Our ‘internal conversation’ is perhaps the greatest influence on our day-to-day lives – but what if you’re stuck listening to a nay-saying pessimist? The good news is that optimism is a skill that can be learned.
Our internal conversation drives our mood in ways we don’t often realise. Partly that’s because we’ve been hearing the same self-talk for so long that we react to it without really stopping to examine it. Looking at our self-talk is the key to learned optimism, the ability to have more hope and be more resilient.
This is because optimistic and pessimistic self-talk differ in three important ways.
- Pessimistic self-talk is universal – “I’m useless” – but optimistic self-talk is specific – “I’m not that great at parallel parking”
- Pessimistic self-talk is permanent – “I’ll never get the hang of this” – but optimistic self-talk is temporary – “I’ll get better with practice”
- Pessimistic self-talk is externally focussed – “Things won’t change” – but optimistic self-talk is internally focussed – “I could change” – and gives a greater sense of control over events
Learned optimism depends upon the ability to find the internal control and the specific and temporary aspects in distressing circumstances and setbacks. And you can find this using the five steps in the ABCDE method devised by Martin Seligman
- Adversity – what is happening, or do you think will happen, that is causing your negative feelings?
- Belief – what beliefs and ideas are driving your self-talk
- Consequences – what are those beliefs and ideas causing you to do or to feel?
- Disputation – how can you challenge this self-talk? Is there evidence that contradicts it? Are there other explanations? Are you using generalisations? How useful is this belief to you?
- Energising – how do you feel now this old self-talk no longer applies?
Doing this at first in real life it can be a good idea just to concentrate on the first three. That will let you develop a real ear for your self-talk, and what it’s doing for your levels of optimism. But here’s a quick worked example to help you/
- Adversity – you’re trying to learn a new skill, and you’re struggling – let’s say parallel parking.
- Belief – “I’m no good at driving. I’ll never learn this.”
- Consequence – you feel useless. You stop fully engaging with the task. You stop getting better and you believe your self-talk is right.
- Disputation – are you really no good? Haven’t you mastered other parts of driving to get this far? Is ‘never’ right? Was it right before? How useful is this belief to helping you learn? Could thinking externally and temporarily be worth trying?
- Energising – how different does that make practising feel?
Like all new skills this can seem mechanical at first. But keep practicing it and it will not just start to be more natural, but bring real benefits in your mood and achievements.
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