Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.
When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.
Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life less difficult because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships.
How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.
We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.
Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.
Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.
Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.
Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.
In all of my years working with parents I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want their child to be happy and have good self-esteem. What I find curious about this is how parents go about making it happen. I believe most people have many misconceptions about what happiness is and isn’t and how to achieve it. Needless to say self-esteem is an even bigger mystery.
Self-esteem is defined as the regard a person has for themselves. It’s an overall feeling of one’s self-worth. Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task, in their ability to get things done. Needless to say we don’t expect people to believe they are self-efficacious across all domains. However, the more domains in which a person feels self-efficacious, the more positive an outcome. The theory of self-efficacy was originally proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970’s. Self-efficacy predicts self-esteem. I believe if you want your child to have good self-esteem one way to do this is by fostering self-efficacy.
How does self-efficacy relate to self-esteem? Well think about it, if you know or feel pretty confident that you can get things done, I would say it’s pretty safe to say you are going to have high regard for yourself. When you don’t question your ability, when you are open to trying even if you could fail, you most likely will experience high self-esteem.
How do you instill a sense of self-efficacy in your children? If self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a task then it would seem to make sense that the best way to instill a sense of self-efficacy would be to put a child in as many situations of mastery as possible. And… when a child fails, to send the message that failure is no excuse for giving up. When a child fails it’s an opportunity to say, “Great, what did you learn and what will you do differently next time?” Modeling self-efficacy is also a good way to instill self-efficacy. When a child observes their primary caregivers successfully completing tasks the child tends to learn to believe they too can master the challenges they face.
The questions we ask create the world we live in. The questions we ask determine our actions. Not only do questions determine our actions, they also determine our interactions.
The answer we give to the questions we ask pave the road we walk on. They pave the road we walk on by determining where we place our focus. Most people tend not to give too much thought to their questions. However, if questions create the world we live in, it might be a good idea to pose the type of question that creates the type of world we’d like to inhabit. And the thing about questions is we ask a lot of them, all day long.
For example you get up in the morning and ask yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” This question determines your subsequent behavior, the road you shall walk down. The answer you give to this question can take you in many directions and create a variety of outcomes, it can create all kinds of worlds. If you answer, “Well I’ll just have something quick,” you might grab the cold pizza left over from last night. If you answer, “I’d really like to have something healthy and nutritious,” you might consider whipping up a bowl of oatmeal. The answer to your original question plants the first paver on the road to a type of life. So maybe, instead of asking yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” consider changing the question by asking yourself, “What is the healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” If you want to loose weight. Or if you are in a hurry but still want to eat healthy, “What’s the quickest, healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” Remember the questions you ask create the world you live in.
Questions also determine our interactions. Your child/spouse/roommate comes home from school/work and you ask, “How was your day?” The answer you get will determine the ensuing interaction. Do you get a grunt, a roll of the eyes, a “Fine!” or a long complaint of what went wrong? So maybe instead of asking “How was your day?” How about changing up your question and asking the kind of question that will create the kind of world you’d like to live in? If you want a pleasant light interaction, maybe “What was the best part of your day?” would be better. If you want an in depth conversation, maybe “What was the most interesting part of your day?” would be better.
Remember, most people don’t pay too much attention to the questions they ask. Also remember, however, that questions create the world we live in. What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of questions do you need to ask to have that world? Starting today begin to ask the kinds of questions that create the kind of world you want to live in.
By some accounts we spend half of our awake time talking to ourselves. This self-talk can be very helpful – when we practice a speech, work out a problem or memorize something, our self-talk is very valuable. Our self-talk becomes less valuable, even detrimental when it turns negative, when it becomes rumination – anxiety ridden images of the future or a compulsive rehashing of an incident, that doesn’t serve our best interest. When this type of self-talk takes over, when we become so wrapped up in our thoughts we lose perspective and begin to believe our thoughts are universal truths and we start to feel bad, it’s a sign we need to put some distance between our thoughts and our behavior.
