How to Transform a Challenge into a Success

What is a “setback”?

“Setbacks” are part of the process of healing.  Jerilyn Ross, the former President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, called setbacks “a critical part of recovery.”

I believe that setbacks are a call to a deeper level of healing, and that they can actually signify a readiness to move forward. We can think of setbacks as “growing pains.”

In hindsight, the worst setback I experienced was one of the greatest blessings of my life.  It got me to change what I was doing.  It got me to start reaching out and opening up to new ways of healing.  It led me to the greatest period of healing and growth in my life.

What is “Success”?

Definition of success:  Fall down 7 times, stand up 8 times.
(Japanese Proverb)

There are no failures, only outcomes.  It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts before he invented the electric light bulb.  Along the way, he was asked about his many failures.  He declined to count any of his first 9,999 attempts as failures.  “I didn’t fail; I just discovered another way not to invent the electric light.”

We always count the ultimate outcome we desire as a success.  But each step along the way is also a success.  Each step teaches us something we need to know.  The key is not to always get the outcome we want (which, by the way, is impossible).  The key is to learn from each experience – which makes each experience a success.

Mistakes are a vital part of the process.  We learn through our mistakes.  If we were perfect and never made mistakes, we would be quite stupid.

There are many aspects of success. To me, the single most important aspect of success is how we respond to setbacks.  Responding positively to setbacks insures that we will be successful in everything we do.  Setbacks enable us to learn, adapt and improve.

Setbacks are the ignitions to greatness.  Virtually all the world’s greatest had setbacks.  Lincoln was repeatedly defeated for office.  Washington lost many important battles.

During the Revolutionary War, General Nathaniel Green lost one battle after another to Cornwallis.  But after every lost battle, he persevered, coming back stronger.  At Yorktown, he won the last battle, and the war.

Re-framing Panic as a Success

At the core of panic disorder is the fear of panic.  A big part of this fear of panic is the fear of failure.  As long as we think of a panic response as a failure, it’s difficult to overcome the fear of failure.  No matter how much recovery work we do, we can never completely control our panic response, just as we can’t completely control any other emotion.

The answer to this dilemma is to begin to challenge the time-worn idea that a panic experience represents failure.

The top researchers in this field tend to define success in terms of clients not experiencing panic.  If I was conducting research at a clinic, I’d probably do the same thing.  You have to publish studies and verify the effectiveness of your program.  You have to quantify the results.  It’s all very logical.

But there is a deeper level of healing.

Still having panic disorder means still having the fear of panic, even if our panic responses are few and far between.   Being cured means no longer having this fear – no longer caring whether or not we have a panic response.   But how do we get there?  How do we ever cross this “great divide”?

The answer is one last, big “cognitive re-structure.”  We achieve our cure by re-framing the panic experience as a success.

A big part of the panic response is the thought:  “Oh my God, I’m having a terrible failure!”  How could we not have that thought if we’ve been defining our success and failure this way?

By starting to re-define and re-frame the panic experience as a success, we take the wind right out of the sail of the panic response.  It’s the last cognitive re-structure, and it leads us to cure.

We are not used to thinking of panic as a success.  The “old mold” of our thinking – panic as failure – keeps the panic disorder going and gives it power.  Beginning to think of a panic response as a success breaks this mold.  If you break the mold, you don’t have panic disorder anymore, because an essential “glue” that’s holding panic disorder together is the thought of failure.  Interrupt that old belief that panic is a failure, and the whole mold of panic disorder falls apart!

There are some pretty paradoxical aspects of healing from panic disorder and agoraphobia.  By doing what we fear, our fear is greatly reduced.  By intentionally bringing on aspects of our panic response, we learn to overcome panic.  By inviting panic instead of resisting it, we begin to experience a new level of safety and trust.  Finally, by starting to re-frame the panic experience as a success, we begin to realize our cure.

Looking back on my own healing process, the panic experiences I had along the way actually were successes.  They led me to the biggest insights.  Learning that I could deal well with any experience of panic was very profound, and I couldn’t have learned this without experiencing some panic!

When I achieved my recovery in 1998, I started traveling, which was an incredibly beautiful experience.  On my trips, whenever I had apprehension about panicking, I reminded myself that a panic experience would be a success.  If I experienced a panic response, I would even give myself a big reward.  I thought of a number of rewards I could give myself for panicking.  The one I settled on was: an extra week of traveling to one of my favorite places! 

Reframing panic as a success was the “last straw” for my panic disorder.  I had worked through and resolved the sensations and scary thoughts that had made up my panic experiences.  Now, I was eliminating the fear of failure.  There was nothing left for my panic to feed on – no scary thoughts and no failure thoughts!

By allowing panic, I began my healing.  By inviting panic, I learned to overcome it.  And by counting panic as a success, I achieved my cure.