Optimism – How to Change from Pessimism to Optimism (“Learned Optimism” by Martin E. P. Seligman)

Martin Seligman

In the first post of this series on optimism, called “Optimism- The Science Behind Why You Want to Develop It“, we discussed how our relative optimism or pessimism towards life is impacted by our levels of learned helplessness–which is largely influenced by our explanatory styles.  This post is dedicated to the techniques and ways that you can employ a more optimistic approach to challenges, when appropriate.

Isn’t Optimism Always Better?

In a word, no.  The real aim in converting towards a more optimistic view on things is to maintain healthier conversations with yourself after a personal setback, loss or defeat.  It is to help you look at these challenging times in a more encouraging, resilient and uplifting point of view.

when bad events strike, you don’t need to live under the tyranny of pessimism.  When bad events strike, you don’t have to look at them in their most permanent, pervasive, and personal light, with the crippling results that pessimistic explanatory style entails.” – Seligman

Here are some questions that Seligman suggests you reflect upon.  If you answer “yes” to any of them, then taking a more optimistic approach would benefit you :

  • “Do I get discouraged easily?”
  • “Do I get depressed more than I want to?”
  • “Do I fail more than I think I should?”

Martin Seligman

Alternatively, there are times when being more pessimistic are warranted.  It is in those situations when the cost of failure is extremely high, that optimism is not the best strategy.  For instance, the gambler deciding whether or not to put his life savings on the line for a “sure” thing at the horse races because of “good” tip.  Or, the exhausted truck driver who is deciding whether to call it a night, or just go another couple hours to make “good time” for his delivery.  The cost of failure in these two situations could be catastrophic.  On the other hand, the recently unemployed worker deciding whether or not to start going on the job hunt is putting herself out there again, risking pride and possible rejection.  Or, the student who is contemplating participating more in class, putting up his hand and attempting to answer questions that he is not sure he has the right answers to, is risking ridicule, and being wrong.  These situations would benefit from optimism.

Learning Your ABC’s

Seligman has outlined a basic framework for interrupting a vicious cycle that our pessimistic explanatory styles can kick off, known as the ABC model.

“When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it.  Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs…These beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next.  They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other.” – Seligman

The first step is to recognize the connection between adversity, beliefs and consequence.  The second steps is to develop an awareness around how these ABCs happen in your own life.  Once that awareness has been developed, then, we move on to Disputation and Energization.  It is important to document each of these steps.  Seligman suggest keeping a journal or record of your ABC incidences.  Let’s look at each step closer.

Adversity – Adversity can come in any form–small and big–setbacks, frustrations, irritations, failures, loss or rejection.  It can range from the car not starting, to kids not doing their chores, to being turned down for a date, to being let go from your job.  It is the event, situation or circumstances that can kick off a tirade of negative and pessimistic beliefs.

Belief – After your adversity has been identified, look at how you are interpreting your adversity.  What sort of beliefs pop into your mind as a result of the adversity.  This is not the same as your consequent feelings–those are to be left for the “Consequence” step.  For instance, if you run out of gas and are stuck at the side of the road, you could come to a belief of “I am so irresponsible.  I am incompetent.  I am useless.”  Or perhaps you have received a less than stellar performance review from your boss, your subsequent belief could sound like this “I am stupid.  Why did they even hire me?  I don’t deserve this job.  I am just not smart enough to do anything well.  I will never be successful at anything.”

Consequence – This is the portion of your journal that you record your resulting feelings or emotions about the situation. You may feel disappointed, depressed, anxious, angry, nervous, guilty, relieved, etc.  Write down all relevant feelings that surface.

DisputationOnce you have developed the awareness from steps ABC, now you can address it with disputation–which is learning to argue with your beliefs. Seligman points out that we can much more easily argue against a jealous rival that starts to attack us.  We often go right into defensive mode and can counter-attack those external accusations.  However, we have a harder time distancing ourselves from self-inflicted attacks that can be just as scathing, untrue and damaging.  There are four key elements to effectively argue against yourself, which are : evidence, alternatives, implications, usefulness.

“It is important to stand back and suspend belief for a moment, to distance yourself from our pessimistic explanations at least long enough to verify their accuracy.” – Seligman

Martin Seligman

Evidence – This is the process of looking for actual facts to backup the beliefs that you are spewing at yourself.  Is there factual evidence supporting what you are saying to yourself?  People with pessimistic explanatory styles often exaggerate and create disaster-stories out of their adversities.  Of all the potential explanations for their problems, they will pick the worst one of the lot and convince themselves it is true–without ever checking on real facts to back it up.

