How many times in the past week have you cursed your “bad luck?” I’ve examined how to respond to judgment and to failings in previous #GoddessingSelfCare posts. For today’s third and final “Self-Care for Rejected Parts” discussion, we’ll be looking into how to determine the degree of control we’ve had over a situation, as well as how to cope with it if it is an experience out of our control (aka, a setback/bad luck). I have taken a practical and psychologically-oriented approach rather than a spiritual focus for this discussion.
When Bad Luck Strikes
The cause of setbacks tends to be more external and situational when compared to failures. Setbacks occur in experiences that are largely out of our control. Note that some people see everything as a setback and nothing as a failure, which limits their growth potential because they feel powerless to better their lives. Others see everything as a failure and nothing as a setback, which causes unnecessary guilt and shame because they believe everything can and should be preventable.
We are bombarded with the message that life isn’t about what happens to us, rather, it is about how we respond to it. There is of course some truth to this, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we have respective areas of privilege and oppression, suffering and ease. For example, as I’ve begun inner work to dismantle my privilege, I’ve come to a hard realization that I can be obtusely ableist. I get instantly enraged in day-to-day situations when someone does not listen well; for instance, when I’m asked the same question repeatedly or someone gets my order wrong. I tend to be able to absorb a lot of information easily and quickly and so I assume everyone who does not show the same behaviors lacks not capacity but “try.” What I fail to hold in my mind in those moments is the fact that others may process differently than I do and that they may be facing unseen difficulties that are affecting our interaction.
My graceless behavior extends itself to setbacks. I don’t perceive myself as experiencing them, as I think everything that went wrong for me was a failure because I could have prevented it if only I’d been smarter or faster. This creates a feedback loop where I amp myself up when I in fact need to slow down. If I’m being brutally honest, I have to admit that I struggle to emphasize when others face obstacles that are difficult to surmount. I typically hold that things would have gone better for them if they’d only planned better or thought things through more fully. There may be some truth to my opinion in particular instances, but, if our shared humanity is my bedrock, my rejection of their vulnerability rejects all of us in our vulnerable areas, harming where I want to be healing. The first step to experiencing a setback is to see it as one. The absurdity of life coupled with its inherent injustice means we will face unexpected events that require us to deepen into love rather than to wall-off in frustration.
Setback Characteristics to Consider
My thinking here aligns with theory and research on the characteristics of stressors and their corresponding effects on coping. In general, negative events which we think are due to bad luck that impact many areas of our lives for lengthy periods of time and which compromise our personal sense of mission are likely to be perceived as major stressors. Those we think we can overcome quickly, which are periphery to our life goals, and/or which affect only one area of our life tend to be easier to digest and manage.
How Long-Lasting Is the Setback?
To what extent is the setback temporary versus permanent? Unpleasant situations that are likely to be long-lasting tend to wear on us more than short-term stressors. Sometimes all the scared or angry parts of me need to hear is that whatever is going on that I don’t like will be short-lived, if in fact that is the case. For situations where a setback is likely to persist, I’ve found it most useful to remind myself of everything that is under my control that I’m doing to try to adjust to or to rectify the situation.
How Much Surface Area Does the Setback Cover?
Is the setback covering one area of life or does it seep into many areas? Reminding ourselves of all the things that are going right or over which we do have control can be calming if the setback is limited in scope. For more widespread calamity, adjustment may take more time.
How Integral is the Setback to Your Life Goals?
How significantly will your sense of purpose in life be impacted by the setback? I am personally very sensitive to negative interpersonal feedback and feel highly distressed when I receive it. However, staking my well-being on it doesn’t align with my core self or purpose in life. Knowing this fact helps me cope. Difficulties in peripheral areas that do not hit at our major life goals are likely born more easily than those that threaten the values we hold dear.
After analyzing the time-frame and significance of a setback, we will likely be left with a better understanding of whether it is something that needs simply the passage of time and patience to overcome, or whether we will need to shift our perspective on life itself as a result. Serious set-backs require more than a spa day or shopping binge to overcome, as we may find ourselves asking “who am I with(out) ___.” In other words, our very identity may be shattered or shaken. We will consider both insignificant and grave setbacks as we look into self-care for our affected parts of self.
Self-Care for Setbacks
As a trauma survivor, I find it difficult to gain perspective on small instances of bad luck. Before abuse occurs, there is something a build-up, warning signs or other blips. After living through such events over the course of years, anything going off course for an instant can bring up an expectation of “here it all goes again.” I think we do well to show each other kindness (but not to enable) each other when we “over-react” to stressors; what you experience as “no big deal” may feel life or death to another.
In addressing insignificant experiences of bad luck, such as a broken windshield or a cold that leads me to cancel a fun event, I have found it useful to center myself on who I really am and what I really want from life. I let myself have the meltdown if it feels like it was “one too many things today” but I then try to put it into perspective. I personally do not find it even the smallest bit helpful for others to try to do this for me, as all I experience their “but remember ‘insert good thing’” as is invalidation. I have to work my way back to myself and to my purpose, both as a responsibility and as a necessity.
For negative interpersonal stressors over which I had little control, I find body-based self-care to be particularly useful. I easily dissociate if someone is unexpectedly rude to me, so it makes sense to me that grounding and returning myself to my physical being is calming. Exercise, a long walk in nature, breath-work and stretching tend to be my mainstays here.
It may not always be in my best interest to do so, but if I find stress and/or bad luck has built on itself and nothing is going my way, I tend to succumb to a bit of overindulgence. This includes eating out more than I would like to and/or purchasing crafty, self-care or luxury food items that I don’t really need. In moderation (which I definitely do not always have), I think there is a time and a place to live a little, but I also hope to weave my “treating” of myself more fully into other methods of coping so that it does not become or stay my default.
My thoughts here are limited to perspectives I have personally found helpful in facing setbacks. I detest the idea of being prescriptive or of pouring shame onto fresh wounds of someone who is experiencing a major life setback. We cope in different ways; you finding your way through in your own time and space is all that matters.
I do believe that one way to honor ourselves (and each other) in dealing with significant setbacks is to allow for grief and mourning. Modern society often gives us the message that we must succeed and exude confidence, beauty, wealth and health at all times. When this doesn’t occur, we may feel like failures. Knowing it is okay to allow hurt and disappointment in, as well as sorrow and pain, and to bear witness to it for each other is integral, in my opinion, to a well-lived life. Bites of bitterness sensitize our taste-buds to the sweet moments.
As part of our grief, we may find ourselves opening to the full experience of life and experiencing gratitude. I desire safety, security and comfort above all in life, but a single-minded attachment to these outcomes can numb me to the wider range of feelings and possibilities that my experiences contain. Near-misses, especially, jolt me into increased hope and happiness for the moments in which I can be present.
Major setbacks may lead to a necessity for us to realign our values and sense of purpose. The dreams onto which we held may no longer be possible; who we thought we were or would become may no longer exist. This doesn’t mean, though, that we are meaningless. Instead, it can offer a window into a new construction of self that can be—although not what we envisioned—our truest and most authentic version.
Stressors, even major ones, do not have to compromise the good we can do in the world. The only way I’ve even glimpsed this reality is when I first open to the parts of self I’d rather reject, and secondly when others in my life have shown me compassion for the pain and suffering I’ve endured. It is a process to which I return on a sometimes daily basis. Finding nourishment in what feels like the breadcrumbs of life, thereby transforming them to plenty, requires time, social support and a mindset that welcomes one’s whole self.
How do you differentiate between bad luck and personal failing? Which characteristics of these stressors make them particularly challenging or easy to address? How do you cope with minor and major stressors?