How do you recover from a setback that slams your self-confidence to the ground? What does it take? It starts with understanding about why we focus on the negative and learning how to shift a negative into a more positive frame of mind.
Early in my writing career, I got an editorial go-ahead to write an article for a prestigious, children’s, nonfiction magazine. I spent weeks researching, writing, and editing it. I sent it in and waited for the letter that it had been accepted.
The letter I received wasn’t what I expected. Nowhere near it.
I got a three-page, sentence-by-sentence critique of the piece. There was nothing good about it. Nothing. The title and byline were the only things that survived unscathed.
I was devastated and sat on the floor, crying. I relived every mistake I had ever made, reheard every criticism aimed at me, and sank into a deep pit of self-pity.
I completely lost all my self-confidence. I thought I was a failure and would never succeed as a writer.
Negativity Saves Lives
If you’re like most of us, you probably spend a good part of your day juggling priorities, fending off interruptions, and trying to get something — anything — done. Most people can’t remember what they did a week ago without checking their calendars. Remembering what was accomplished last month or six months ago is almost impossible.
But we can remember all the bad stuff easily and vividly.
Blame it on our internal programming.
The amygdala is part of the limbic system, and it plays a key role in processing emotions. It is programmed to store negative experiences in our memory, so we can use them like a primitive, early warning system. It helped our ancestors prepare for, notice, and respond to potential dangers like saber-tooth tigers on the prowl.
The amygdala still works beautifully today by helping us remember negative experiences more easily than positive ones. However, instead of helping us recognize danger, it creates a fast slide into self-doubt.
“There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”¹ [my boldface]
What can you do to recover from a setback when the amygdala wants to dwell on negativity?
Keep an Achievement Log to Feel More Confident
An Achievement Log is record of what you have accomplished, and sometimes is referred to as an “accomplishment journal.” It’s an antidote to negative memories that can undermine self-esteem, especially after a setback.
Get a notebook and start by capturing the major accomplishments of your life to date, such as learning to drive, graduating from college or grad school, authoring a book, landing the job of your dreams, starting your own business, getting married, trekking through Asia, and so on.
After you have logged past accomplishments, you want to add to your list every week. This is an opportunity to capture your achievements shortly after they happen, so you won’t forget them. Note everything — big and small, professional, business, and personal.
Here are some examples of what to capture.
- Completed the research for the new blog post
- Wrote two performance reports
- Hired a new virtual assistant
- Finished painting the spare room
- Called my mother
No item is too small or insignificant.
This record of your personal and professional accomplishments helps to mitigate that sense of failure that often accompanies a professional setback. It also can serve as prompts when you want to update your resume, provide examples of how you achieve results for clients, are facing a performance review or job interview, and so on.
NOTE: The Achievement Log is not the place for goal setting. It is for recording successes and accomplishments.
Use the A, B, Cs to Recover When Your Self-Confidence Takes a Hit
The ABCDE Technique was formulated by psychologist Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and was adapted by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and author of Learned Optimism. It is a powerful tool to cope with and recover from negative emotions and events. I didn’t have this technique when I was blindsided by that editor, but somehow I went through the process on my out.
You want to do this exercise in writing.
Step A = Adversity: Describe in detail the setback that is affecting you. In my example, an editor kicked me to the ground and tore apart an article that I spent weeks working on.
Step B = Belief: Write out your thoughts about the situation, any emotions you are feeling, and any beliefs you discover. In my example, I started to believe that I wasn’t a good writer and could never earn my living as a writer. I was a total failure and was doomed to slave away in a corporate hive.
Step C = Consequences: What is the result of this belief? I stopped writing for months and recoiled from the idea of writing again. I locked away my typewriter. (Yes, it was that long ago.)
Step D = Dispute: Turn the situation around, become a devil’s advocate, and challenge your beliefs in writing. One day, I decided to clean out my desk. I found the folder clips of every magazine piece I had sold and copies of every accolade I had received. It was a pretty substantial folder — evidence that I wasn’t a failure after all. The gloom began to life.
Step E = Energy: Step back and evaluate how you feel about the situation after completing Steps A-D.
- Does it still feel like a setback?
- Have you reduced or eliminated the negative energy and emotions around it?
If not, repeat the process again. If so, take a deep breath and put it in the past.
Make a note in your Achievement Log what you did to turn things around, so you have a blueprint for handling setbacks in the future.
Setbacks Can Be Good for Us
“Set back” as a verb means to “slow the progress of.” When you are hit with a setback (the noun), you want to slow the progress of its negativity on your self-esteem and self-confidence.
That fateful rejection letter I received wasn’t the end of my writing career or business.
After reviewing my successes, I reread the fateful letter, which I had crumpled it into a tiny ball of paper, but had not thrown away. I’m not sure why I kept it, but I’m glad I did.
After several painful, but objective reviews of every criticism, I had to agree that most were on point. Not all, but most. I learned a lot from that letter; it was more valuable than most of the writing classes I had taken.
I decided to submit another query to that same editor. Again, I got a go-ahead. I researched, wrote, and edited it, using the rejection letter as a guide for what not to do.
I mailed it off and waited.
This one sold, as did two more.
I never again stopped writing. I have doubted myself at times, but I’ve always kept writing.
When your confidence takes a hit —
- Remember how much you have accomplished to date and give yourself credit.
- Explore what’s going on with the ABCDE Technique to distance yourself from the situation and create a more realistic view of it.
- Refuse to dwell on what happened. When it flashes into your mind, immediately replace it with the memory of something positive.
It’s not easy to recover when our confidence takes a hit, but it gets easier. Remember how good and how successful you are, how far you’ve come, and how you have bounced back in the past.
I’d love to hear how you have overcome setbacks. Please share them in the Response section, so we can benefit from each other’s experiences.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
- Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development by Amrisha Vaish (Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany), Tobias Grossmann, and Amanda Woodward
My e-course How to Improve Your Self-Confidence can make you more resilient and help you bounce back after setbacks.