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.
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.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember, in order to function in this world we need to make sense of it (and right now that’s no easy task). We make sense of it by explaining to ourselves why things happen. The more mentally flexible we are, the more accurate we can be in our explanations as to why a given situation took place. The more accurate we are in our explanations the more resilient we will be. Most of us have consistent ways of explaining why something happened, we have patterns of explanations. Within those patterns of explanations we all use what we call Cognitive Distortions or Irrational Beliefs.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause people to see reality inaccurately. They are beliefs that are irrational and inaccurate and are usually associated with negative feelings. We all have cognitive distortions and we tend to use the same distortions repeatedly. The thing about these errors in thinking is they happen automatically, we don’t intentionally think inaccurately, but we do. And the thing about cognitive distortions is that we feel bad when we think distortedly. When we perceive an event distortedly or irrationally we are negatively impacting our well-being. Remember our thoughts drive our feelings and behavior. By thinking distortedly we are making ourselves feel worse than need be.
So for example, in the face of an upset, I can say to myself “Why am I always (over generalization) reacting this way?! I shouldn’t (should statements) feel this way, this is just terrible (catastrophizing.)” or I can say to myself, “Why am I reacting this way! I really wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I know it will pass soon.” The content of what I am saying to myself is very different in each case and will have a different effect on my subsequent feelings and behavior. Always, shouldn’t and terrible are cognitive distortions. If we can hear what we say to ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world, especially the cognitive distortions we use, we can harness that ability in order to be more accurate and flexible in service of reframing our thoughts or challenging our beliefs
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 have spent countless hours teaching about the importance of a growth mindset and how to foster it. At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about the importance of self-compassion. I just love the idea of self-compassion. As Kristin Neff says we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. I believe we all could use a little more self-compassion nowadays. So how does a growth mindset and self-compassion relate? Well, I just read this article on how to silence your inner critic and learned how they relate.
The voice of our inner critic can be so loud that it makes it hard to hear our voice of self-compassion. Besides we really aren’t as well versed in self-compassion as we are in self criticizing and now is NOT the time to be criticizing ourselves (much less anyone else). One of the motivators for self criticism is when we feel we aren’t or haven’t been good enough – we fell short of a standard we held for ourselves. We yelled at the kids, didn’t help with schoolwork, had to cancel something, the list can be endless. During this difficult time, it’s very easy to not feel good enough.
I find the idea of holding ourselves and our loved ones to the standard of goodish as opposed to good a wonderful idea! Goodish gives us the room to grow, to learn, to improve, it rolls a growth mindset and self-compassion into one idea and makes us more resilient. Goodish implies we are on a learning curve, kind of like when we use yet in a growth mindset conversation. To me goodish means we have the desire to be good and the self-acceptance to acknowledge and allow that stuff can happen along the way. Goodish implies tolerance for being human, plus the hope that we will improve and become a better person. When we expect ourselves to be goodish we hold ourselves to a high standard knowing that there is always room to grow.
So…what does the world of goodish look like? Well, let’s say you’re on a business call (zoom, skype, facetime, you pick it) and despite the fact that you threatened your kids with their lives, your son comes running in yelling mommy, mommy. And of course you get very upset. Well that reaction would be from your old world of good. In your new world of goodish your reaction is different. Here are a few options:
If you are using self-compassion you could say to yourself, “Well that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go! I wish it had gone as I had expected it to go. The times are difficult, I did the best I could, I bet most parents have a story to tell about their kids disturbing their calls.” You might take a few breaths, treat yourself to something special (self-compassion) and share the story with a friend (social support).
You could take a moment to access your thoughts. Are you saying to yourself, “Well, that was awful, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for the kids to ever listen.” You could then challenge your thoughts. You could ask yourself, “Am I thinking in all or nothing terms (awful). Am I using “exaggerating” words, such as never, always, forever, need should, or must (ever listen).” You could try replacing “awful” with something like “not how I wanted it” and you could replace “hard for the kids to ever listen” with “they didn’t listen this time.”
Please note that in the examples you are using your ability to be flexible. Also please note we are looking for goodish, nothing more. We are looking to use the resilience skills that best work for you to go from miserable to less miserable. We aren’t looking to go from miserable to elation. Going from miserable to less miserable allows you to feel good enough to continue going, which is what will allow you to make sustainable change.
Welcome to the new world of goodish!