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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

4 Ways Setbacks Can Dominate Your Life

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

Perception is fascinating.

People tend to only see two things in life: things they want and obstacles.

You tend to see things that you want and you tend to see the obstacles in the way of the things you want. As you strive toward pursuing things in life that you want – let’s call those things goals – you come across obstacles that get in the way of you achieving your goals – let’s call those things setbacks.

In this article, I’m going to focus on setbacks and consequences that can arise from allowing them to dominate your life. I’ve chosen to focus on four different ways setbacks can dominate your life. There are many more, but I didn’t think very many people would be interested in reading a 70-page newsletter. So four it was. The Lord hates a coward, so let’s get to it.[1]

They Cause You To Fall Apart

Average setbacks are problematic. Severe setbacks are crushing.

This June marks my 19th anniversary working in the mental health field. During that time, I’ve noticed this pattern in my clinical practice:

The majority of people who seek counseling don’t have mental health issues, they have life complexity issues.

They’ve become overwhelmed by some catastrophe. The catastrophe was so severe that it has caused them to fall apart.

Maybe the setback was the sudden death of a close loved one.

Or a financial catastrophe that destroyed their retirement.

Or dealing with their own childhood sexual abuse.[2]

Or an affair.

Or cancer.

Whatever it was, the setback was so bad that it makes moving forward in life seem impossible. They’re anxious or depressed and they have good justification for being so, but the reason they’re anxious or depressed isn’t because they’re mentally ill, it’s because they’ve become overwhelmed by a crushing setback and have fallen apart as a result.

It’s perfectly understandable. You would fall apart too. The majority of the time it isn’t a mental illness that prohibits them from progressing in life, it’s the fact that the setback they’re facing is no joke, and they don’t know how to develop and implement practical solutions to their tremendously complex problem that work in the real world.

So what’s the best way to deal with this situation?

Find someone who can help you navigate the darkness. There are other people out there who don’t see your situation the way you do, and because of this they can help. They know your problem is serious, but they don’t perceive it the same way you do. To someone else it isn’t overwhelming and they can help you pick up the pieces. Remember what I said about perception being fascinating? This is what I’m talking about. For more on this, see my article entitled, "Making Sense of Suffering".

You Stop Trying

It easier to do nothing than something and that’s because doing something takes effort. The bigger the task, the more effort is required. The more effort is required, the higher the risk you’ll throw in the towel. With doing something comes the possibility of failure.[3]

Sometimes people have tried and failed so many times that they’ve simply stopped trying. They don’t think they can withstand one more failure. (Of course, they can, but they don’t think they can.) People stop trying because trying and failing hurts, and people don’t like being hurt because it causes pain, and people would rather die than experience endless pain. Everyone has their threshold.

At least they think they do.

Let’s say you’re doing your best at overcoming a setback but you haven’t – as yet – overcome it. You might think, “I’m doing my best. I've tried everything. It feels like I’m breaking myself in half but I just can’t overcome this problem.” If you think something like that, you can draw a couple of practical conclusions:

  1. The problem is insurmountable and cannot be overcome.

  2. You haven't tried everything.

  3. Your best isn’t good enough.

At some level, you already knew these conclusions. That’s why you stopped trying – your trying isn’t working and you know the answers why. But people can overcome much more than they think they can. In fact, it’s amazing what people can do when they have no choice.

To get past a serious setback you have to push past your best; you have to do better than your best. You have to give more than you think you can give.

You have to sacrifice more than you think you’re able to sacrifice. You have to give more than your best. And you can. You can pick up a problem you think is too heavy for you to carry.

Be brave. Bear your cross. You think you can't, but you can.

You Become Driven By Pressure, Not By Meaning

There’s a big difference between what is urgent and what is important. What’s urgent gets the most attention, but it’s often at the cost of what’s important. Western cultures have become masterful at catering to our busyness. We’re encouraged to fill up our lives with meaningless activities.

But busyness keeps us from examining what’s really important in life, and that creates a sense of pressure (aka, anxiety) because we know, deep down, we’re missing something important. Life becomes driven by pressure instead of meaning. When was the last time you asked how your friend was doing and they told you their life was better than ever and they feel rested and relaxed? What’s that? No one’s said that to you since you were 12? I rest my case.

