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.
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.
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
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!
One of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves – what our thoughts are, which can be problematic especially during times of adversity. Theory tells us that anxiety comes from thinking about the future and depression from thinking about the past. So, for example, when you start to think about what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next fall, you will start to get anxious. When you start to think about what you should or should not have done, the regrets of the past, you will most likely start to get depressed. Where does that leave your thoughts, you ask? It leaves them in the present, in the moment, in the here and now. So when you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed the best way to help yourself out of those feelings is to pull your thoughts into the moment. How do you do this, well that’s where all the previous skills we’ve talked about come in as well as the title of this email. When you find yourself in need of diverting your thoughts, when you are anxious or depressed and don’t want to feel that way, use any one of the resilience skills you have learned about, to pull your thoughts into the present. Remember flexibility is critical to well-being and resilience.
So for example self-compassion is a great way to pull your thoughts into the present. When you are anxious or depressed being kind to yourself, as opposed to beating yourself up (which is what most of us tend to do), is a very effective way to bring your thoughts into the moment. Acknowledging your anxiety or depression, not judging yourself for feeling the way you do is a great beginning. Then instead of saying to yourself, “Why am I feeling this way!” saying to yourself, “I bet most people are(would be) feeling this way, I’m really not alone in how I’m feeling,” brings your thoughts further into the present. And finally being able to tell yourself I feel X right now but these feelings will not last forever, further brings your thoughts into the present.
Focusing on your character strengths is another great way to bring your thoughts into the present and to make good happen. So when you are feeling anxious or depressed deploy some of your signature strengths. Remember character strengths are the traits we all have which allow us to be at our best and being at our best makes us feel good and feeling good brings us into the present. So, when you are about to undertake anything, it doesn’t matter what, consciously channel some of your strengths to help you do it. Channeling a strength takes your mind off the past or future and brings it into the present, it allows you to attend to the activity at hand. So, for example, when I write these emails, sometimes I wonder, will this email be good, will it help, will it…, when I deploy humor, perseverance and kindness (some of my signature strengths) I am able to simply focus on writing the email at hand, no wondering about all the wills (the future) and I feel less anxious.
Now for gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most simple, elegant and effective ways to bring your thoughts into the present. Count your blessings, think about what life would be like without something wonderful, or just plain and simply give thanks to someone – phone a friend, grab an offspring, reach out to a family member, tell them how grateful you are to them for… Gratitude is an amazing way to bring your thoughts into the present, it’s a win/win for everyone.
So, in summary, when you feel anxious it is because you are probably thinking/worrying about the future. When you feel depressed it is because you are probably thinking about the past. If you drag your thoughts into the present, into the moment you will help yourself feel less anxious or depressed. Remember we aren’t going for elation we are going for less of what we are already feeling.
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.