This is one of "22
virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness
and unnecessary negative emotions).
SELIGMAN, author of the book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and
Your Life, has a different way of describing the possible
mistakes we make in our explanations, although his list and my list completely
overlap. Our lists, as well as the lists of cognitive therapists
David Burns and Aaron Beck all cover the same ground but simply
divide the ground differently. See
how the different approaches overlap.
Read Seligmans book to get his full
list, but the most important thought-mistake on his list is deciding
the cause of a setback is unchangeable. Seligman calls it
I think you can easily see why the assumption
is so devastating. It creates a feeling of helplessness and takes
away any incentive you might have had to find a solution, solve
the problem, or overcome the obstacle.
My wife, Klassy, and I started a policy
out of frustration at our lack of productive work getting
done around here because we like so much to talk to each other
we decided to write from 10 AM until 1 PM. No eating.
No email. No calls. Not even talking to each other. It worked
great. We both saw tremendous production for about two weeks,
but then I said I wanted a day off. Then we took another day
off the following day. Then it was my birthday and we took another
day off. Then it was two days before a vacation, so we prepared
and figured wed get back and start it up again. Then Klassy
helped her sister move, and the next day she had a cold and slept
What do you do when you relapse
when a good plan fails? It depends on how you explain the failure
and how willing you are to try again (and your willingness will
be determined by how you explain the relapse).
We might have concluded, We have
no self-discipline. That is a permanent explanation.
It is false helplessness. And conclusions about unchangeability
are so demoralizing, they tend to become self-fulfilling prophesies.
They are self-fulfilling because if you
think something cannot be changed, you have very little motivation
to try to change it, which makes it very unlikely it will change.
Scurvy is an historical example of this.
When sailors first took to the sea in great numbers for long
voyages, scurvy was very common. And it was a horrible way to
die. Vitamin C is a vital component in connective tissue, and
when you dont get any, the things holding you together
start coming apart! Yuck!
Scurvy was a major setback. Not only did
it prevent many exploratory and profit-making goals from being
achieved, but of course, it prevented many sailors from gaining
their goal of making it home alive!
Nobody knew what caused it at the time.
In fact, the causes of scurvy were thought to be infinite
and unsearchable. (Hows that for false helplessness?)
James Lind eventually narrowed down the causes (and thus the
cure) by 1753, and in so doing discovered the first vitamin.
There was only one cause (lack of vitamin C), and it was searchable,
so the common explanation of the day was mistaken. Anybody who
believed the "infinite and unsearchable" explanation
did not find the remedy, and wouldnt have even tried.
Closer to home, when you decide the cause
of one of your setbacks is permanent, your conclusion will demoralize
you. This can easily devolve into depression.
Depression is defined primarily by negative
thinking. And depression isnt on or off; it is a graduated
scale from slightly down to completely incapacitated.
The size of the setback the significance
of it determines how deep your depression will be. In
other words the importance of the goal and the largeness of the
setback will determine how big of a blow it will be.
But your explanations of the setback will
determine how well you bounce back how quickly, how completely,
how easily you recover, pick yourself up, and move on.
For example, Jim and Sue lost their jobs
from the same company on the same day, and they have two entirely
different explanations for why they were laid off.
Jim thinks, The economy is bad. Thats
why they laid me off.
Sue thinks, They didnt lay
off everyone. They must have chosen me because they noticed my
heart wasnt in it.
Same circumstances, different explanation.
The consequences of their explanations are different too, and
maybe in a different way than you think. Which do you think is
a better explanation? Jim's explanation blames something outside
himself. Sue's explanation makes it her "fault." But
which helps more in recovering determination? Which will more
quickly restore motivation? Which will help most in accomplishing
the goal of getting another job?
Jim feels defeated by his explanation and
has no motivation to try to find another job. His explanation
of the cause of the setback is widespread and out of his control
(it was the economy).
Sues explanation, however, may cause
her to decide to get a job she really wants this time so she
will really put her heart into it. Her explanation was more specific
and more in her control.
Bouncing back quickly is not merely nice
it is consequential. When you are feeling demoralized
and dispirited, problems are more likely to be overwhelming.
Why? Because you are less capable when you feel bad. Metaphorically
speaking, you are smaller (not able to accomplish as much, not
as capable), so the problems are larger in relation to you.
Anybody is more easily overwhelmed when
they are depressed. The same circumstances would not seem overwhelming
to the same person undepressed.
Helplessness is when your deliberate actions
do not have any effect on the outcome. If your deliberate outcomes
might, in fact, alter the way things turn out, then an explanation
that says its out of your control is wrong. You have fallen
victim to false helplessness.
See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.