12 Ways to Reframe Setbacks as Opportunities

Speaking at the convocation of the United Negro College Fund in Indianapolis in 1959, John F. Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and one represents opportunity.”

From a purely linguistic perspective, Kennedy was wrong about what those particular Chinese characters actually represent.

JFK wasn’t the first to make this mistake, and many others have made it since. The trope has been repeated by journalists, bloggers, motivational speakers, and politicians for decades.

While sinologists typically discredit the accuracy of the expression, its popularity persists because of the underlying motivational message. Namely, that any crisis, barrier, obstacle, or setback can be seen as an opportunity.

Whenever we challenge – and then change – how we see a particular situation, we are engaging in cognitive reframing.

Cognitive reframing

Cognitive reframing entails changing our outlook without trying to change the facts. The situation is the same, we just adopt a different viewpoint.

Reframing can be positive or negative, and it can be conscious or subconscious. In a therapeutic setting, the process is called cognitive restructuring. However, we don’t need professional help to change our perspective on something.

Usually, we are trying to take a more positive perspective. And while many of us subconsciously reframe perceived negative events, it can help to consciously use techniques that can reveal possibilities and give us a more optimistic outlook.

Photographer Richard Avedon said, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

Ten different people could look at the same photograph and construct as many different narratives about what they see. Similarly, any one person could construct multiple narratives from the same single picture.

We can do the same with setbacks that inevitably occur throughout life. All we need to do is get in the habit of finding novel ways of looking at challenges. Then we can transform problems into possibilities, and obstacles into opportunities.

Almost any circumstance can reveal opportunity if we are prepared to see it.

Conditioning ourselves for cognitive reframing

Even though many people subconsciously engage in reframing, we are mostly interested in the conscious application of cognitive reframing techniques.

For reframing to be effective, though, there are some conditions that must exist to set the stage. Conditions for cognitive reframing include:[1]

  • You must recognize that your current belief is negative, distorted, or self-defeating
  • There must be a different, more positive belief that you can choose or reject
  • You must be open to a new belief
  • You must be ready to alter your point of view
  • You must see the new idea as more rational and valid than your current idea

With regards to opportunity evaluation, we will usually employ cognitive reframing when one path to a goal appears to be blocked.

If we believe in the principle of equifinality, there are many paths to a goal. If one of our paths is blocked, it is self-defeating and distorted to believe that the goal has now become unattainable. We must accept that there are other paths, and be open to choosing one and taking corresponding action.

In most cases, choosing and pursuing an alternate goal path is more rational and valid than simply giving up.

So, now that we know the conditions for reframing setbacks as opportunities, let’s take a look at some specific reframing techniques we can use.

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Cognitive reframing strategies

Practitioners can use a variety of intervention strategies during the process of cognitive restructuring, which is a collaborative therapeutic approach to helping someone change their distorted view.

Cognitive reframing is a more informal, individual exercise. However, we can still use many of the same techniques to help us look at things differently.

In The Wiley Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, psychologist David A. Clark summarizes a dozen verbal intervention strategies that can be used in cognitive restructuring.[2]

Let’s examine these techniques, and see how we might adapt each strategy to our own personal cognitive reframing efforts.

Gather evidence

When we gather evidence, we simply collect all the facts we know about a situation and determine if our current view is accurate or if it might be distorted. We often overreact to setbacks and see them as personal failures or insurmountable obstacles, but they are usually just temporary checks on our progress.

Calmly and thoroughly assessing the facts we have allows us to determine how much control we have over the situation, and whether we can make an adjustment that allows us to overcome the setback, or whether we must choose another goal path.

Gathering evidence enables us to pause, evaluate, and take a rational next step rather than an impulsive misstep.

Cost-benefit analysis

After we have gathered the facts, we need to assess the costs and benefits of continuing our current trajectory. In light of the new information, should we continue this goal path? Do we choose a different path? Is the goal still worth pursuing?

This can be as simple as a mental accounting of pros and cons, or it may be a detailed quantitative analysis. Either way, by engaging in this type of reassessment following a setback, we can refine our approach to our goal, choose a better approach, or maybe choose a more valuable goal altogether.

Challenge biases

All of us are susceptible to cognitive biases and distortions that influence our judgment. The reason these errors in thinking are so pernicious is because most people aren’t aware of them. If we are aware of them, we can challenge them.

In his book Feeling Good, David Burns discusses several cognitive distortions that can derail our thinking.[3] I’ve adapted some of them here. When you are evaluating your options after a setback, try to avoid these negative thinking traps:

  • Polarized thinking. Avoid the tendency to see things in all-or-nothing, black-or-white, either-or, good-or-bad terms. A setback is not necessarily a failure.
  • Overgeneralizing. Do not look at a setback as part of an endless pattern of defeat. All setbacks are unique and should be dealt with discretely.
  • Filtering. Don’t dwell solely on the negatives of a setback. Acknowledge the negatives, and then move past them and start looking for the positives. There’s probably an opportunity there somewhere.
  • Jumping to conclusions. Don’t let your mind outrace the facts. Specifically, don’t assume you know what others are thinking (mind reading), and don’t leap to negative predictions about the future (fortune telling). Gather the evidence.
  • Emotional reasoning. Our emotions can influence how we evaluate opportunity. Don’t reason from how you feel. You don’t have to suppress your emotions, just learn to balance your feelings and your thoughts.
  • Should statements. Don’t obsess about what you or anyone else should or shouldn’t have done, or what should or shouldn’t have happened. This just leads to anger, frustration, guilt, or resentment.
  • Blaming. Don’t start assigning blame after a setback, whether to yourself or others. You can’t undo what’s already done, so stop finding fault and start finding creative solutions.
Generate alternatives

In the therapeutic context of cognitive restructuring, generating alternatives usually involves helping the patient find a more adaptive self-image or engage in more adaptive behaviors.

