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Staying Motivated Tip #7: Beat the Three P's of Failure

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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…
  • You probably talk to yourself in ways that you’d never dream of talking to a friend, or even someone you don’t like very much. When something goes wrong, you may call yourself names, feel extremely ashamed, agitated, and/or angry with yourself, and become emotionally and verbally abusive towards yourself.

  • You don’t spend much time or effort thinking through what’s happened in an objective way, you just jump straight to the conclusion: “This happened because there is something seriously wrong with me that isn’t going to change, and I am doomed to fail forever.”

  • Emotionally, you can go from disappointment to despair and hopelessness in a few seconds, usually over something that’s pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things—a bowl of ice cream or a missed exercise session. The end result is that you rarely learn anything from your own experience, and this pattern just keeps repeating itself, with no progress towards changing the unwanted behavior.

    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:

  • Something happens (you skip an exercise session, or eat something you wanted to avoid, etc.) and you feel a “normal” level of anxiety, guilt, or disappointment—the feeling that motivates people to try again.
  • You start thinking about why this happened and Unconscious assumption #1 kicks in, causing you leap to the conclusion there is something wrong with you, without benefit of doubt or investigation—you just “know” it’s true.
  • Now you feel a little worse (mild shame, self-blame, etc.), so you start thinking about how to deal with this problem, and Unconscious assumption #2 kicks in: You “realize” that you’re always going to have this problem, it’s just the way you are.
  • Your feelings escalate to desperation, frustration, and helplessness. This is getting very unpleasant, so you try once more to think your way out of the mess. But now Unconscious assumption #3 kicks in, and you’re forced to admit that you’re really a pretty poor excuse for a human being, and that’s not going to change.
  • Your feelings are in high gear—self-hatred and hopelessness on top of everything else—and more thinking isn’t going to help. You have to do something to make these feelings go away.
  • If you have learned some basic skills in emotional self-management, maybe you’ll just blow off your diet for the rest of the day (or week), or go on a short-term binge to drown out those painful feelings. Some people do much worse to themselves.
  • Once the storm is over, you’ll reconfirm what you concluded about yourself—that there is something wrong with you that you can’t control or manage.

    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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    This is just what I needed as I was starting to feel there is something wrong with me(self blame etc).It's one thing to doubt yourself but the tips are hitting the spot when I read them.
    Many thanks again Report
    This is article is right on the money, it amazing how we beat ourselves up on a daily basis. As a person who was always negative and worry lot -i see exactly now what my problem was-after transforming my mind set to think positive and learning how to love me, i am a different person. I just wish i learned this years ago-it could have saved me a lot of pain and grief. Report
    Thanks for this! I really needed to read it today. Its not a lesson that applies to my healthy living but to how I react these days to my work. I look forward to (re)learning how to be an optimist about my work. Report
    I definitely needed to read this. Some really great points made, thank you for sharing. Look forward to reading the, "become a learned optimist". Report
    I got up this morning and thought, "not getting on the scale today, I've been way to bad the past couple of days"....."how stupid are you, not exercising" And then I promptly thought....STOP IT!!! It's only a couple of days, get back at it today and let it go.

    That internal voice is nasty, and I certainly need to learn to shut it off! Getting better all the time, while that conversation took place this morning, it lasted about 30 seconds. There was a time it would have lasted all day and maybe several days just constantly compounding the problem. Getting better no doubt about that!! Report
    well done! This was fantastic! thank you 4 the help. I am a pessimist especially men it comes to food, body, weight. Cant wait to read next tip! Report
    Good article. Report
    I have come a long way in the year, I have been on here. I do still get frustrated with myself and sometimes call myself stupid but I have learned to take it in stride. I know that it took me a long time to get here. I have been overweight all my life so it is the only thing I know. when I lost 25 pounds quickly when I started, it scared me. I gained back most of it but am now on a downward swing. I know that food is an addiction but it can also be broken. I believe in my heart that I can do this. It is my mind that gets in the way. The mind is a strange thing. It can make you believe in the impossible or it can make you believe it is not possible. The only thing stopping you, is you. Report
    I always psych myself UP. I used to always be really selfconscious whenever I was outside attempting to jog. I was sure all passerby's were thinking "uh, why does she think she can run? She is too big to be moving at all. " It made me immediately stop running and suddenly wish I was back at home.

    I'm proud to say those negative thoughts have stopped! I always tell myself that everyone stares at me cause they're so amazed that I'm faster than they are. Or I always pick a body part and focus on that. For example if I start feeling self-conscious cause I think someone is staring at me, I always tell myself that they're checking out my super strong calves and are jealous mine are hotter than theirs. For some reason, that thought always pushes me to keep going. It really works! Try it !! :)

    Positive thinking is where it's at! Report
    Yes, coming out of an abusive relationship, I tend to internalize failure, in fact, he would say, you closer to 300 lbs than you are 200 lbs, no one will want you will your big fat azz, etc. I must learn to retrink! I am somebody, I deserve to be healthy! Report
    I see my past in this article and now I understand me. Fortunately I'm in transition out of learned pessimism, although I never had a name for it. I just found out that I'm not alone nor am I crazy! Thank you! Report
    I agree wholeheartedly, and reach for my bottle of water !!! Report
    I love to beat myself up and it never helps! Great article, thanks! Report
    I definitely identify with internalizing failure and externalizing success - that is /so/ true! I am not a horrible person doomed to be fat forever just because I ate half a bag of potato chips ... I just had a slip and ate half a bag of potato chips. It happens. Hopefully not too often anymore, but it happens :). Since it happened /yesterday/, I really appreciate the blog. No need to let one little mistake destroy my attitude! Report
    Very good article. I feel like this a lot. Is very hard to change. I am getting better at it though. Keep em coming. Report
    Thanks Coach Dean for motivation tip #7. It does open your mind to really think about
    self-defeating attitude that we can fall into. Report
    Wow....I feel like i was reading about myself..... Report
    Wow....I feel like i was reading about myself..... Report
    I can't wait for the next installment. This reads like my life story and I am working hard to make the changes. Tahnks. Report
    I feel like you just wrote my life story. Report
    another Great blog coach Dean. This was me. When I started turning my attitude around on small things, using 4 simple words of " you CAN do it" in my self speech, things began to change. Seeing that I was right, I CAN do it, helped me extend that self speech onto Bigger things...And accomplishing them as well.
    I can still sabotage myself on occasion, but I NEVER allow the I Can'ts to take over. IF the negative self talk begins, I do as you say, distract myself with something else and remember that in the big picture this moment in time really doesn't matter.
    Since I began this process with myself, I've lost almost all the weight I wanted to. I've lowered my blood pressure from 145/95 to 112/60. I've applied for and got a wonderful new job. I've begun running. AND I've learned to really LIKE who I am.

