." When he misses a tie-breaker, game, or match point, the moment is gone. There's no time for negative narratives, dwelling on mistakes and what should have been. Psychological distance is immediately placed between the error and the next move. The mind is at the baseline, preparing to receive the next opportunity. John McEnroe understands the danger of an all-consuming win/lose mentality: “Measure your success by how much you evolve, not necessarily how much you win.” The ability to compartmentalize loss reduces severe side effects.
6. Reflect, Relearn, and Reset. Companies conduct post-mortems to identify sources of error and prevent similar mistakes. It’s a crucial step toward growth and recovery. In the 1990s, Apple faced bankruptcy until Steve Jobs strategically narrowed its products to the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and MacBook. The rest is history. Similarly, Netflix started as a DVD rental-by-mail service and leaders faced a crisis as the market declined; they transitioned into a streaming service. Individuals can learn from any situation and redefine the meaning of success.
Resetting goals is a powerful way to refocus energy and motivation. "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new," said Socrates.
7. Recalibrate Expectations. Mistakes hurt as we worry about social, political, religious, and career repercussions. When we're preoccupied with smashing the competition, winning a medal, or securing a promotion, excessive tunnel vision sets in. You need a pressure valve or method of release to regulate anxiety in these scenarios. Wharton professor Adam Grant advocates a “challenge network” to provide a buffer zone that insulates against poor decisions.
Losing face is an inevitable part of life, whether in business, sports, or relationships. It’s how you respond to challenges that define your character and success. It can be tough to reach out to empathetic others for guidance. Oprah Winfrey got it right when she said, "Surround yourself with those who only lift you higher." It's too easy to criticize and condemn, usually serving the critic more than the criticized.
Armed with these behavioral strategies, you can reframe losses more easily as opportunities—and in time, even stories to tell others. This is merely a stepping stone toward a better, smarter, and more robust you.
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