Psychological distancing is the ability to see things from a different perspective. It’s the ability to be in the moment, be flexible and see our thoughts for what they are – beliefs we make real. Psychological distancing is the ability to see our thoughts as constructs of reality as opposed to reality itself. It’s the ability to distinguish between feeling bad and being bad, for example. Let’s say you bombed a presentation and you feel bad about it. When you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts you are able to say to yourself, “I feel badly about doing so poorly on that presentation, next time I will prepare more” you give yourself some time to feel bad and you are able to move on. The ability to place distance between your thoughts and your actions, to be able to see your thoughts for what they are, makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.
How do you get psychological distance? There are several ways, but first you must hear what you are saying to yourself. Once you can hear your self-talk you can say your name. Shifting from the first person, I, to the third person, Jane, automatically puts distance between you and your thoughts. It might sound awkward but it is a very quick and simple way to put distance. Another way is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend about this situation?” If a friend did poorly giving a presentation would you tell them to feel badly or would you encourage them to put it into perspective? These are just a few of the many ways there are to gain psychological distance and to become more resilient.
Awareness of our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions.
There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.
Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings.
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, Difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Contrary to what most people think, in the face of difficulty, or any event for that matter, it is our thoughts not the event that cause us to feel and react. What we tell ourselves will either perpetuate adversity or stymie it. Our thoughts are our explanation as to why something happened. Our thoughts are our way of making sense of life, they are our way of understanding why X event took place. In order to effectively deal with life we must understand why things happen. For example, you have a fight with your best friend. How upset you get and what you subsequently do is based on what you tell yourself about that fight, how you make sense of it. Do you say to yourself, “Every close relationship has its ups and downs, I’ll just give it time. I think we were both in bad moods. I’ll call Jane tomorrow.” Or do you say, “Well there goes that relationship, she’ll never want to talk to me again and I don’t really want to talk to her. She is always getting mad. I’m never going to call her again.” If you explain the incident to yourself by saying every close relationship has its ups and downs as opposed to she is always getting mad and we’ll never talk to each other (both viable explanations) the subsequent behavior is very different. The results of these two different ways of thinking prompts two very different outcomes. Our explanations help us or hinder us. Our thoughts either allow us to deal effectively and go forward or not.
Our explanations of an event are based on a multitude of factors. However, simply put, our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real. If this weren’t the case then we would all hold the same beliefs and behave in the same way. If this weren’t the case we would all have the same explanation for the same event. But we don’t. Furthermore, more often than not, we usually aren’t aware of our explanations of events. For many, a large portion of their explanations reside in the realm of the unconscious. And therein lies the challenge to resilience. The more aware we are of what we say to ourselves in the face of adversity, the easier it is to be resilient. If we can hear our thoughts then we can make ourselves more resilient.
The beauty of this idea is, much like life, you can’t control the event however, you CAN control the thoughts that arise as a result of the event. So, if you are aware of what you are saying to yourself, let’s say for example during this difficult time, and what you are saying is not conducive to resilience then you can challenge your thoughts to help yourself become more resilient. This is not always an easy task, but it is one well worth the while.
In summary, when you find yourself feeling off, bothered, or just plain upset, search for your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What am I saying to myself?” Once you become aware of what you are saying to yourself, take those thoughts, one by one and challenge them. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts accurate, would a jury of 12 of my peers say the same things, would my best friend say this?” Use any technique that works for you to break up the counterproductive thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. You can replace one thought for another one. Remember, you are not going to change radically, you are not going from upset to elated, you are going to go from upset to a little less upset.
Last week I wrote about character strengths and how they make us resilient. This week I’ve been thinking about the character strength of gratitude. I always love seeing gratitude in action, it warms my heart.
So what is gratitude? Gratitude is the action of noticing and acknowledging the good in one’s life. Gratitude is the act of affirming the good things in your life that come from outside yourself. Gratitude is the ability to notice and relish little pleasures. It’s the recognition that you have been the recipient of a benefit, of something good. Gratitude is not only the action of giving thanks, there’s so much more to gratitude than saying thank you.
