Do Setbacks Really Set Us Back?

It happens to all of us. The idea for a project arrives, we devise a comprehensive plan for its completion, we work diligently to achieve it, and SLAM! A wall stands in our way, stopping our progress.

Sometimes the walls that confront us are short enough and small enough to climb over, dig under, or walk around. But sometimes the walls are insurmountable, and we abandon the project. No matter the size of the wall, we need to make a decision about if and how we continue. How do we make this decision? How do we find the motivation to reach our goals when we encounter obstacles or setbacks? Personally, I like to use metaphors to help me through these decisions.

Let’s try an example together!

Okay. So, we’re on our way toward achieving some goal, and then, WHAM! We experience difficulties.

Step 1: Find the metaphor that fits the situation.
It’s important to use the words that feel like they best describe the experience for you. There are many ways to describe what I’m talking about: hitting a wall, starting over, backsliding, being stuck, etc. Choose the one that most accurately depicts how the situation feels to you. It doesn’t matter if someone else would describe the same situation differently.

For today’s example, I’m using the description, “experiencing a setback.

Step 2: Look for the Literal in the Metaphor
Look at the word, “setback,” and consider what this metaphor invokes, literally. To be set back, you must have already been in motion, on a prescribed path, headed in a known direction. Then, suddenly and without warning, you are deposited at a previous point on the path.

Step 3: What is Assumed?
Looking at the metaphor from a literal perspective allows us to see the assumptions in the scenario.

The first assumption is that we desire to continue forward on the same path. The second assumption is that we would have to do the same amount of work, and put in the same amount of effort to get back to where we had previously been. The third assumption is that the way events unfolded was not supposed to happen.

Step 4: Challenge the Assumptions

Our first assumption is that after the setback, we desire to continue forward on the same path.

See this as an opportunity to reassess your goal.
Society often pushes us to keep driving forward in the face of setbacks and other challenges. And although it is true that this can develop character, strength and flexibility, which are all desirable traits, sometimes the choice that actually fits better is to simply change the goal, or the route to the goal.

From a yogi’s perspective, non-attachment to an end result is equally important as perseverance toward reaching the goal. (I’m referring to Patañjali’s yoga sutra 1.12. Feel free to read more about it from a trusted source. (

To realize our bigger, most important goal of inner mental harmony, we actually need both attitudes of non-attachment and perseverance. It is impossible to know at the outset how much and what kind of work we’ll need to do to achieve a goal, especially when it requires many steps on the path. So a “setback” can be a valuable time to reassess your goal, or review the steps you’ve been taking to achieve it.

Pausing to reassess the situation may sound obvious, but sometimes we are confronted with negative feelings that prevent us from letting go or changing the route we had been diligently following. We don’t like feeling as if we “gave up,” “flaked out,” “chickened out” or “failed.” Through peer pressure or early parental guidance we’ve learned many shameful expressions like these for changing our goals, but in truth, you can develop just as much character, strength and flexibility through letting go of a goal, as you can through persisting through adversity to achieve a goal. It all depends on the situation, and your role within the situation.

Let’s say after some consideration, you decide that you do in fact wish to pursue the same goal, using the same route. Now, we look at the second assumption in the metaphor: to continue forward and get to the same place where the setback occurred, we would have to do the same amount of work, and put in the same amount of effort.

But is that really true?

Repetition is a positive, not a negative.
When I was growing up in Colorado, my family and I did a lot of Nordic (cross country) skiing. Back then there weren’t as many groomed trails or people doing the sport as there are now, and so we frequently found ourselves in landscapes with several feet of untouched, powdery snow. I learned pretty quickly that deep, powdery snow is beautiful to look at, but challenging to move through. It’s quite a work out! Only for the first person, though.

The first person packs down the snow, works hard to stay balanced and not let their skis drift, and pushes a few pounds of extra snow aside with each step. They create tracks that the second person more easily follows. The weight of the second person packs the snow down a bit more, deepening the grooves and pushing aside any snow that the first person missed. By the time the third and fourth person follow the tracks, it’s more like gliding than being a human snowplow without a shovel.

The lesson here is that the same path followed over and over again can actually be smoother and easier to follow. After experiencing a setback, it’s quite possible that getting back to where you had been may not be as challenging as the first time you traveled the same path. And if it is a little easier, you may be able to enjoy the scenery a bit more, or even notice details and valuable information you missed the first time you traveled the path, because you were working so hard to move forward. You’ve already managed those difficulties, so don’t let the memory of obstacles fill you with dread.

Finally, our last assumption from the “setback” metaphor is that the way events unfolded was not supposed to happen.

Everything unfolds just as it is “supposed to.”
As I sat down to compose this essay, I wrote out a rough idea of my thoughts, then re-read it and added sentences, rearranged the order of some paragraphs and deleted a few words. I re-read the essay several times, in fact. Each time, I made fewer edits, and smaller revisions. At some point, I felt nothing more needed clarification, and the essay was ready to publish. Each time I went back to the beginning, I never perceived it as a “setback,” because I’ve written many essays in my life, and I knew what to expect. From the outset, I knew what the process of writing an essay entailed.

However, when you set a goal for something you’ve never done before, how could you possibly know what steps are necessary to achieve that goal? Perhaps the setback you’ve just experienced is simply returning you to an earlier stage on your path for some necessary revisions and edits. You may not be experiencing a “setback” at all; you may actually be making progress even though you’re closer to the beginning than you were just a moment ago.

Progress toward a goal isn’t always a straight line. In fact, it rarely is. If you don’t expect a linear path, then you won’t feel deflated when a setback occurs. You’ll be able to keep your strength and positive attitude, to help you keep progressing toward your goal.

For me, investigating the literal interpretation of a metaphor is both fun, and funny at times. This contemplation can be entertaining! But despite the silliness, it can also provide answers to some serious, problematic situations. So, it can be entertaining and a useful tool.

In many ways, my metaphor method for finding motivation in difficult times parallels the way I use a hammock to study and practice yoga. From the outside, it may look as if I’m just playfully exploring what can be done with a hammock. And, I am. Yet at the same time, I am using a helpful tool to gain valuable insight that will help me make progress toward the yogic goal of self-realization. Both interpretations are true.

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