Getting Back Up After Screwing Up

how to mess up your life and get back up

“The things which hurt, instruct.” — Benjamin Franklin

I’m not a people-pleaser. I don’t try to defend my views in front of others or worry about their opinions. But I do care about what people who matter, think.

These past few months though, I couldn’t shake off a gnawing feeling. It took a revelation from a close friend to put a finger on it. I was telling her to stop wanting others’ approval. In return, she called me a hypocrite because lately, I had been doing the same thing.

Being called a hypocrite didn’t shake me up as much as the thought of who I had become. I had prided myself on being a level-headed, self-dependent person. And here I was, doing things to try and appease others.

We have a picture in our minds about the kind of person we want to be and the things we want to do. We want to live on our terms, do what we love and feel happy.

But sometimes we head down a different path and fail to notice that our actions go against what we really want to do. Or we flow with the current, not caring about where it takes us as long as it takes us someplace.

At such times, a setback jolts us back to reality. It could range from something small (being called a hypocrite, not converting a customer, getting stood up for a date) to something huge (getting fired, a business crisis, losing a year in college) and everything in between.

Regardless of the size, the setback feels massive. The world crumbles around us and it looks like even strangers are staring at us and silently mumbling, “You’re a screwup!”

Nobody Gets Better in a Straight Line

“Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” — Thomas Wayne

Setbacks are imminent, not permanent. Even the person who never tries anything new will encounter them in his life. But the mark they leave on us can be permanent. How we respond to them decides the way ahead.

We have two choices.

The first (and easier) choice is to play the victim.

We feel helpless and afraid, blame circumstances that we cannot control, and commit the same mistakes over and over again. When we face inevitable setback after setback, we lose hope and form a belief that the world is messed up.

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.” — Morgan Housel

The second (and tougher) choice is to use these setbacks to get back on track.

We can examine where we went wrong, focus on the present moment and remind ourselves of what’s in our control (how we see things and how we respond), and learn how to ensure that we don’t commit the same mistake again.

Nobody gets better in a straight line. The ups and downs make us stronger and toughen our character. We just have to choose to see them like that.

Easier Said Than Done?

Yes, it is. But doing it is also worth the effort.

You know that being dignified while handling setbacks is the right way to live. But you don’t know how. This is where most of us suffer. We know WHAT to do but flounder because we don’t know HOW.

Here are three tried-and-tested ways to become better at handling setbacks.

1. Shape your identity.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes that the most common reason why people fail to build positive habits is that they focus on outcome-based habits instead of identity-based ones.

For instance, when two people trying to quit smoking get offered a cigarette, one says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit,” while the other says, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” Who will be more successful in quitting?

When we encounter a setback, many of us indulge in self-berating talk like “I’m a loser/failure,” or “I can never figure this out.” This deeply-embedded identity throws us into a bottomless downward spiral.

Instead, identify yourself as someone who bounces back after a setback. Don’t think you have what it takes? Just look into your past for instances when you overcome obstacles.

When you identify yourself as someone who believes in progress and has the ability to overcome obstacles, the next point becomes easier.

2. Accept that it happened.

Living in denial feels good. But it’s useless. It engulfs us in despair, fear, and powerlessness, keeps us rooted where we are, and tempts us into feeling like victims.

On the other end of the spectrum is acceptance: that the situation is what it is and you can do nothing about it. Acceptance is not the same as resignation. Resignation stops you from taking further action and deprives you of hope. Acceptance lifts a huge burden off your chest and guides you towards the question, “What should I do now?”

Acceptance lights up the path to the right action.

3. Explain it to a friend.


You’ve identified yourself as someone who can overcome a setback and prepared yourself for action. The only (million-dollar) question is, what are you going to do?

Here’s what you can do. Think about how you would advise a distant friend stuck in the same situation. Which pragmatic action points would you suggest? Now apply the same things to yourself.

Being objective in the face of a setback is tough. But when you walk the talk, you become authentic. You learn more about yourself. And what doesn’t kill you……

There you have it. Three simple, but not easy, steps.

Summing Up

Setbacks can break you and empower you. How you feel depends on what you choose.

Which setback has helped you turn a new leaf? Do leave a comment. I would love to hear your story.


  1. Dipesh July 10, 2019
  2. Kristine November 20, 2019

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