Do you feel like you consistently sabotage your own good intentions and don’t understand why? Or that you have an evil twin who takes control of your mind sometimes just so she can do the opposite of what you intended, no matter how much trouble it causes?
Welcome to the club. Many good intentions end up as pavement on that proverbial road to a certain well-known, extremely hot place. But, no, the devil did not make you do it. And it’s not very likely that you have an evil twin sharing your brain and body, either.
For most of us, there’s a very simple explanation for what looks like self-sabotage–and a simple solution, as well.
For most of us, failing to actually follow through on our good intentions (like healthy eating and exercise) on a consistent basis can usually be traced to a certain style of thinking that many people use to explain to themselves why they do what they do and why they get the results they get. Psychologists often refer to this “attributional style” as learned pessimism.
The Three P’s of Learned Pessimism
In daily life, learned pessimism operates like a self-fulfilling negative prophecy. You expect to have problems, and sure enough, you do. And these problems seem to come from within you, not from the outside, which makes it seem like you are deliberately sabotaging yourself. There isn’t any “real reason” why you continually fail to follow through on your plans, you just do.
But there is a reason this keeps happening, and it’s mostly in your head. If you’re a learned pessimist, you probably have three basic assumptions about why you have such a hard time sticking to your good intentions:
1. You assume some personal flaw or characteristic (weakness, incompetence, lack of will power, self-indulgence, etc.) is responsible for the problem. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that, when you are in fact successful, it must be due to something external to you—luck, assistance, or something about the situation. In other words, you personalize failure and externalize success.
Not surprisingly, people who are usually successful tend to follow the opposite pattern: they externalize failure and internalize success.
2. You assume that this personal flaw is permanent, some unchangeable trait you will always have to contend with, rather than something that can be rectified through education, practice, planning, support, or personal growth.
Again, the most successful people tend to do the opposite. They assume that a personal shortcoming can be changed or worked around—if they put in the appropriate effort.
3. You assume that the personal, permanent flaw is also pervasive—that it affects all areas of your life, not just the problem at hand. Thus, everything that doesn’t go the way you want just confirms your pessimistic assumptions about yourself. And since you think you can’t change this flaw, it’s almost impossible for you to learn from negative experiences and make appropriate changes in behavior.
Together, these three assumptions--Personal, Permanent, Pervasive-- become the Three P’s of Failure. They make it very hard to stay motivated, and to change your behavior.
How to tell if you’re a Learned Pessimist.
Most of the time, people aren’t aware of all the basic assumptions they are using to explain why they do the things they do over and over again. If you were, you’d be able to see how biased and illogical they are, and change them. So how do you know if a pessimistic attributional style might be at least partly responsible for your problems?
If you’re caught up in The Three P’s of Failure…
Part of this process is unconscious, and if you’ve been doing this for a while (and gotten pretty good at it), it happens so fast that it doesn’t seem like there are any steps or stages to it, but there are. In order to intervene and stop this process, you need a rough idea of how it works:
This process will continue until you begin thinking about your unconscious assumptions and the effect they have on you.
How to stop being a Learned Pessimist
The good news is that you can effectively interrupt this cycle at any point along the way—the earlier the better. You can't stop yourself from occasionally doing something you’ll wish you hadn’t. And it isn’t good to avoid normal feelings of anxiety, guilt, and disappointment—these are the feelings that motivate us to learn from our mistakes and do better the next time.
So, the first place you can reasonably intervene is when you first start thinking about what has gone wrong. The best possible intervention at this stage is to not think about it at all. Simply acknowledge what you did, how you feel about it, (“I just ate three helpings of lasagna, and I really feel like a jerk right now.”), and move on without letting your assumptions have their way with you.
If you can’t stop the verbal self-abuse easily, distract yourself. Focus on something else completely unrelated. Practice this until you’re pretty confident that you can successfully intervene whenever you want to stop the negative self-talk before it gets really nasty. Until you reach that point, don’t waste time or effort trying to argue with your pessimistic assumptions directly—they’ll win every time until you’ve mastered the art of intervening in your own mental process and stopping the negative self-talk.
This intervention will probably feel a little uncomfortable, unnatural, and even scary at first. It’ll be both tempting and easy to “fail” at this, too, because that’s what you expect. But this is do-able,--believe me, I used to be a world-class learned pessimist--and well worth any temporary discomfort you may feel.
Next week, in Tip #8, we’ll talk about how to replace negative assumptions with positive ones, and transform yourself into a Learned Optimist.
Are you a Learned Pessimist? Do you feel like the 3 assumptions described here might be causing you to stay stuck in negative patterns?
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