When reframing setbacks, however, we want to consider alternative explanations for the setback so that we can learn from it. We also want to generate alternative goal paths or goals.

Considering multiple possible causes for the setback, and then evaluating contingencies for future action can reveal opportunities for a more rewarding trajectory.

Normalize

One way to minimize our negative reaction to setbacks is to recognize that setbacks are the norm. They are not exceptional. Almost no one who has achieved anything significant in life did it without suffering a few setbacks.

Setbacks are not evidence that there are dark forces in the universe trying to block your path to success. Setbacks are so common that most successful people have their own personal philosophy for dealing with them.

“I have fun running all the Virgin businesses,” said Richard Branson. “So a setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve.”

Decatastrophize

When we catastrophize, we usually overestimate the likelihood of something happening and the severity of the impact if it does happen. We also underestimate our own ability to deal with the situation if it actually happens.

When we encounter a setback, we often imagine that the worst-case scenario is inevitable, that we won’t be able to handle it, and that it will ruin our life.

None of those things are likely outcomes, though. To decatastrophize, just ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is the worst-case scenario?
  • How terrible would it be if it happened? What would be the best outcome? What would be the worst outcome?
  • What is the probability of the worst-case scenario happening? Does it happen frequently? Has it ever happened before?
  • If it happened, how would you respond? If it happened before, how did you handle it? Who could you turn to for help or guidance? What can you do to prepare?
  • If this happened to a friend or colleague, what would you say to them? How could you help? Do you know anyone this has happened to? If so, how did they handle it? How did it affect their life?

If we answer these questions, we usually find that the thing we are most worried about probably isn’t that likely, and even it does happen, we can probably cope with it and reduce its negative impact on our life.

Problem solving

A setback is often just a problem that needs solving, rather than a complete roadblock. In these instances, we need to clearly define the problem, brainstorm and evaluate some possible solutions and probable outcomes, choose our optimal approach, and take action.

Sometimes we can’t solve the problem. In this case, we might need to put our goal on hold until we have a solution or conditions are more favorable. Or maybe we just need to take a different goal path or choose an alternate – but still desirable – goal.

Approaching a setback as a challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle – and exercising our problem-solving skills in response – can help boost our confidence. It also leads to creative solutions and better decisions, and can reveal hidden opportunities.

Imaginal exposure

In therapeutic settings, imaginal exposure is often used to help patients construct scenes that might evoke anxiety or fear, as an alternative to in vivo exposure to situations that could be difficult or dangerous to simulate.

For more informal cognitive reframing, though, we can just mentally simulate the steps we need to take to overcome a setback. Imagine this series of steps unfolding over time, visualize your actions, and mentally develop a story. We want to create a mental model that creates a strong link between our desired outcome and the actions we must take.

We can run these process simulations for any number of possible goal trajectories. This process helps concretize the achievability of our goal via many paths, which can help us look beyond the setback and see other opportunities.

Self-distancing

Distancing allows us to escape our own egocentric perspective and look at the situation the way a disinterested third party might. By pretending to be an observer, we can emotionally disengage for a bit and hopefully gain some objective insight on our circumstances. Sometimes the only way to see opportunity after a setback is to disconnect from our own internal experience.

One simple way to do this ourselves is to engage in non-first-person introspective dialog (illeism). By referring to ourselves internally the way others might talk about us and our situation, we can create the psychological distance needed for meaningful self-reflection.

Temporal distancing

With self-distancing, we try to view our situation from the perspective of someone else. Using temporal distancing, we see our present circumstance from our own perspective, but from a different point in time.

Ask yourself how you will view this setback in six months, or two years, or twenty years. In the grand scheme and overall timeline of your life, how important is this setback, really?

Most setbacks are temporary, not permanent. They exist in a moment in time. They don’t usually influence the entire continuum of our life. Mentally positioning ourselves in the future and looking back on our current situation can relieve a lot of the anxiety and stress we are feeling about our present stumbling block.

Reattribution

Reattribution allows us to explore alternative explanations for events. Therapists often use it to help clients who blame themselves for everything to see that there may be external causes for negative events. Maybe everything isn’t entirely their fault.

Whether we blame ourselves or not, though, reattribution can be a useful way of exploring all of the possible factors that contributed to a setback. We may have assumed a cause for the setback and assigned blame. Instead, examine and question the evidence and see if there might be different causes for the situation.

Sometimes, the real reasons things happen aren’t always visible to us. Exploring these possibilities can expose opportunity.

Positivity reorientation

We will naturally see a setback as a negative event. I mean, they called it that for a reason, right? It’s setting us back. It’s hindering our progress.

Negative emotions aren’t always bad, but we need to balance our feelings about setbacks. If we dwell on the negative, we will tend to develop a more pessimistic outlook overall. Pessimism could lead us to overestimate the probability of future negative outcomes, which could derail us from our goal altogether.

Try to balance the negatives with positives. Every situation has pros and cons. Ask yourself what you have control over, what you can change, what you can learn, and what the hidden payoffs might be.

Adversity seeds opportunity

In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill wrote, “Every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage.”

The objective isn’t just to see silver linings and disguised blessings and half-full glasses. The objective is real-world opportunity identification and goal attainment. Using simple cognitive reframing techniques, we can learn to transform adversity into advantage.

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