Diversions, speed bumps and roadblocks are unavoidable on the path of life. But recovering is not always smooth sailing. In the face of adversity, most people wind up stuck, hopeless or even paralyzed. And yet, some people manage not only to overcome adversity quickly, but preserve and thrive in the very thick of it. What do these people do differently?
In his groundbreaking book entitled Learned Optimism, Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman explains the primary distinction between those who quit and those who persist: it’s called your explanatory style. In other words, the way in which you explain your experiences will determine your outcome. Seligman contends that there are three specific dimensions of the explanatory style, and that shifting each of them away from pessimism and towards optimism will dramatically increase your determination. Check it out:
Permanence: Temporary or Permanent
This dimension refers to time: how long something lasts and how frequently it occurs. A pessimist, or someone who gives up easily, believes that bad events are caused by permanent factors that will always persist. In this way, the permanence of your explanation can cause long-lasting helplessness and paralysis. Conversely, optimists name transient causes for bad events like poor mood, lack of focus, etc. And, when positive events occur, they own them! They point to permanent features for such events, like personality traits, skill sets, etc.
Here are two examples: you fail to adhere to your new diet regimen and you can explain it one of two ways– which do you choose? 1) “Diets never work.” OR 2) Diets don’t work when you eat out every night.” And, you ace your algebra test. How do you explain it? 1) “I tried hard.” OR 2) “I’m smart.” See the difference?
Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal
This dimension refers to space: the way in which a failure in one area bleeds out into the rest of your life. Pessimists make universal explanations about their setbacks, and ultimately give up on everything after experiencing failure in one area. Optimists, however, make their explanations specific: they continue to attack other areas of life with fervor and limit helplessness only to the actual realm of the failure.
For example: you get a poor grade on a quiz after your teacher failed to tell you the material that would be covered. How do you explain this? 1) “All teachers are unfair.” OR 2) “Mrs. Simpson is unfair.”
Personalization: Internal vs. External
When bad events happen, pessimists blame themselves entirely. Research shows that people who internalize in this way suffer from lower self-esteem than those who attribute failure to something external. Optimists see the big picture and can point to factors outside of themselves that may have contributed to the problem. There is a caveat here: taken to the extreme, of course, you could blame external factors entirely, leading to zero personal accountability. That is not something I support and it is critical to find the balance. The opposite is true of good events: optimists give themselves credit and pessimists pass the responsibility on to others.
For example: you ask someone to dance and he/she says no. Which explanation do you choose? 1) “I’m not a good enough dancer.” OR 2) “He/she doesn’t like to dance.” And on the flip side: your team wins a soccer game. Which sounds more like you? “My teammates’ skills carried us to the win.” OR “My skills as a goalie helped our team to win.”
Seligman makes one final important point that is critical: your explanatory style is more than the words you use to explain your failures. Rather, “your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world- whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist,” (Seligman, p. 60).
Changing your explanatory style is a crucial first step in improving your resilience in the face of a challenge. But it is not enough. Your long term success is dependent upon your self-worth. In the end, self-love and acceptance in combination with an optimistic explanatory style are the true fulcrums to becoming an optimist and achieving your greatest potential.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990/1998/2006). Learned Optimism [Nook Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.