Framing of Setbacks

The Framing of Setbacks

No one can control the setbacks that occur to them, but everyone can apply some level of control regarding how they react to them. This is a central idea of Williams Irving’s book The Stoic Challenge. The author describes how by focusing on actions we can control (our reactions) rather than the factors that we can not control (the setback), we can retain some power in the situation. Having that perception of control does wonders for keeping negative emotions at bay. Below I’ve described a simple setback and outlined how to apply the six framing techniques that Irving describes in his book.

The Setback

Two weeks ago, you placed an order for a decorative cake to celebrate your mother’s birthday. You arrive at the bakery the day of the celebration, and the staff member tells you there was some mixup on their part and the cake is not here.

This is a frustrating setback but also mainly out of your control. You can’t change past mistakes, let alone someone else’s mistake, but you can choose how you react to the news. We will evaluate how the six different frames Irving describes applied to this setback.

Stoic Test

The news that the cake is not present is a chance to test your patience and resolve. Can you stay calm and work out an alternative that will still meet the need of the event. This event happened not to diminish you but to allow you to prove your meddle.

Story Telling

You will be returning to your family with a story and maybe a cake. What do you want that story to be? Can it be a tale about a person who calmly dealt with an unfair situation and managed to create an acceptable outcome? That can but you if you act the part.


Your goal is to get the cake, but the rules you thought you were playing by have just changed. You can give up the game or adapt and work on understanding the new rules and keep playing.


You are not the only one who feels bad in this circumstance. Those who made the mistake could not perform at an appropriate level. You’ve been there too. Feeling that empathy with the person is more likely to help you reach a favorable compromise than if you were to move straight into anger.


There may be truly nothing you can do to address this setback. Making light of the process is a mechanism for bringing some positivity forward and keeping the scope of the setback in perspective.

Competing Obligations

You are just one of many customers at the bakery today. While it pains you that you experienced the loss of the cake, it was unlikely that this setback was done directly at you. The staff might be overwhelmed; maybe there was a larger order that took their attention. Perhaps some lucky person out there got your cake by mistake. You are just one person in a vast and complex world.

Reframe it

Irving puts a lot of attention to utilizing the Stoic Test’s framing tool because it’s relatively easy to reframe a setback into a challenge. The setback then becomes a test of your character, which, if that is something you care about, you now have an incentive to perform well. Maybe the greatest benefit is that you take a step away from developing a sense of victimhood every time you rise to a challenge. The better you deal with setbacks, the more adaptable you will be, and fewer events will derail you emotionality.

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