According to Martin Seligman, author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, our ability to deal with setbacks has a lot to do with three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
Personalization: Is the failure or setback a fundamental problem with you? Snapping at a good friend one day doesn’t make you a bad friend or a bad person—it just means you weren’t as patient as you could have been in one instance, and you can try to do better next time. The denial from a college, the low grade on a test, the election loss or less-than-stellar play performance or absence from the list of those who made varsity—none of those things mean that you are a failure. Just because something happens to you doesn’t mean it happened because of you. Take a good, honest look at your role in the setback. Own and learn from the parts that actually have something to do with you. Then try to let everything else go.
Pervasiveness: Will this event affect all areas of your life? Or just specific parts? For example, a bad haircut might make you shudder at the thought of showing up to school tomorrow. And it might make you a lot less confident at the formal dance coming up. Those are real feelings. But your health, your grades, your family, your spot on the baseball team—most parts of your life will still be intact. The same can be said about most college-planning disappointments. Lament the portions that are affected (temporarily), but remember just how bad things would really need to be for the phrase “My life is ruined” to be accurate.
Permanence: Will this last forever, or will it go away in due time? Most non-tragic setbacks and the effects associated with them do not last forever. Yes, a denial from your dream college will remain. But the sense of loss you might be feeling will not. Almost nobody sulks through their freshman year of college lamenting a different school that said no. There will be too much learning and fun happening for that. It’s OK to be disappointed by a setback. But try to be realistic about just how long the effects will last.
For more on the three P’s, and maybe more perspective on the difference between a disappointment or setback and an actual tragedy, read or watch Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2016 commencement address at UC Berkeley, delivered just one year after her husband died unexpectedly.