There are two types of gratitude – dispositional gratitude and state gratitude. For dispositionally grateful people gratitude comes naturally, it is a stable characteristic of their personality. An attitude of gratitude comes naturally to a dispositionally grateful person, it’s the way they interface with the world. Dispositionally grateful people find ways to be grateful for the ordinary experiences of daily living. For other people, gratitude is experienced as a state. Something happens and they feel grateful. In this case gratitude isn’t a stable characteristic of their personality, it’s induced by an event. Either way, research is very clear, being grateful increases happiness and well-being. And the beauty of gratitude is that it is a learnable skill.
Practicing gratitude has many benefits. One benefit is that it allows us to be in the present. When we are grateful we are aware of the good that is happening to us in the moment. Also gratitude blocks negative emotions, actually it pulls our attention away from the negative. It’s very difficult to express gratitude and experience a negative emotion at the same time. Gratitude tends to cancel out negative emotions. Also, gratitude is a social emotion, it strengthens our relationships. When we feel gratitude we are acknowledging the other people in our lives. Gratitude makes us aware of other people and their kindness. Also gratitude makes us more likable, gratitude makes us nicer to the people around us.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers in gratitude, practicing gratitude during difficult times is essential. It might be harder to practice gratitude during hardship, however, the benefits make the effort well worth your while. Remember, gratitude increases happiness and well-being. According to research practicing gratitude helps us cope with stress more effectively and regulate negative emotions.
So, what are you grateful for? I’ll go first. I’m grateful for many things during this difficult time. First and foremost, I’m grateful for my family and friends, I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for Instacart, I’m grateful for so many things both big and small. What about you?
Remember, resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. It’s also the ability to accept what is beyond our control and work around it. There really isn’t much we can do about what life has sent our way, but there is a WHOLE lot we can do about how we choose to deal with it.
Remember when we talk about resilience and what makes us resilient, the ability to be mentally agile makes us resilient. The ability to see multiple options in order to solve problems makes us very resilient. When you face a difficult situation, when you need to solve a problem, the ability to be flexible makes solving the problem less difficult. You can choose to hold tight to how you usually do things (even if it’s not possible at the moment) or you can be flexible and do what is in your best interest – solve the problem as best as you can, for the time being. These are not normal circumstances and there is not much you can do about that, but you surely can choose to do something that’s in your best interest and good for your well-being.
So I have two proposals during this difficult time. #1 do things differently. Be flexible when you can. Now is a time to think about what is in your best interest and that of your family and decide accordingly. If you can continue to do things the way you have been, great! However, when you can’t and you have the option I encourage you to actively choose to do things differently. Remember flexibility makes us more resilient. It’s good for the brain. And it usually makes us feel good to be flexible.
Proposal #2 when you can, make good happen. On those days that you feel up to it, I’m proposing that you make lemonade out of lemons. I’m not suggesting, by any means, to deny the feelings of confusion, sadness and anxiety we all are experiencing in the face of these uncertain times. What I am suggesting is that a byproduct of doing things differently can be making the good happen. When actively choosing to do things differently, think about how you can make the good happen and go for it. Think about what you want to achieve and ALL the ways you can go about achieving it. And pick the way that will make your life better (for the time being, at least). Remember achieving your goals feels good. Make good happen every chance you can.
So if you need to do exercise and don’t enjoy nature, take a walk outside. If you like routines but find it difficult to stick to one because of the circumstances try to be more spontaneous. If you don’t like or have family traditions or rituals, start making family rituals. Do things differently. I guess in a way I’m advocating for upside down day. And above all hunt the good. Honestly, along the road of doing things differently you will most likely make good happen, I encourage you to acknowledge that good and celebrate it.
One last thing, once this pandemic is over no one is saying that what you do differently today will be the new normal. All I’m saying is make good happen now, by doing things differently during this difficult time. This pandemic will be over sooner or later and we will all look back and say…?