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Dealing with setbacks… Or how to not march yourself past breakfast!

At some point, you hit the wall. That’s just how it is when you have been running for a long time. Different people will have different starting fitness and stamina, but if you are forced to keep running, eventually, everyone is going to hit the wall and just want to give up. But there is a key shift in mindset that can help you re-find your bounce and keep going.

It feels like 2020 was like that run. No matter how resilient you are, no matter how much you had in the tank when the first lockdown started, everyone seemed to hit the wall at some point and just burn out. Maybe it was just a few days where you finally let yourself feel the exhaustion you’d been fending off, maybe it was more profound, but most of us struggled at some point. Let’s look briefly at why that is, and then we have a story to help you learn what you can do about it.

“The Sun’ll come out, tomorrow…” & promises that sap your strength

It doesn’t take little orphan Annie to get us thinking like this. Somewhere in that struggle, it is normal to look forward, to think about ‘the other side’ or “When this is all over…” We were encouraged in that too, there were frequent promises, whether it was the end of lockdown, or the vaccine being just around the corner, or being able to see family over Christmas… If nothing else, many of us had big hopes for 2021!

There’s a problem with this kind of looking forward though. We have to find ways to maintain a sense of hopefulness and positivity, but it is all too easy to make promises we can’t keep – whether that is to ourselves in the quiet moments on a dark night, or to others if we are in leadership positions. It is really tempting to promise change, but it is unwise, and will erode resilience, not improve it. It’s a short-term win for a longer-term cost.

What the Royal Marines can teach us about true resilience

Some years ago, I had an ex Royal Marines officer on a workshop, and he shared this story about the bootcamp training. Days were, predictably, hard. An early start, fierce physical activity and tests, intensive learning of skills, late finish, rinse and repeat.

Around the middle of the process, they had a particularly brutal day. They did everything: marching long distances with full packs, straight onto the assault course, straight from there onto the shooting range – on and on, every activity they normally did in a week, done in a day and on into the night, ending with a night-time hike.

The following morning, they finally, blessedly marched back up to the barracks. This must be the end, right? And what an end! As they marched up, utterly exhausted, they smelled something delicious: hot coffee, full cooked breakfast, the works! There were trestle tables set up outside with an amazing breakfast buffet laid out, hot and ready.

The halt was called. Everyone stopped marching but stayed in formation, standing at attention. The temptation to leap on the food like hungry dogs was there, but these were Royal Marines officers in training. They stood. Five minutes went by… Ten… Then the march was called again. They were marched on a for another 3 miles before returning to barracks.

Brutal. Not everyone did march on. Some people – apparently more than at any other point in the bootcamp – dropped out at this moment.

Resilience: as much psychological as physical

This punishing physical experience wasn’t really about the physical test of it though. This was psychological. And it wasn’t really a test, it was a lesson. These officers were likely to find themselves in some of the toughest conditions any soldier can face. Any time they started waiting for the experience to be over, was a moment when they would be waiting to die.

What the officers running the bootcamp did might seem cruel, but it was an experience in service to teaching a crucial lesson:

Don’t march yourself past breakfast.

If you promise yourself an end to pain or difficulty, you will cripple your psychological resilience if that end doesn’t materialise. Don’t make promises you can’t keep – to yourself or anyone else. As leaders of troops that was a critical lesson for these future officers to learn.

And if you have to map out longer term options, then be ready to keep marching because when you get attached to a particular outcome then you can unwittingly kill your capacity to keep going when things don’t go as you’d hoped.

Own your power & rest, don’t quit

We’ve shared this story as part of some of our workshops in the last six months and, time and again, people have found it incredibly useful in helping them to navigate these tough and unpredictable times more wisely. If at all possible, don’t march yourself past breakfast. If you pin your hopes on something beyond your control, then the crash if it doesn’t come off is likely to hurt. And if you need to make longer term plans, be ready to keep marching if the things you aimed for don’t come off.

Every time you catch yourself pinning your hopes on a particular thing or date, stop.

But what can you do instead?

  1. Be grateful for even the smallest things. This is a source of positivity available to us in every moment.

  2. Focus on what you can control today. Set goals for each day, each week - the time frames where you can predict and control the picture more, so you feel like you are achieving and being successful.

  3. Always have a plan B (and even C!). Still create longer term aims, but in such a way that if the thing you most want can't happen because it is out of your control, there are other options you can be happy with.

  4. Lean in to what matters most to you. Perhaps shape the bigger picture goals around your values, and qualities you’d feel proud to live by – how you respond to the world is always in your power to choose, even when the specifics of what happens around you aren’t.

  5. Ask for the support you need. We are all challenged right now but helping others can help us to feel a sense of empowerment and connection. It might help someone else to help you and vice-versa. Give and take; and listen to what you need in each moment.

And if, as so many of us have at some point, you hit the wall, remember that is a normal and human response to extraordinary times. Forgive yourself when you struggle or screw up. Rest, don’t quit. You got this.

By Francis Briers

Client Lead

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