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.
A person with a growth mindset believes they can grow their skills, intelligence and abilities with effort. A person with a fixed mindset believes they are who they are, their skills, intelligence and abilities are fixed. When you have a growth mindset constructive feedback is seen as an opportunity to grow and get better results, it is welcomed. When you have a fixed mindset however, you believe that no effort achievement proves how smart you are, feedback would imply effort. When you have a fixed mindset challenges, mistakes and corresponding feedback is perceived as a threat to the ego instead of as an opportunity to grow and improve.
What is constructive feedback? It is information about how a person is doing and what they can do to achieve a better outcome. Constructive feedback is not criticism because it is never about the person, it is about what the person is doing and how they can do better.
How can you offer constructive feedback? Constructive feedback first focuses on what the person did well, then on what can be improved and how they can improve. Much like effective praise constructive feedback needs to be process oriented, specific, timely (when possible) and kind. Remember, the goal of feedback is to help the person learn and improve, not to hurt their feelings. Constructive feedback entails offering small, constructive, specific steps that will improve performance.
An example of constructive feedback is, “You are on the right track, this is a really good beginning, you aren’t quite there yet. You need more information about the main character. How about reading more about the subject.” Remember constructive feedback is supportive, process oriented and specific.
I think it is pretty fair to say that when people fail they feel bad. Put plain and simply failure doesn’t feel good. Starting today I would like to propose a reconceptualization of failure!
First, failure is inevitable if you are going to stretch yourself, try new things, learn more, it is to be expected you won’t do everything well the first time around, you might fail. When you started to walk you probably fell down a bunch of times, it didn’t stop you from learning to walk, you had a growth mindset, you kept going and learned to walk. Can you imagine if you hadn’t had a growth mindset, you’d still be crawling around. What I’m getting at is that failure is inherent in learning anything new.
Starting today I’m encouraging parents to applaud their child’s EFFORTFUL failure. Effortful is in capital letters because I’m not suggesting children just go around failing, what I am suggesting is if your child tried something new, difficult, or challenging and failed, he/she should be celebrated. Actually if your child tried anything really hard that was new or not and failed, I’m suggesting that you applaud them. And then of course ask, “What did you learn?,” “Going forward what will you do differently?” Remember failure is information. It’s information about what we can do differently and better next time, it’s the only way to learn.
If we feel bad when our children fail and then make our children feel bad when they fail, we are sending the message that either 1) they should never try anything new or out of their comfort zone, they should only stick to doing things in their comfort zone or 2) they are expected to be perfect no matter what they do, they are put in a box labeled talented and shouldn’t do anything to dispel that.
A growth mindset means that you believe you can grow your intelligence, your abilities, or skills. It means you will make mistakes and know you will learn from those mistakes. So next time your child fails congratulate him/her and without judgment talk about the failure.
Studies show approximately 8% of the people who set goals achieve them. If setting goals and growth mindset are related then the next question becomes how do we effectively achieve our goals. It would seem that the ability to exert self-control would be beneficial when it comes to setting and achieving goals. Actually research shows that the ability to exert self-control is correlated to a variety of positive outcomes, ranging from academic success to better relationships.
Self-control is defined as the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors in the face of temptations and impulses. Basically self-control is about regulating a short-term impulse for a long term gain. Self-control is the ability to make decisions that will move us toward our long-term goals, even when those decisions don’t feel as good as short term temptations.
Research suggests that we spend a lot of time during our day exerting self-control, resisting desires – that second piece of cake, the next youtube video, those new shoes. Research also suggests that self-control is a limited resource, that can get used up. In other words, if you perform a task that requires a large amount of self-control, you will have less self-control available to perform subsequent tasks.
How do we develop self-control? There are many ways. I believe one of the best ways is learning to breathe. Learning to breathe offers you the ability to put space between the impulse and the action. Another way to put that distance is by focusing on something else, a book you just read, the meal you will eat, anything that will take your attention off the object of temptation. Imagining the object of temptation as something toxic is another option. Another way to foster self-control is by rewarding yourself or punishing yourself. Reward yourself for exerting self-control and punish yourself for not exerting self-control.
It bears repeating, the ability to exert self-control is correlated to a variety of positive outcomes.
How do goal setting and growth mindset relate. When you have a growth mindset you believe that you can grow your intelligence, your abilities or skills. Fundamentally goal setting is a declaration of a belief in a growth mindset. Goal setting is defined as the process of identifying something you want to achieve and establishing measurable steps and timeframes. In essence goal setting is the concretization of the process of change. Therefore another way to foster a growth mindset is to learn to set effective goals. How do you set effective goals?
The most common way to effectively goal set is by establishing SMART goals. The acronym SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. When you set a goal using the SMART framework you are setting yourself up for success. By being as specific as possible you are not leaving anything to chance, as such you are increasing the likelihood of reaching your goals and in this way reenforcing your growth mindset.
Another approach to setting goals is called WOOP. WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. WOOP is a practical way to take good intentions from wishes to goals. When you WOOP you figure out what you want, why you want it – the outcome, what will get in the way of getting what you want and then how you will get to what you want bearing in mind potential obstacles. Personally I like WOOP because it helps you foresee obstacles and plan for them.
Whatever approach you choose, effectively setting goals is the epitome of a growth mindset.
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.