All of us have experienced disappointment, sadness, and setbacks at work.

Woman at work leaning against glass wall with eyes closed

A few years ago, Julien served as an academic leader at a regional university for three years. He gave his full heart and soul to the role. He was on a mission to do good. At the same time, the university was undergoing a budget crisis that culminated with the global pandemic. The university had no choice but to restructure, and, when it did, Julien lost his role and returned to the faculty. 

In the crucible of organizational change, Julie hit a crossroads after dedicating 15 years to building an impactful organizational development team at a prominent health system. Devoted to fostering growth for her team, employees, and patients, she was struck by harsh reality when financial constraints led to the restructuring and outsourcing of leadership development and learning initiatives. She lost her job.

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You might experience disappointment at work in many ways: a long-term project does not come to fruition, a new position opens up and you don’t get it, or your hard work does not pay off.

Faced with a sense of loss and disappointment, we have no choice but to respond. In his famous work Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote that every person is questioned by life and can only answer to life by being responsible. In each of us, he proposed, we have a responsibility—or the ability to respond. 

Whether you are a leader who lost a job or an opportunity, an entrepreneur starting a new business, or simply facing a personal challenge, your ability to respond (and how likely you are to bounce back) is partly shaped by the way you talk with and to yourself. Below, we share three easy-to-use strategies for positive self-talk. We invite you to pay attention to your typical thought patterns, learn to catch and respond to negative thoughts, and reboot after a disappointment. 

1. Use positive self-affirmations

A first strategy is to short-circuit your negative thoughts by using positive self-affirmations. Positive self-affirmations include any phrase that reminds you of who you are as a person and serve as an encouragement to stay resilient in the face of adversity. “I am enough,” “I believe in my dreams,” or “I have the capacity to overcome this moment” are all examples of positive affirmations.

According to researchers, self-affirmations serve a number of important functions. Self-affirmations

  • boost confidence,
  • broaden our perspective, 
  • decrease the impact a negative event will have on you, and
  • promote an optimistic outlook. 

Researchers David K. Sherman and Kimberly A. Hartson explain that self-affirmation resolves the “tension between self-protection and self-improvement.” In other words, effective positive self-affirmations will help you accept the reality of your situation and address it with assertiveness and flexibility, giving you the courage to try new things. 

Julie’s recent encounter with a young entrepreneur underscored the transformative power of gaining a different perspective, particularly when caught in the clutches of self-doubt and uncertainty. During a coaching session addressing the entrepreneur’s concerns about the future, Julie asked: “If you had a friend facing a similar situation, what advice would you offer them?” The response, a profound realization, emphasized the importance of being gentle toward the self: “I would say, ‘Give yourself some grace.’” 

By offering ourselves the same kindness and understanding we readily provide to others, we create space for growth. Acknowledging that progress may unfold gradually, you can short-circuit your negative thoughts right in their tracks: “I am granting myself some grace today. I am in the process of learning.” This shift in perspective can encourage your resilience, your openness to possibilities, and a compassionate approach to your own journey.

In the popular Netflix show Sex Education, one of the main characters, Michael Groff, has much to teach us about rebooting from disappointment. After serving for years as the headmaster of a school, he gets fired (and deserves it). His wife also leaves him because he has been ignoring her for years. He goes through a difficult time but begins to piece his life together again with the help of a therapist. At the opening of season 4, Michael Groff walks into a new school as a substitute teacher. He stops for a moment in the hallway, takes a piece of paper out of his pocket, and reads it to himself: “I am here. I am enough. I am learning to be a better person.”

2. Reframe your mindset (and accept reality)

As Julien transitioned after the job loss, he took some time to reflect about the past and the future and to squeeze some learning from the experience. During this time, he would talk to his father over the phone, who reminded him to look at the situation differently. His father said: “Look at this opportunity you have been given. This is a gift”; “You have the opportunity to focus on your real strengths, and to invest time and energy in writing, research, teaching, and speaking—all things you love to do.” Gradually, the phrase resonated with Julien and became a source of inner strength: “This moment is a gift, and I can use it to do what I love.”

As we move past disappointment, it’s not uncommon to explore uncharted territories. This endeavor comes with its own entourage of fear and doubt. In the face of our fears, it can be helpful to look at the situation from a different perspective—to change the meaning we give to what’s happening. 

In Julie’s coaching practice, there was a young entrepreneur who was on the cusp of a necessary pivot, grappling with the impending change. Julie asked: “What is holding you back?” The answer was safety. 

  • Gaining Perspective on Negative

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In the session, Julie encouraged her client: “Embrace the trembling uncertainty because, let’s face it, you’re already trembling.” She said: “You are right where you’re supposed to be. Let that be your sassy mantra as you navigate the thrilling terrain of the unknown. Life’s an adventure, and you’re the audacious protagonist—scared, but oh-so-ready for the plot twist!”

“Do it scared. You’re already scared anyway,” she quipped. She challenged them to confront the fear head-on and acknowledge that, yes, it’s terrifying, but it’s also a crucial step toward unleashing their genius. 

“You are right where you’re supposed to be” became a mantra, a rallying cry against the inertia of fear for that entrepreneur. For many of us, embracing the unknown isn’t just a suggestion; it is a declaration of intent—an audacious move toward our full potential. This can be a helpful way for all of us to reframe our mindset whenever we face the unknown.

3. Ask big questions

Most disappointments are triggered by our failed expectations. We imagine certain results, goals, and plans and clearly expect to meet them. We have expectations about people and situations, too. When those expectations aren’t met, disappointment arises. 

In his meditations, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Every time sadness or anger or disappointment surface, you have the capacity to deal with it. Because your anger, your disappointment, is part of you, don’t fight against it.” Instead, he advocates, “return to the breath.” Once you are there, ask yourself and others big questions to reboot and begin the path of self-recovery.

Part of the gift that Julien’s father was referencing is the opportunity to reconsider what is important, to rediscover our real strengths, and to perhaps choose a path that would be more fitting or joyful—in other words, a personal transformation. As research by Jack Mezirow and others finds, when self-transformation occurs, we adopt a new definition of self, a new passion for life, and a greater sense of power and freedom. That process can be initiated by communication within the self, which we can trigger with meaningful questions like these:

  • What are you dreaming about now?
  • What are your core strengths, and how do you want to use them this time?
  • What do you want out of your career or personal life?
  • What gives you joy?
  • What do you do when you feel at your best?
  • What are some things that you are doing when other people see you at your best?
  • What will you do to respond productively? 

Right inside the word “question” is the word “quest.” When you begin the process of inquiry, you will begin the quest to respond.

Disappointment and major setbacks are a natural part of any professional career. How you respond to setbacks is what makes the difference. Consider these phrases for managing your inner voice: 

  • “I am granting myself some grace today. I am in the process of learning.”
  • “I am here. I am enough. I am learning to be a better person.”
  • “Do it scared. You’re already scared anyway.”
  • “You are right where you’re supposed to be.”
  • “This moment is a gift and I can use it to do what I love.”
  • “Return to the breath”
  • “What will I do to respond?”

Remember, there is no timeline for recovering and rebooting from disappointment. Early in the process, neither of us could see losing our leadership role as a gift; it was simply too painful. Before you start to focus on the positives and opportunities, you can be kind to yourself by simply allowing yourself to feel the disappointment, shock, or loss itself.

As you reboot from your own disappointment, we hope you find the inspiration to grant yourself some grace, embrace the learning process, confront your fears, and acknowledge the transformative potential in every moment. Positive self-talk can be your catalyst for change.

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