Self awareness / well being

Self-reliance: surviving setbacks & change

In this third blog on the theme of self-reliance I’m going to explore some of the things that can help us to get through the hard stuff. Without doubt, we all face setbacks and we all have to overcome changes that can feel challenging. One of my motivations for researching self-reliance was because I recognised that my own resilience wasn’t very strong. 


Most of us could probably do with being more resilient. More resilient to change, more resilient to things that upset us. Resilience is about so much more than staying positive and looking for any opportunities that a setback might present – while these can be helpful they are reactionary.

Daisy flower blooming on a sand desertIt is possible to build a mindset that can better prepare you in the face of adversity in the first place. A standpoint from which you can control your reactions rather than be controlled by them. Sometimes that can be as simple as getting to neutral. Neutral emotions are neither painful nor pleasurable. They are what we tend to experience for the majority of the day, so we’re in ‘neutral’ a lot of the time. Getting to neutral seems so much more possible than striving to feel positive about something that you are struggling with.

When something goes wrong for us, making us angry or sad, we can believe that these emotions have been caused by something or someone. Yet it is not the actual person or situation that causes our emotion, it is our interpretation of the event based on our beliefs which create our feelings. This is something we can learn to get stronger control over. 

The ABC model

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who developed rational emotive therapy and with it the ABC model of emotional resilience.

A – is the Activating event or adversity

B – is our Beliefs about A

C – is the Consequences (our behaviour, emotions, physical reactions)

When reflecting on our reactions to setbacks it’s worth asking ourselves which beliefs triggered our reaction. If it’s a job interview it might be ‘I never get the jobs I really want.’ Other beliefs which underlay our reactions could include things like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m always unlucky’ or believing that somebody else is to blame.

Ellis went on to extend the ABC model to include D for Disputation, a step which questions any unhelpful beliefs and prompts modification of them, and finally E for Effective new approaches to managing the Activating event. Understanding how we respond to setbacks and change is key to building reactions which help us rather than hold us back. Journaling can really help to unpick these patterns of thoughts and the reactions that are triggered. Once you recognise your own patterns you can start to adapt them so that the fallout from the hard stuff you experience is less intense and disruptive. 

Reflect don’t perfect

Perfectionism might not seem like a foe, but it absolutely is. Constantly feeling that you could do better is exhausting. Holding ourselves up to impossibly high standards that we have set for ourselves is disempowering. We aren’t growing and developing because we are focused on gaining approval and being accepted. Ultimately, it is our own self-acceptance that is missing and aiming to be perfect isn’t going to fix that.

Business rating and review conceptThe alternative to deriding ourselves for our shortcomings is to recognise and celebrate our strengths. Think times that you have struggled with change and setbacks before. What strengths, approaches and strategies did you use to help you? These are part of your existing internal resource. If you’re unsure then try using reflection, Gibbs Reflective Cycle (1988) has six stages:

  • Description – of the event/incident
  • Feelings – what were you feeling and thinking
  • Evaluate – what was good and bad about the situation
  • Analyse – what else can you make of the situation
  • Conclude – what else could you have done?
  • Action Plan – what would you do differently next time

Young woman sitting at home with pen and paperUsing this kind of model can help you to identify just how resourceful you can be. We often don’t take the time to reflect on how much we have learnt and grown.

Build your resilience through joy

Another way to build your resilience is by experiencing positive and uplifting feelings. What do you really enjoy? Can you do more of this? Understanding what makes us feel good whether it’s certain films or music, making people laugh, helping someone, comedy, Disney, or meditation, doing more of it enables us to experience elevated emotions which makes us emotionally stronger.

Unleashing CreativityIndulge in play. This is something that we can forget to allow ourselves to do. Children will often give anything a go because they are very aware that they are learning, and they are less self-conscious. Play is about just having a go without consciousness or self-judgement – does it really matter if a craft project or an attempt to learn to play a keyboard goes wrong?

Stuart Brown is a play researcher who has interviewed thousands of people, he is also the founder of the National Institute for Play. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2010) he says that play is about engaging in activities that aren’t focused on a result or specific outcome, they are purposeless. He goes on to say that we often don’t give ourselves permission to play as adults and that we wrongly believe that play is the opposite to work. This is wrong he says, the opposite of play is actually depression.

So, maybe try some fun and meaningless activities, start to notice your reactions and the underlying beliefs behind them. But most of all do things that you love, things that make you feel good.






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