Read Time: 8 minutes
We live in interesting times. At no point in the history of sapiens have we had this kind of access to information. The Rorschach Inkblot that is the perceivable world has grown to a colossal mass, and the poisonous fruits confirmation bias freely picks has grown with it.
Our lives are a story we are telling ourselves. It can sound trite, but the feeling when I understood this ranks in the top five most impactful moments of my life. The life purpose I have chosen to believe, (or maybe it chose me lol), is that I am alive to help people heal themselves. (1)
This guiding compass has led me to reading dozens of psychology books this year and I’ve found that many prominent psychologists agree with the basic assumption that our lives are stories we tell ourselves. They each have their own linguistic models for explaining it. This post is inspired by Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and dedicated to sharing his linguistic model of our myth making.
Martin Seligman is credited as the founder of Positive psychology with the publishing of his book Learned Optimism. The book is an easily-readable tour through his more than 30 years of research into learned helplessness, how it causes depression, and how learned optimism is the greatest tool cognitive sciences have in the prevention and treatment of depression and pessimism.
He is clear, and repeats himself more than pop music choruses; Optimism is more useful and important than pessimism in almost every area of life. Optimism and Pessimism are the byproducts of what he calls “explanatory styles.”
“Your habitual ways of explaining bad events, your explanatory style is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence. 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 pessimist.”
To roughly outline, when a pessimist faces adversity, they automatically begin telling themselves a story that explains the adversity as permanently bad, pervasively bad, and that the reason the adversity happened was due to personal shortcomings. A pessimist fails a college class and weaves the story that he failed because he is stupid, that failing the course also reflects his attractiveness and worthiness, and that his stupidness is his fault and unchangeable.
Pessimistic explanatory styles arise from what Seligman calls “learned helplessness.”
“Learned helplessness is caused by experience in which the subjects learned that nothing they did mattered and that their responses didn’t work to bring them what they wanted. Learned helplessness seems to be at the core of defeat and failure. We know the cause of learned helplessness, now we can see it as the cause of depression; the belief that your actions will be futile.”
There is good news. Amazing news really. Seligman has spent more than 15 years working on how to scientifically and systematically change a person’s pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic style.
“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in the last 20 years is that the individual can choose the way they think.”
“Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of Optimism.”
We all will confront life-shattering adversity. We have little control over what happens to us, but we have supreme control over how we explain the adversity to ourselves. We are creating the story of our lives whether or not we choose to admit it. We can choose how we tell the story.
Optimism has an important place is some, though not all, realms of your life. It is not a panacea. But it can protect you against depression; it can raise your level of achievement, it can enhance your physical well-being; it is a far more pleasant mental state to be in.”(see his book for exhaustive studies.)
Optimism depends on our explanatory style. An optimist sees adversity as temporary, specific, and that their actions can improve the situation. To see where you fall on the Optimism vs Pessimism scale, take the test Seligman has refined for decades. (I thought I was very optimistic but my overall score was 0.)
The crowning scientific jewel of this theory is the emergence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is the most effective scientific tool therapists currently have, and have tested, for treating depression. CBT teaches us how to recognize our explanatory style and then begin to metaprogram it.
The ABCDE Method
This method was invented by the maverick Albert Ellis (I haven’t read his books yet but I will be. There is an amazing short clip of him on youtube.) ABCDE stands for
Adversity visits us all. We all have an automatic myth-maker in our head who begins to explain this adversity. These automatic thoughts are our beliefs and have consequences that manifest in behaviors or feelings. The goal is to first become aware of our ABCs, then once we have, we begin disputing them. Disputing is the metaprogramming. The Energize phase when we reflect on the change in action and feeling when we successfully disputed our negative automatic thoughts.
An example; I start to think this post is too long and trying to cover too much information. I automatically start believing; I just don’t have the writing skills. I ramble and don’t think clearly. People won’t read this. I’m wasting my time.
The consequence of these beliefs is I start feeling uninspired. I want to check social media or eat something. I might even delete the post. Now the art of disputing comes into play.
There is a logical, step-by-step procedure for disputing our pessimistic thoughts.
Using the example above, we’ll take it through these steps.
Evidence is most effective. Most people’s pessimistic thoughts are hyperbolic. If I can write a sentence, I obviously have the ability to write. I’ve had people in my life tell me I explained a complex idea in an understandable way, and I can look at my webiste’s metrics to see that people do actually read these posts and some of my most successful ones were longer than this.
Alternatives are where we can have a lot of fun. We do not live in an universe where anything that happened to us was caused by a single event. We live in an ocean of interacting consciousnesses and this allows us great creative freedom in constructing alternatives.
Maybe people won’t read this long post, but maybe the writing itself is teaching me this information more clearly, which will allow me to help others more effectively. Maybe only a few will read it but one of the few will implement this into their lives and it may completely transform their lives. Maybe I will need this at some point in my future and here I am, creating the post that will heal myself.
You can see that a lot of fun can be had here.
Next are implications/usefulness. When surfing the alternative thoughts, filter them on their usefulness via their implications. Maybe no one will read this, but the implication there may mean I am wasting my time and I should quit. The usefulness here is zero.
When we practice the skill of generating alternative realities, and begin picking them on their usefulness, the entire vista of the psyche alters. Energetically, the disputing has left me rejuvenated (or deluded enough) to continue my writing. This is the goal.
Implementing the ABCDE Method
First, use the daily pages, or a journal for a week and write down any ABCs you catch (adversities that trigger automatic beliefs that have negative consequences.)
After the week is up, pick the top five adversities you’d like to dispute.
For each day of the week, use the daily pages to run the ABC through the 4 disputing strategies.
Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. This is a skill. It will need months of honing. Approach it as such.
In another post I’ll explain a great technique you can add once you have practiced this on your own for awhile. It is called “Externalization of Voices.”
We are a myth-making species. We think and remember in stories, and we are actively creating the story that is our life. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a scientifically-supported linguistic model that addresses this assumption. You can metaprogram the way you tell yourself the story that is your life.
“At a philosophical level, cognitive therapy works because it takes advantage of newly legitimized powers of the self (ego). In an era when we believe that the self can change itself, we are willing to try to change the habits of thought which used to seem as inevitable as sunrise. Cognitive Therapy works in our era because it gives the self a set of techniques for changing itself. The self chooses to do this work out of self-interest, to make itself feel better.
To put another way, the hilarious and genius Robert Anton Wilson said;
“Simply accept that the universe is so structured that it can see itself, and that this self-reflexive arc is built into our frontal lobes, so that consciousness contains an infinite regress, and all we can do is make models of ourselves making models…
This is what the Hindus call Shiva-darshana, or the divine dance. You are still in life, or life is in you, but since there are infinite aspects of everything, especially to the ‘you’ who is observing/creating all these muddles and models, there are no limits.
The only sensible goal, then, is to try to build a reality-tunnel for next week that is bigger, funnier, sexier, more optimistic and generally less boring than any previous reality-tunnel.
And once you have built that bigger, funnier, happier universe of thought, build a bigger and better one, for next month”
If You Enjoyed This
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Thank you to those who have made it this far. I wish you safe and enlightening explorations. Namasteezy.
(1) I recognize and embrace that this may be a sophomoric dramatization of feeling empathy for people who suffer, but the point of this post is to show that the story you tell yourself matters. So tell a dope fucking story)