“Learned optimism…is about accuracy…works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.” – Seligman

Alternatives – It is very rare that there is only one single cause for whatever current circumstances we find ourselves in.  To effectively dispute your negative beliefs, be objective and exhaust all possible explanations for what has occurred with a focus on what you can control and change, specifics about the situation at hand, and depersonalizing the cause.  For instance, if you performed poorly at an important swim meet one of the possible causes could be : “I didn’t practice hard enough” (changeable), or “I have been really stretched thin and exhausted lately because of my school workload” (specific to this time frame and situation), or “There was really tough competition at this meet.” (impersonal). 

“You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities you are not fully convinced are true.  Remember that much of pessimistic thinking consists in just the reverse, latching onto the more dire possible belief, not because the evidence supports it, but precisely because it is so dire.  Your job is to undo the destructive habit of becoming skilled at generating alternatives.” – Seligman

Implications – In some situations the negative belief that you have come to may have truth in it.  If this is the case, then you must bring it down to a level realism, and stop running disaster stories around it.  The question that Seligman says to pose to yourself is this : “Even if my belief is correct, what are its implications?”  Often we over-exaggerate the implications.  You miss the school bus one morning.  You may conclude that “I am not a punctual person” but this belief does not necessarily imply this possible subsequent belief of “I am irresponsible and no one should take me seriously.”  We have to give a reality-check to our beliefs and stop turning them into utter catastrophes.

Usefulness – Sometimes it is more wise to hold onto a belief than dispute it.  If the belief is destructive (ie. “I am stupid.” or “No one will ever love me.” or “I am a waste of anybody’s time.”) then it should be disputed, and evidence to the contrary is worthwhile.  However, some beliefs when disputed can be more upsetting.  Seligman gives the example of people who get very upset when the world proves to them how unfair it is.  Challenging that belief and convincing them that the world should be a fair place may cause more grief.  In such situations, it may be best to simply shake it off, distract yourself, and move forward.  Or in situations where you simply have to stay in the moment, pull yourself together and perform a task may not be the best time to be disputing a belief.  For instance, you have to give an important presentation to the board of directors and you start to think “I could really bomb this presentation.  If I don’t convince them my entire career is at stake.”  At that moment, the best course of action, Seligman says, is instead of asking yourself “Is this belief true?” to instead ask yourself “Is it functional for me to think it right now?”  If the answer is negative, then distract yourself, and stop the train of thought.  

Energization – The final step is to then observe the resulting “energization” you feel after the series of steps discussed in ABCD.

The following examples of how to implement the ABCDE method is taken directly from Seligman’s book to illustrate how to apply it.

Adversity : I threw a dinner party for a group of friends, and the person I was trying to impress barely touched her food.
Belief : The food tastes putrid.  I am such a lousy cook.  I might as well forget getting to know her any better. I’m lucky she didn’t get up and leave in the middle of dinner.
Consequence : I felt really disappointed and angry at myself.  I was so embarrassed about my cooking that I wanted to avoid her for the rest of the night.  Obviously, things weren’t going as I had hoped.
Disputation : This is ridiculous.  I know the food doesn’t taste putrid [evidence]. She may ot have eaten very much but everyone else did [evidence].  There could be a hundred reasons why she didn’t eat much [alternatives].  She could be on a diet, she might not have been feeling great, she might just have a small appetite [alternatives].  Even though she didn’t eat much, she did seem to enjoy the dinner [evidence]. She told some funny stories, and she seemed to be relaxed [evidence].  She even offered to help me with the dishes [evidence].  She wouldn’t have done that if she was repulsed by me [alternative].
Energization : I didn’t feel nearly as embarrassed or angry, and I realized that if I avoided her, then I really would hurt my chance of getting to know her better.  Basically, I was able to relax and not let my imagination ruin the evening for me.”

In Conclusion

So is it in you to be your own devil’s advocate when it comes to shifting your perspective from pessimism to optimism–when the situation warrants it?  Despite all the time I’ve spent reading books on personal development, and the benefits of positive psychology–I have to remind myself that there is always several decades of unconscious habits that I am working with!  So, I’d be lying to myself and you if I didn’t tell you that my language, my thoughts and my resulting actions can err on the side of pessimism and doubt more often than not.  Often hurting my efforts, and those around me, more than it does help move us forward.  However, I am OPTIMISTIC 😉 about this journey.  There’s certainly hope.  Are you ready to re-energize your thoughts towards optimism?  Perhaps you already use disputation techniques without even being aware of it.  I notice that I go into disputation all the time when I am challenging a friend’s limiting beliefs.  They are so much easier to spot!  What’s been your experience or thoughts about the benefits of shifting from pessimism to optimism?  Please share your thoughts and comments below.

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