Do setbacks in life make you better or bitter? | Third Space

Do setbacks in life make you better or bitter?

Seeing setbacks as a growth opportunity
Fri 4 Aug 2023



Are you someone whose life falls magically into place every time?

Or has your life been a series of twists and turns where you experience the highs and lows of progress and setbacks?

Setbacks are a part of life

I (Bec) would say that the majority of us experience setbacks along the way. It doesn't matter if you are rich and famous or a humble “normal” person, setbacks are a part of living and being a human being. They are something we can’t avoid.

What does set us apart is how we deal with these setbacks. Do we take them in our stride and try to learn from them and become a better person? Or do we dwell on them and allow ourselves to get stuck and unable to move forward?

Like everyone I experience my fair share of setbacks both at work as well as in my personal life. Just this month I had a promotion opportunity dangled like a carrot before me. It was then pulled away, with no valid reason. I am also getting my house ready for sale. The trades people required to finish off a few lingering projects are taking longer than expected than what we allowed for in our timeline. I am human and I have found both these things very upsetting, stressful and frustrating.

I could let the work disappointment fester inside of me, and stop putting in effort at work as a silent protest. But would this achieve anything besides potentially damaging any future promotion opportunities?

Instead I have chosen to take a moment to mourn the loss of a promotion and then reflect on how I can better manage disappointments in the future. For example, I will attempt to hold the offer of a promotion more loosely. Until there is an offer in writing on the table, talk is just talk. I can be hopeful of a promotion while not pinning all my hopes to it.

As far as trades people are concerned, when I reflected on the situation I realised we never actually asked them how long they would take to complete the job. Moving forward I want to more clearly communicate expectations as that is helpful for all concerned.

So what is it that sets people apart with how they look at and approach set backs?


Resilience is having the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties or setbacks. Resilience is what enables us to keep moving forward. It gives us the strength to get up after a setback and try again. It is a mental state that stops us from giving up.

It is important to not just give up at the first sign of trouble. If we give up at the first sign of a set back we don’t learn and we don’t allow ourselves to grow. We also miss out on the opportunity to experience that euphoric feeling of success once everything comes together and we complete a challenging task.

The lost promotion opportunity and an unfinished house have been good for building my resilience. As I continue to put in the hours at work, and communicate with the tradespeople, I look forward to the day when it will all pay off.

The process of learning

Building resilience isn’t easy. Here are three things I personally have found helpful:

  • Ask yourself: “With this setback do I choose to be better rather than bitter?

This question I find clarifying for me. I can choose to let the experience continue to upset me and get the better of me. In the process I become bitter. Or I can choose to see the experience as an opportunity for growth. I get the better of the experience and am better for it.

  • Avoid rumination.

This is linked to the previous point. If I let the experience get the better of me, then I ruminate and go over and over the negative feelings. It’s very hard to move forward when I’m stuck in those negative feelings.

The way to avoid rumination is by deliberately looking for the positive, or ‘seeing the good’. For example, the good I see with communicating with the tradespeople is that I am learning a valuable new skill. I won’t always get it right every time. That helps me to be kind to myself, to keep going and not give up at the first sign of trouble or pushback.

  • Make learning one of your personal values.

Personal values are what’s important to us. They motivate our behaviour. If we want to grow in our resilience and choose to be better not bitter, then it helps if learning or personal growth is one of our personal values.

Power to change

What Bec writes about setbacks, resilience and learning really resonates with me (Caroline).

I’m thinking of two incredibly challenging work setbacks I had. Years later, someone I respect, who knew what had happened, said to me: “Why haven’t you given up? Why are you still working in this industry? It doesn’t make sense.” (He meant it kindly). I answered that I thought it might be my strong streak of perseverance. He said it was because I was flexible and willing to change.

I suspect he’s probably right. What enabled me to learn and grow was that I knew I wasn’t on my own.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” ‭‭‭[The words of Jesus, Matthew 10:28-31]

Setbacks in life are by definition things that happen to us that are outside of our control (if they were in our control, then we could do something about them and they wouldn’t be setbacks). Jesus’ words remind me that I can lean into the one who is in control and sees everything.

I say this knowing that God is not indifferent to me. I am valuable to him and he cares for me. He loves me as I am but he also loves me too much to leave me the way that I am. This is where I find power to change. It’s also where I find power to be kind to myself as I learn.

“With this setback, do I choose to be better rather than bitter?” When I ask myself that question, I want to choose to be better. I do so empowered by my belief that God is in control and he cares.

Discussion questions:

Q. What is your general pattern to date when it comes to setbacks?

Q. Can you think of a recent set back?

Q. Are you happy with how you handled yourself in that situation?

Q. Moving forward, how would you like to approach setbacks differently?

Q. How is this reflected in your values?

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