Let’s face it, life happens. There are days when life deals us bad breaks, ranging from small setbacks such as being stuck in traffic or missing out on a job promotion to life-changing and devastating losses like losing a job or loved one.
While we’re all vulnerable to life’s unexpected setbacks, daily hassles, and losses, what we can do is choose how to best respond to these events.
Not All Responses Are Created Equal
According to psychologist Martin Seligman, experiencing bad things in life does not put us at a disadvantage and drive us towards depression. What truly makes or breaks us is how we explain these bad things. Based on his team’s research, individuals who use an “optimistic explanatory style” to describe why bad events happen experience more positive moods, better physical health, reduced stress, and enhanced performance compared to those who use a more “pessimistic explanatory style”.
Fortunately, Seligman believes that this “optimistic explanatory style” can be learned through heightened awareness and conscious practice, which is why he named this process “learned optimism”. Contrary to popular opinion, learned optimism is NOT about focusing only on the good things in our lives while dismissing the bad things. Rather, learned optimism is acknowledging our struggles and explaining them in ways that boost self-control and promote self-change.
Specifically, how we manage the three P’s of learned optimism—permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization—determines how much perceived control we experience and how much we believe things can change for the better. It determines how resilient we become.
Permanence refers to how changeable and long-lasting negative events seem to be. Individuals who default to a pessimistic explanatory style view bad events as largely unchangeable with no end in sight. An individual who fails to earn a promotion and thinks, “I’ll never get promoted; I always get passed over for good assignments” is exhibiting this pessimistic explanatory style. Individuals who adopt a more optimistic explanatory style respond by viewing such setbacks as temporary and changeable: “I didn’t get this promotion. I’ve been passed over this time. Next time might be different.”
Permanence Self-Talk Tip
Replace limiting and fatalistic self-talk language such as “always” and “never” with temporary and changeable phrases such as “this time” and “next time”. The word “can’t” is also limiting because it makes struggle seem unchangeable and permanent. Replace “can’t” with “not yet”.
For example, an employee stumbles nervously through a presentation to the board of directors. Learned optimism calls for replacing “I can’t speak in public” with “I haven’t yet gotten good at speaking in public.” This more optimistic shift in self-talk frames struggles as skills that can improve over time rather than permanent limitations.
Pervasiveness refers to how much one bad event in one area of life leaks into and pollutes other unrelated areas. In other words, how contagious do we allow bad events to be? Does a speeding ticket on the way home result in a “ruined night” of arguing with the spouse, punishing the kids, kicking the dog, and blaming it all on the ticket?
This contagious spreading of one negative event into other areas characterizes the pessimistic explanatory style. For example, a person who blows an important sales pitch catastrophizes that “I am just no good in this industry and don’t belong in this company.” Individuals who exercise an optimistic explanatory style respond by quarantining the failed deal to only poor sales skills, “I may not be good at sales, but I have the marketing and accounting skills to make it in this career.”
Pervasiveness Self-Talk Tip
Replace contagious and catastrophizing self-talk words such as “everything” and “nothing” with quarantining self-talk that stresses “this thing”.
For example, a couple argues over how money is being spent. The catastrophizing response, “I manage to screw everything up… I can’t do anything right” can be replaced with “I screwed this month’s budget up pretty badly”, which quarantines the error to just a spending problem.
Personalization refers to how much an individual takes blame for bad events versus blaming external circumstances or poor execution. People who default to a pessimistic explanatory style see themselves as the sole reasons bad things happen. They shoulder inappropriate amounts of blame.
For instance, a supervisor fails to help a challenging employee resulting in that employee’s termination. The supervisor defaulting to a pessimistic explanatory style assumes complete blame and personalizes the bad result: “It’s all my fault. I ruined their life.”
The supervisor exercising an optimistic explanatory style identifies a substandard leadership skill or action as the culprit and recognizes that blame is shared: “I didn’t speak truth and engage in the hard conversations this staff member needed often enough, but he was formally reprimanded several times and still refused to change.”
Personalization Self-Talk Tip
Separate the performance from the performer by replacing “I” self-criticism with “My” self-criticism.
For instance, replace self-condemning phrases like “I stink” or “I’m brutal” with skill- or performance-critical phrases such as “my report stank” or “my communication with my team member was brutal”.
Learned Optimism and Leadership
Numerous studies conducted by Seligman and his research team highlight that practicing a more optimistic explanatory style during times of struggle produces improved physical and emotional health, enhanced workplace performance, and heightened personal resilience. Learned optimism is not just an internal set of principles and self-talk techniques to help better explain bad events in our own lives. It also can be a powerful lens-changing leadership tool.
As team leaders in the workplace and as spouses and parents in the household, we can use learned optimism techniques to improve the overall well-being of those we serve:
- As supervisors, we can reframe “Sorry boss, I always screw up this computer application” with encouragement and positive expectation – “You just haven’t figured out this application yet. Keep working at it.”
- As parents, we can de-catastrophize “I’m terrible at school” with a more targeted appraisal: “Your grades are generally good. You just need to spend a bit more time on math.”
- As a couple, we can reassure a spouse who states, “Why am I so stupid!?” by separating the performance from the performer. “You’re not at all a stupid person. You just made a poor choice. I’m sure an apology would clear up the misunderstanding.”
These three examples highlight the positive impact we can have as learned optimism lens changers for others.
To find out more about learned optimism and resilience training, visit usar.army.mil/MRT.