To relieve the pressure, we convince ourselves of all sorts of polite excuses as to why the pressure isn’t our fault: you have anxiety, you have depression, bad genes, that’s just the way life is, you were bullied, do I need to continue? Don’t get me wrong, these things are very real. It’s not that you feel the pressure, it’s that you’ve accepted it. At some level, you value the broken parts of you more than you do a healthy future.

The funny thing is, many of the pressure-inducing things in your life simply don’t matter. Let them go, they’re meaningless anyway. Here’s a great place to start:

RUTHLESSLY eliminate hurry from your life.

If you do this, you’ll be surprised how good life is six months from now. I started doing this a couple years ago. At first, it was hard for me to slow down. I’m a doer. Go, go, go. Second place is the first loser. All that stuff. But it’s gotten easier, and now I’ve learned the value of an hour alone with a book. A walk with my wife. Three hour dinner parties with friends. Slowly, a deep sense of meaning has crept back into my life and replaced my constant sense of pressure. Now that I know the difference, I won’t be going back.

You Drift From What You Know To Be True

Your priorities, beliefs, and values often change after major setbacks. (To be fair, sometimes your priorities, beliefs, and values need to change, but sometimes they don’t.) I think one of the most fascinating sidenotes regarding this idea is that people who drift from what they know to be true are not ready to follow anyone. That is to say, they have no example to follow nor are they seeking one.

They arrogantly and naïvely think that they’re their own guide.

They think they’ve discovered some new truth, some alternate reality, and in so doing have themselves become untethered from the only reality that exists. Because of this, “they have no belief in reason, no criterion of truth, no set of values, and no answers to the question of meaning. They try to undermine every truth put before them and courageously reject any solution which would deprive them of their freedom of rejecting whatever they want to reject."[4]

Such madness is the natural consequence of drifting from what is true.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the courage to accept what is true – despite how you feel about it being true. This is an “ethical reality rooted in the whole breadth of human existence and ultimately in the structure of being itself. The courage to accept what is true must be considered ontologically in order to be understood ethically."[5]

If you drift from what you know to be true, where are you going? From where have you come? Beyond how you feel, what constitutes good or bad? When you drift from what you know to be true, you have lost your way, and are adrift on the sea of chance in a world of chaos. Without truth, your compass has lost its ability to determine True North, or give its user any useful direction whatsoever.

Instead, stop trying to force the fundamental nature of reality to bend its knee to you.

Stop trying to construct your own truth. 'Your truth' doesn’t exist. But even if it did, there’s no reason to think that you’re up to the task. Despite the number or severity of your setbacks, do not break the agreement God has made with you; the covenant He has made with all mankind.

What covenant?

The covenant that if you pursue what is true, things will go well for you. And not only you, but your descendants as well.[6] The covenant that God loves you, and because He loves you, the life He’s given you doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you. If you believed that last sentence – really believed it – everything in your life would change in an instant.

Instead of setbacks causing you to drift from the truth they could cause you to drift toward the truth. In this way, you can drift toward what is true and make a contribution to what is true. You get to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?”

What is the answer to this question? My dear friend, it is your life!

You get to decide what you'll extract from life and its setbacks, but you do not get to change the setbacks or what is true about life itself. You were made to answer the question, not ask it.

God is the one who asks it, and we are responsible for answering Him.


[1] There is actually some theological justification supporting this quip, but mainly it’s just something I like to say that encourages people to embrace change. For more on the subject of cowardice, check out my friend’s website:

[2] By age 18, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men have been sexually abused. This is a dismal national statistic and we must individually and collectively decide to do better.

[3] Not trying has a payoff: an easy life. But everything has consequences, and one of the negative consequences of not trying is having to live a meaningless life where you accomplish nothing of any real value and there’s no possibility of redeeming your worthless, wretched past because you can’t go back in time. So yeah, there’s that to consider.

[4] Dr. Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be. 1952, Yale University Press. Dr. Tillich wrote this in 1952 and it’s as applicable now as it was then. He was a profound thinker and his works are not for the faint of heart. He is one of my favorite authors.

[5] Dr. Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be.

[6] Taken from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s excellent lecture series, Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham.

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