Pamela Rief, MS ’99, was on track to earn a PhD from the Stanford School of Medicine — until she wasn’t. First, her father died, and then congenital defects in her spine and pelvis finally caught up with her. She was experiencing debilitating pain, migraines and increasingly high blood pressure when she finally took time off to regain her health.
“I was falling apart,” she recalls. “I was so focused on my intellectual output and productivity that I neglected my physical comfort.”
Taking a leave of absence from her PhD program felt like a devastating setback. But Rief managed to get well enough to return, earning a master’s in epidemiology and disease prevention. Today she works as a body mechanics and ergonomics expert, helping other people avoid the sort of chronic pain she endured.
Everyone experiences personal and professional setbacks throughout their lives — sometimes several minor setbacks in a single day. The trick is figuring out how not to be derailed by them but to see them as part of your journey. Here, Stanford graduate alumni with expertise related to resiliency and rebounding from stress and crises offer their best advice for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles.
Remember you’re not alone.
Kelly M. McGonigal, PhD ’04, a health psychologist and Stanford GSB lecturer in organizational behavior, and Fred Luskin, PhD ’98, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, emphasize the importance of reaching out to those you are close to for help. “If you don’t have a sense that you exist in a community, then resilience is really hard,” Luskin says. “It’s just you against the world.”
McGonigal agrees. “A lot of times it’s hard for people to recognize when it’s time to stop trying to DIY,” she says. “You need to see where disclosing the problems you’re having is safe and appropriate. People have different internal thresholds for that, but I’m often encouraging people to lower their threshold.”
McGonigal knows from her own experience how key it is to realize you’re not the only one. In her first year as a PhD student at Stanford, she was asked to merge different data files that she and her fellow research group participants had been using for their papers. After about a month, someone found a discrepancy in the data; McGonigal had messed up the merge. “I had to tell my adviser,” McGonigal recalls. “I was so scared. [But then] he told me a story about a time he had screwed up in graduate school. I will never forget that was the first thing he chose to do.”
Recognize your body’s warning signs.
Pain is helpful, says Positive Intelligence founder Shirzad Chamine, MBA ’88, referencing the analogy about how pain alerts you to a hot stove. “The very important question is, how long would you like to keep your hand on the hot stove before you get the message?” It’s the same with emotions, Chamine continues. Anger, shame, guilt and stress can help us realize that we’ve done something wrong or that something has gone wrong, but if you find yourself wallowing in those feelings — Chamine says you may have been “hijacked” by emotional saboteurs.
Similarly, McGonigal explains that we should view our body’s physical responses to stress as helpful rather than harmful. Just as the feeling of hunger tells us we need to eat, we should recognize that feeling alone is a sign that we should reach out to someone, or that sleepless nights are one way our body tries to learn from a negative experience. (Rather than lying in bed in a panic, she recommends calling someone to talk or taking time to write out your thoughts.) “We have a natural capacity to learn and grow from stress,” she says. “Your body and your brain are trying to help you.”
Push pause and get some perspective.
When a setback happens (big or small), Luskin and Chamine recommend taking time to clear your mind. “The brain needs calm to be able to think, evaluate options, weigh decisions, recover, plan and all sorts of things,” Luskin says. Especially in our tech-driven world, “that’s missing from [how] a lot of people do their day.”
Meditation is one option; Chamine also encourages people to repeat 10-second reps of a single physical sensation, such as taking measured breaths or rubbing the tips of two fingers together. Doing so can quiet those saboteurs and activate what he calls our “inner sage” — the perspective that any event, whether positive or negative, can be a chance for good. “If you really, deeply believe that you can turn this situation into a gift or opportunity, that starts a positive cycle,” Chamine says.
Take care of №1. (Hint: That’s you.)
“All of the traits that people need to be successful are dependent upon learning self-care,” says Emma Seppälä, PhD ’09, science director of Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, citing creativity as an example. “Creativity is the number-one attribute that CEOs look for in employees. And yet creativity cannot come from a mind that is stressed and overworked.” Seppälä recommends indulging in what she calls “restorative activities,” such as getting enough sleep and exercise, eating well, walking in nature and taking time off from work.
Stay true to yourself.
McGonigal says people often handle professional setbacks the way they might treat someone who betrayed them personally: by cutting ties. Instead, she says, we should “double down” on values and passions. “One of the things I talk about is using your values — what’s personally meaningful to you — as a resource, and recognizing that [those values] transcend individual achievements or outcomes.” Likewise, when we’re listening to our inner sage, Chamine says, we get creative about what comes next, believing that something good is possible even if it’s not the goal or outcome we originally intended. “It is absolutely a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Forgive and forgive. And then forgive again.
Bad things happen. Setbacks occur. To move on, you have to be able to forgive yourself and anyone or anything that may have played a role in the experience. “Forgiveness is huge and under-talked about,” Luskin says. “It’s the capacity to accept that things don’t go well and that you can be OK.” Luskin says forgiveness is easier if you focus on what’s good in your life, stay calm and recognize that “you’re not the center of the universe.”
He calls forgiveness a preventive measure. “When you walk out the door, there’s a decent chance that something’s going to go wrong. You practice not minimizing it, not denying it, not getting furious at it, but acknowledging it, owning it, and then letting the harsh reaction go. That’s a key practice to resilience.”
Change the narrative.
Part of our problem in overcoming setbacks, McGonigal says, is our inability to see them as necessary to our growth as human beings — as part of our “hero’s journey” — and not a sign of forever failure. She adds that we need to learn to view what’s happened in the context of what she calls “the common humanity of failures.” She sometimes tells people to imagine that they are writing a memoir and that they’ve already overcome the current setback. Ask yourself: “What might I say I learned from this experience?”
Such a perspective shift was helpful for Rief, who traces her current professional and personal success in part to the difficulties she faced as a student at Stanford.
“Without the physical limitations I faced then, I never would have discovered powerful ways to take care of myself,” Rief says. “The hard work I had to do has made me increasingly fit with age and launched a rewarding career helping others do the same.”
Rebecca Beyer is a freelance writer in New York City.