How to Respond to Disappointment: 6 Ways To Bounce Back From a Setback

Plant growing out of a log

“I’m sorry. We’re going a different direction.”

Years later, I still remember that crossroads moment in my career with a twinge of anger and frustration. How I wanted that opportunity! I had seen the potential for upside, planned for it carefully, and made my case to all the decision-makers. But it didn’t work out, and it stung – badly. I kept asking myself: “What went wrong? Why is this happening?” I felt hurt and at a loss to know what to do next.

I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar. Perhaps you were passed over for a promotion. Or weren’t selected for a special project team. Or you had a personal setback that cast a long shadow over your life. Maybe you failed to come through in a critical situation, like a batter who strikes out to end the World Series. Or maybe you had a moral failure. Whatever it was, it felt like a defeat, and the disappointment held you in its grip far longer than you would have liked.

What should you do when you face times like this? How can you pick yourself up and start living – and leading – again?

The Greek slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus is usually given credit for the old saying, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” It was true 2,000 years ago, and it’s true today. Thankfully, neuroscience research and technology such as the functional MRI helps us understand just how much control we actually have over our thoughts and emotions. These insights are particularly valuable for leaders trying to bounce back from disappointment, and they form the basis for the strategies that have worked well for me.

So, if your world has been rocked by a setback, regardless of whether it’s of your own making, here are six ways to move forward:


1. Experience your emotions 

There’s something to be said for giving yourself time to mourn the loss and even be a little angry if you like. If you ignore your emotions, they’ll surface at some point and often in more damaging ways. 

But you can’t wallow in self-pity forever. Give yourself a deadline – a day, a week, a month – to experience your emotional response. While you’re doing so, observe how you’re feeling and why. Jot down your thoughts. Then wipe your tears one last time and get ready to move forward again.


2. Accept reality

Now that you’re more aware of the emotions surrounding this disappointment, you can manage them more effectively and not be held hostage by them.

One of the best ways to do that is to accept reality, even if the outcome feels unfair. Many people get caught up in whether an outcome is just. This shouldn’t have happened, we tell ourselves. 

Maybe so, but big decisions are often complex, and we can’t always know what factors worked against us. It could have been as simple as bad timing or one person’s opinion that affected the outcome. Just ask any athlete who has lost a game due to a referee’s call.

This also might be an opportunity to break free of self-denial. Maybe it wasn’t the referee’s call. Maybe you just missed the shot or forgot where to go on the play that was called. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human.

Until you accept what has happened, you’ll be stuck in a state of denial where your emotions rule. You must accept “what’s so” before you can get your brain engaged to figure out “what’s next.”


3. Shift your perspective

The next step is to shift your perspective. There are many cognitive strategies that can help you change the way you think about a situation. Three that have been valuable for me are: normalize, reprioritize and reframe.




It’s not just you. Everybody struggles. This is especially important to remember when you scroll through the carefully curated profiles so many people present on social media. Their posts typically focus on the ups and very little of the downs in life.  

It’s normal to experience setbacks. This is part of living – and leading. Expect to be challenged and disappointed. Know that you’re not alone. Everyone goes through tough times.




Ask yourself how this situation ranks in the big picture of your life. In other words, on a scale of 1-10, how big of a deal is this?  

I remember another difficult time in my life where I was so upset over a setback that I couldn’t get out of bed. At that moment, I would have rated the loss a 9. I began to shift my perspective by counting my blessings. I had family and friends, a roof over my head, my health, and, of course, my faith. I had many things others don’t have. When I looked at this one situation in the context of my whole life, I realized it was probably a 4, not a 9. That doesn’t mean what happened didn’t hurt, but my gratitude helped temper my disappointment.



Consider the benefits that could arise from this situation. What new meaning could you find from it? Perhaps losing out on a promotion can provide clarity about the skills and experiences you need to earn the next one. Or maybe you realize you’re not fulfilled in your work and it’s time to change careers. Or you reflect on the loss of a parent and commit to living in a way that would make them proud. 

Look for a way to reframe what happened in terms that can help you drive a positive result.  


4. Move from “no” to “not yet” 

Carol Dweck’s study of resiliency in students illustrates the value of adopting a growth mindset. The key is to move from telling ourselves “no, I’ve failed” to “not yet, but I will.”

This requires us to view failure differently -- as an iterative process, not as an end in itself. This mindset will help quiet the negative voice in our heads that wants us to quit when the going gets tough. If we believe we can learn from failure and have the potential to succeed, we find the strength to try again.


5. Revisit your goals 

Where’s your there? Take some time to evaluate your goals and determine what has changed, and what hasn’t. Consider what your next and ultimate destinations could be in light of what has happened. Inspiring goals motivate us to move forward. Keep your eyes focused on where you want to end up.


6. Stay open 

New opportunities can come when you least expect them, but you must stay open and willing to consider new things. This requires you to set aside the negative emotions and thoughts that can cloud your ability to listen intently and identify potential. 

One way to jump-start this process after disappointment is to reach out to contacts you haven’t spoken with in a while and schedule a catch-up call or get-together. See what suggestions they might have for you.

Setbacks will happen. The real question is how will you respond when they do? Use these six strategies to help you bounce back from disappointment and start living – and leading – again.


(BONUS) Exercise

Here’s a simple exercise to apply these strategies. Think of a challenging situation you are facing and answer these questions:

1. Describe the emotions you are feeling.
2. State the reality of your situation.
3. Shift your perspective by using at least one of the cognitive strategies described above:
a. Normalize
b. Reprioritize
c. Reframe
4. What are you learning from this that you can improve upon going forward?
5. Have your goals changed as a result of this situation?
6. What new opportunities are you open to considering?


Get Executive Coaching to Get Back On Track

With over 20 years of executive experience, Elise Mitchell has seen her fair share of set backs. As an executive coach, she can help guide you back toward the path of success. 

Contact Elise

Copyright (c) 2023 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

Written By

Elise Mitchell

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