Our success will largely be determined by how we handle relapses and setbacks. 

Yes, yes, I know. The “positive thinking” paradigm insists that we shouldn’t even acknowledge the POSSIBILITY of relapse or setbacks, because to acknowledge them is to devote energy to them and make them more likely. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a place for positive thinking in personal development. But let me assure you: if you don’t have a strategy in place for handling relapse and setbacks BEFORE they occur, you’re going to be at their mercy once they invariably DO occur. 

The fact of the matter is, relapse and setbacks really aren’t that big a deal. 

But they FEEL like a big deal, and that’s one of the reasons why they tend to be so deadly. 

Anything that FEELS like a big deal can knock us off our game plan and make us waste valuable time getting back in the driver’s seat. 

Relapse and setbacks are among the most common things to happen to anybody who is in recovery or trying to improve their lives. Anything that happens as commonly as relapse and setbacks CAN’T be that big of a deal, because if they really were such a big deal, no one would ever succeed after them. 

Why do we let relapse and setbacks get to us so much? 

Because most of us have some very well-worn conditioning in our heads about what relapse and setbacks MEAN. 

Many of us think relapse and setbacks MEAN we can’t eventually succeed. 

Many think relapse and setbacks MEAN that we’re going to lose way more ground in our project than is actually probable. 

Many addicts in particular think relapse MEANS that they’re simply not wired for sobriety; the fact that they were unable to stay clean means they’ll never be truly clean. (This train of thought is unfortunately encouraged by some peoples’ rigid interpretation of the Twelve Step tradition, which emphasizes and publicly celebrates “clean time” in very specific terms of days, months, and years.)

We live in a culture that values the ability to get things right, preferably the first time. We worship competence and expertise. If someone screws up or if things don’t go as planned, we consider this a mark of diminished competence or expertise. 

That is, our brains get conditioned to associate relapse and setbacks with failure. 

And Lord knows we have a cultural phobia of failure. 

I’m certainly not gong to try to sell you on the idea that relapse and setbacks are fun or desirable. They’re often not. If we can avoid relapsing and experiencing setbacks, of course we should. The GOAL of doing anything is to get it “right.” 

But the fact that things don’t go as planned most often means that, well, things didn’t go as planned. 

It doesn’t mean they won’t go as planned in the big picture. 

It certainly doesn’t mean you’re “wired” to fail at your project. 

It doesn’t mean anything beyond what it means in the very short-term, specific context in which it occurred. 

Taking as an example relapse: most relapses happen not because of “big picture” variables, but due to combinations of little, daily, micro-variables. Usually a particularly stressful situation combined with unusually easy access to one’s substance of choice. When those variables find themselves in the same room together, it’s an easy recipe for relapse. 

No more, no less. 

What tools do we need in order to handle relapse and setbacks such that they are kept in their proper perspective? 

The tool of self-talk is your first line of defense. 

Self-talk bolstered by self-compassion, realistic expectations of yourself and others, and consistent but supportive personal accountability is the beginning of making yourself emotionally bulletproof. 

Notice what you say to yourself when you relapse or experience a setback. 

Notice if you’re talking to yourself in black and white terms. 

Notice if you’re talking to yourself in overgeneralized terms, assuming that this situation truly represents ALL situations you might face. 

I can’t say it enough: it matters what we say to ourselves. 

Relapse isn’t the end of the world. Setbacks are not the end of the world. 

Don’t let anyone convince you you need to be afraid of either. 


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