The Benefits of Adversity

Adrian Furnham

Do setbacks and failures make or break you? Setbacks can be an opportunity, writes Adrian Furnham.

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Alas, as they say, “Sh*t happens”. The capriciousness of life means that, for nearly all of us, serious, sudden setbacks occur. Accidents, illness, the results of bad decisions. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong person, wrong idea.

Does it matter whose fault it was, or the nature of the setback? Of course there is all the difference in the world by failing an exam, breaking up with someone, or being arrested as opposed to the death of a loved one or being the victim of acute and chronic harassment of one sort or another.

Setbacks happen. This is all not so much a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. But the more important issue is how people react. Do setbacks strengthen or weaken people? Can they efficiently inoculate people against future disasters? Can they haveany useful function?

What do we learn from failure?

The question is what one learns from failure. Some argue that we learn little from success except to repeat the whole process, but failure makes us seriously re-evaluate many aspects of our behavior.

What if you were making a senior work appointment and you knew that a candidate had lost their spouse to cancer and was left with three young children? What if they had grown up in a children’s home because their parents could or would not look after them? What if they, unlike most others, had survived a traumatic accident? What if they had twice been made redundant from collapsing companies? Are you going to take this factor into consideration in your appointment?

Those interested in the psychology of loss (death, divorce, unemployment, emigration) note that there is a typical pattern.

There are many interesting models, graphs and accounts, but it is always the story of a journey from shock and denial and anger through the dark night of the soul to acceptance and recovery. The length of the journey and the distress suffered on it vary widely.

Personal reactions to adversity

Personal reactions to adversity vary in several ways. 

  1. First, the very conception of what is a crisis, problem, nightmare differs enormously from one person to the next. That is, the same event is perceived very differently. One person’s crisis is another’s “wake-up-call”. One person’s slough of despondency is for another a time for serious reflection and realignment.
  2. Second, that people do have characteristic and therefore predictable reactions to these events. They are called preferred coping strategies. Some are more successful than others. Some people take to their bed; others talk to their therapists; and still others count their blessings. Clearly some are more successful than others.
  3. Third, though they may want and try to change these reactions they are pretty consistent over the lifetime of an individual.

Reactions to a setback

There are different typical ways of reacting to setback. The first may be to deny, minimise or suppress the crisis. This can involve elaborate stories of extra-punitiveness meaning that others are the cause and they bear the consequences. Or the reaction may take the form of serious stoicism. This is the Captain Scott approach, pretending that nothing serious has happened. Take it on the chin like a man. Don’t complain.

This stoical approach is all about putting effort into the control of emotional expression and the attempt to conceal vulnerability of any kind. This unwillingness to seek (or indeed give) help can be perceived as cold and arrogant. And it is often linked to interpersonal difficulties.

The second type of reaction is the opposite:sensitization, or more dramatically catastrophization. It’s letting it all hang out; shrieking rather than crying for help. Turning molehills into mountains. Making it a crisis for all around.

The third type of reaction is perhaps the best. It is rational yet those individuals are not scared to express emotion. It’s called re-evaluation. It can happen if you go to the funeral of a friend or family member. Suddenly what is important in life seems a lot clearer. It’s a time to realign the compass; to reset priorities; to clarify what matters.

Setbacks can be an opportunity

Setbacks give feedback about what is important. They can be an opportunity, not a cost. This third type of reaction to setbacks is associated with resilience. Resilient people have a habit of positive reappraisal. They don’t, of course, actively seek out setbacks, but they are less phased by them. Some agree that mild setbacks actually help them. They test their supportive social network and increase their sense of coherence.

The downside of too-high self esteem and success is the sin of hubris. The great religions know about this. They keep their pastors poor so that they can empathise with others. There is nothing like seeing the spoilt, narcissistic brat, cushioned from all the hardships of life, fall off their perch screaming with indignation. There is an ugly side to a charmed life without adversity.

This article is first published in Psychology Today on November 18, 2016.
Link to article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201611/the-benefits-adversity 

Published 23. November 2016

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