Friday, October 21, 2011

To Become An Optimist, Learn Your Alphabet

I wrote a few days about about the different thinking patterns of optimists and pessimists. Here's the promised part two, on changing pessimism to optimism (i.e., Learned Optimism).

Martin Seligman uses the acronym "ABCDE" (but D is the key to learning to be more optimistic):

A = Adversity
The process begins when we encounter some form of adversity (or, really, anything circumstance or event that is less than ideal - adversity is just a convenient "A" word).

B = Belief
Because our brains think all the time, we quickly begin thinking about the adversity, and applying subconscious pessimistic (or optimistic) beliefs to interpret what has happened.

C = Consequences
These thoughts and beliefs have a direct impact on how we feel (emotional consequences) and how we act in response (behavioral consequences). If the beliefs are optimistic, we respond resiliently. If the beliefs are pessimistic, we may respond less effectively, often by lashing out, or giving up.

Here's the key to learning optimism: Once we notice pessimistic beliefs, we can take some steps to keep these beliefs from determining our feelings and actions
     D = Distraction
     We can stop the pessimistic thought by substituting some other thought - an image, a puzzle or riddle, numbers, an object we see/hear/taste/smell/touch.... Sometimes it helps you distract if we tell ourselves we'll think about it at a specific later time, or even write down the thought and actually set it aside to think about later.

     D = Distancing
     It also helps to remind ourselves that thoughts and just thoughts, beliefs are just beliefs - they are NOT necessarily facts. It's important to step outside pessimistic beliefs and expectations to be able to check their accuracy based on facts.

     D = Disputation
     The art of challenging the veracity of pessimistic beliefs by arguing against them, similar to how we argue with someone else...only harder because we're arguing against our own thoughts.

          1) Evaluate the evidence - What proof do we have for our pessimistic belief? Since these beliefs are usually over-reactions, there may not be much evidence to confirm them, and there may actually be evidence that the belief isn't true.

          2) Consider alternatives - there are usually multiple causes for adversities, and multiple possible interpretations of any group of facts. See if there are any possible causes or explanations for the event that are NOT personal, pervasive, or permanent.

          3) Reevaluate the implications - even if there is evidence to support the pessimistic belief, maybe it's not as dire or catastrophic as you initially think. Consider how likely the worst-case-scenario is, and consider evidence that might balance it out

          4) Ask yourself if the belief is useful - even if it's true, is it doing us any good to believe it? Is it helping us function effectively in the world? If not, it may be better to distract, distance, or brainstorm ways to change the situation, rather than dwell on the negative.

E = Energization
Pessimistic beliefs tend to sap our energy and motivation. However, if we are able to dispute, distract, and/or distance ourselves from these beliefs, we are likely to feel a bit better - more motivated and energetic, and better able to respond adaptively to whatever the problem is.

How do you practice "D" strategies? Are there places you and your clients seem to get stuck with this type of intervention? What works best for you?

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