    I still have areas in my life where the 3ps need shaking out, and I know I'll get them under control the same way...a little at a time! Report
    I loved this story. It was great!! Report
    I'm new to this... when should I expect the next article? I can relate to this and so will my Spark Partner... Thank you! :) Report
    Thanks so much for this one! Report
    This is a big grey area for me, and it's because I'm in an outside program for an eating disorder that tells me I must admit powerlessness to this dis-ease before I can heal. However, I preffer to use "powerless" in the past tense ("I was powerless and my life had become unmanageble") even if I currently still struggle with binges from time to time, because using past tense reminds me that I AM currently getting help by being in a program of recovery, and the binges I have now are not nearly as bad as they used to be, and there fore I am losing weight and recovering, one day at a time. I can see powerlessness as powerful, because it reminds me to not even "go there" with certain foods, especially when I'm vulnerable (hungry, angry, lonely or tired) because I know how it will end.
    I am very happy that Spark People is here to provide additional support, and that there are people on here just like me who have recovered from eating disorders and learned once again, how to eat normally, stay away from foods that cause them pain, and grow a new, healthy body.
    There is always hope. I choose to stay in faith rather than fear for today.
    -*M Report
    Coach Dean is right on the money once again! Thank you! Report
    Isn't that interesting?! Thanks for sharing. Report
    Well written..A little depressing...it seems that these feelings are extreme. Do you think someone with all these thoughts should consult proffessional help?? Verbally abusing yourself is not common thinking...It made me sad to see so many people relate to the article..what do you think??? Report
    I used to be like this, but the tools at SparkPeople allow me to see the big picture. Report
    OK I'm waiting for tip # 8. ;-)
    hehehehehe...oh by the way,...this IS a cognitive process...just as much as it is in action of behavior modification. Report
    Oh yeah, that's me alright! I will re-read this blog often for inspiration... Report
    great blog! i am definitely a learned pessimist and thanks to this blog i'm going to work on that! i saved it to my favorites so i can keep reading it and working on it! Report
    OMG, is this me!!! I need to save this and reread it often. Report
    REading through this today, I realize how much of a pessimist I have been - in the past, BEFORE SP! This was one of the changes that was basic to my successful healthy living experience. I´ve done a LOT of self-work and have definitely changed by usually cutting this activity off before I am overtaken with gloom and despair. Today, it made sense to ME that this affected more areas than just my health, areas that still need work! Thx Coach! Report
    Gods, that's me to a T!

    Thanks for this one! Report
    For the longest time I did. Relationships failed and I figured that "I" was to blame. I knew my weight was "my" problem but didn't want to mess with it because I always "knew" that whatever I lost, I would gain right back. Times have changed starting this year!!! Report
    This is very timely for me. I've been on track with a "pity party" for the past couple of weeks & this was very poignant. Can't wait to read more! Report
    I saved this great blog thank you Report
    Wow! This article rang very true for me. Can't wait to read the next article! Report
    Great blog! I've worked long and hard to get rid of the victim, self-defeating attitude, but it takes constant vigilance to keep those thoughts out. Thanks for the reminder. Report
    Get out of my head!

    I've saved this one. It's wonderful and something I fight every day. I look forward to reading all of Dean's work. Report
    as being said above... this is a great blog... one of the best I've read in weeks... thanks.... will save and re-read often to retrain and then just to refresh....
    thank you! Report
    Dean, it sounds like you are referencing Martin Selegman, Ph.D. whose book "Learned Optimism." The 3 P's you spoke of -- Personal, Permanent, and Pervasive -- are directly from his thesis and have helped me to face challenges with this mantra of sorts: "It is not all my fault, it willl not last forever, and it will not affect every aspect of my life." Your readers should check out Martin Seligman's book. It is one of the best books I've ever read to understand the ruts I get myself into and to literally change the way I think about problems and challenges.
    Thanks for the reminder. Report
    I have been struggling with this very thing for many years. I can't wait to read #8 ~ I need to break my pessimistic behavior and start being more positive so I can be a better role model to my daughters. Report
    As many have said, this was SO ME...but thankfully there are suggestions to overcoming being a "Learned Pessimist"...I'm up for the challenge! Report
    Next week is so far away for Tip #8. I could use that tip now.

    I will practice the two steps during the next week.
    My line for the "acknowledgment" is "That sucks! Oh well." and I move on because the next second is an opportunity to begin again. The "distraction" is a bit more difficult for me, but like you said it is do-able.
    Did you use me as a role model for this article? Yes, I fall prey to these things and I have saved this article so that I can read it again...and again. Thank you. Report
    Thanks. I really needed this. Sunny011357 I am also about to print this out for future quick reference. Report
    Thanks for this! It was great! Report
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