How to bounce back from professional setbacks

Overcome global professional setbacks.

Lelia Gowland, Principal, Gowland, LLC

Your boss said no, you didn’t land the big client, or you botched a presentation. Its happened to all of us, but when you’re experiencing a professional setback, it can be difficult to keep perspective.

Let’s say you bomb a presentation on your travel program to the new CFO. You feel like the meeting couldn’t have gone worse and walk away unsettled by the experience.

Listening to your inner monologue, it might feel like you’re channeling Meryl Streep’s character at the beginning of the Devil Wears Prada, berating yourself with biting comments and a generally dismissive, judgmental tone. (For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, bon mots like, “Details of your incompetence do not interest me,” are representative of her managerial style.)

As you beat yourself up over each misstep, your confidence is crushed. We’ve been taught the best way to overcome these types of setbacks is by boosting our self-esteem. But there’s a better way! According to psychologist Kristin Neff, encouraging self-compassion is actually a much better tool for bouncing back from a professional failure.

While self-esteem centers on a comparison to others (“I’m the best. Gold star for me!”), self-compassion focuses on how we relate to ourselves. Self-compassion is divided into three categories: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.

Here’s what they look like in action.

1. Self-kindness (vs. self-judgment)

Author Mike Robbins says, “We get training on how to interact with others, but we don’t get much training on how to interact with ourselves.” If you’ve ever written out your inner monologue when you’re most frustrated with yourself, odds are pretty good you’re saying things to yourself you’d never say to another person, let alone someone you cared about.

To apply self-kindness, speak to yourself the same way you’d talk to a beloved friend. Rather than jumping to Devil Wears Prada-style judgment, strive to be caring and understanding with yourself. Use a tone that’s comforting and soothing.

Self-compassion means seeing your flaws as normal. Neff writes, “Rather than relentlessly criticizing ourselves for being inadequate, self-compassion means accepting the fact that we are imperfect.”

Here’s a replay of your inner monologue after the meeting using the two different approaches:

  • Self-judgment: “What the hell were you doing? Maybe if you knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t have word vomited for the entire second half of the meeting. The CFO has gotta be wondering why you’re in this role.”
  • Self-kindness: “Yep, you could have handled that meeting better. Could you have prepared more? Absolutely. You can’t undo it now, though, and that’s ok. Not every meeting is going to go perfectly. Write a thoughtful note committing to provide greater detail and then get a report to the CFO.”

2. A sense of common humanity (vs. a sense of isolation)

When we struggle or make a mistake, we often think, “There’s something really wrong with me,” or judge ourselves as fundamentally flawed. Our failure or heartache becomes something we need to hide or push through. Instead, Neff encourages people to embrace these flaws as an indication of our humanity.

Literally every human has insecurities, screws up, and experiences failure. Again, it’s super normal. Everything you’re feeling, others have felt before. The context may be unique, but the emotions are universal.

Here’s the replay:

  • Sense of isolation: “Oh, you screwed up big time and you should be seriously embarrassed. Your colleagues would be horrified if they knew, and you’re going to lose credibility with your manager if word gets back to her.”
  • Sense of common humanity: “Hey, guess what? Everyone screws up, even the people who impress us most. Mistakes and failures are a totally normal (and – in fairness – kind of sucky) part of being a human.”

3. Mindfulness (vs. over-identification)

In those moments when we’re upset, we tend to obsess on the most embarrassing, stressful, or problematic aspects of the situation. Neff calls this “over-identification,” when we fixate on our current circumstances or flaws and can’t see beyond them.

Practicing mindfulness, on the other hand, allows us to approach these situations with valuable perspective of the moment in a larger context. It provides greater objectivity and perspective.

Here’s the replay:

  • Over-identification: “Clearly, I’m going to get fired or demoted. Even if they let me keep my job, they’re probably going to cut my department’s budget, and everyone will know it’s all my fault.”
  • Mindfulness: “This meeting did not go well, and I notice I’m feeling a lot of distress about it. That said, I’ve done well in past presentations and I’m capable of continuing to do this job well in the future.

While my feelings in this moment are valid, they will change. How I feel in this moment is not how I will always feel forever.”

Next time your self-esteem is shook, try this: give yourself three minutes to write down the stresses, worries and nasty thoughts that are coming up in your mind. Take three big breaths to reset. Then, reassess the situation using the three strategies of self-compassion: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.

It might not be easy at first, but like most things, the more you practice self-compassion, the easier it becomes.

Want to read more from Lelia? Check out How to increase your influence at work with three easy-to-use strategies

Lelia Gowland makes work work for women. A sought-after speaker and writer, Lelia helps women negotiate and navigate their careers. Learn more at