Defeatism is Defeatable and Unstoppability is Attainable

The one kind of explanation of a setback that is most likely to make you want to give up is an assumption that no matter what you do, you cannot win. This is defeatism. It means you expect defeat. It means you accept defeat and decide there is nothing you can do to change things.

That kind of thinking takes the fight out of you, and if you ever had a chance to change things, it is now lost — only because of what happened in your mind.

But from now on, you will know how to prevent defeatism from destroying your determination. You will have the know-how to find it where it lurks in your mind, and crush it before it causes you to give up.

Defeatist thinking means you assume you can’t improve the situation. It is an assumption; never a fact. And you are not replacing that assumption with another assumption. This is not an effort to convince yourself of a positive thought. You are merely leaving the question where it really is: You don’t know. When you truly don’t know, it is foolish to assume you’re helpless. It is unnecessary and self-defeating to decide something cannot be done.

During the Civil War, the situation seemed hopeless several times to the North, even though, of course, the North eventually won. But if you read the newspapers of the day, written by Northerners and published in Union newspapers, you might easily be persuaded to think there was no possible way the North would win. Lots of writers who ardently and desperately wanted the North to win nevertheless expressed their absolute certainty of losing. They were demoralized.

For example, an ardent Northern patriot, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, “We have to fight for a boundary — that is all now left to us.” In other words, winning the Civil War against the South was a lost cause. All that the North could hope for was to draw a boundary and let the Southerners form their own separate government.

“I can understand the awful reluctance with which you can be brought to contemplate a divided nation. But there is no help for it,” Medill wrote, “...complete success has become a moral impossibility.”

Medill’s demoralization was not his alone. During several trying periods, it was shared by a majority of people in the North. So many setbacks (combined with the explanations people made of those setbacks) had most Northerners convinced the war could not be won by the North.

Their certainty was premature, as we now know. Their pessimism was overdone, as it usually is.

When Admiral Byrd was a boy in the wrestling match, he assumed he would lose, and he gave up. But what brought him back to life was his realization he might be mistaken about that.

If he went a step further and assumed he could win, that would have been positive thinking, which has its place. But anti-defeatism is more sure and more basic, it doesn’t require trying to convince yourself of something you are not convinced of, and always should be your first step.

The reality is, people often give up on something and decide it can’t be accomplished when it really can. They assume the situation is hopeless when it actually isn’t. And so dreams go unfulfilled. Goals are forgotten. Relationships fall apart. Finances crumble. Kids are left without guidance. And so on.

The things you have in your heart — the things you really want to accomplish — can probably be accomplished. But you have to prevent your mind from reflexively making the assumption it is hopeless.

The making of a defeatist assumption is almost always reflexive, meaning you don’t make it consciously. Here’s how it happens: You hit a setback and you feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut. In self-defense, your mind concludes the goal is impossible. It’s a natural reaction, almost a reflex. That’s defeatism. And the assumptions behind it are almost always wrong.

If a goal is sufficiently important to you, a setback will certainly make you feel bad, no matter who you are or how many times you’ve read this book. But the way you explain the setback to yourself will then bring you back quickly and help you recover from the blow, or it will keep you feeling bad, or even make you feel worse and worse.

In other words, the way you explain the setback to yourself will determine how quickly your determination comes back, and if it comes back at all.

How do you keep from giving up? How do you keep from selling out? How do you keep from letting your feeling of motivation die? This is a question of the ages. And now you know the answer.

This applies to any goal you have. If your marriage is on the rocks, the way you’re explaining this setback will determine whether you’ve reached an important turning point in your relationship, or the beginning of the end.

People who make good explanations of setbacks are more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke. Why? Because they are more persistent. They are less likely to feel defeated so they are less likely to give up on what they want. The way they explain setbacks gives them a sense that their actions make a difference — which is a fact poor explanations conceal. Good explanations prevent them from making the mistake of deciding that something (like a smoking habit) cannot be changed.

If something is changeable or preventable, it makes a big difference whether you believe it is or believe it isn’t.

For example, if you have frequent, negative shouting matches with your teenager, this is a setback. Things are not turning out like you want. So you will explain it. Let’s say you decide, “That’s just the way teenagers are.”

Is that a good explanation? Well, it’s better than, “I can’t make anything work,” but no, it is not a good explanation. Why? Because it implies that the situation can’t change until your kid is an adult. And that may not be true. It is a way of “accepting” the situation without feeling too bad about it. But it doesn’t help you accomplish your goal — having a good relationship with your teen.

Your explanations determine whether you will try again or not. Making a mistaken explanation like, “That’s the way teens are,” can kill your motivation to try again.

Sales is a good testing ground for this stuff. Salespeople hit lots of setbacks and the setbacks are important — too many setbacks and you can’t pay your mortgage! That’s serious.

MetLife Insurance Company used to hire five thousand salespeople a year, spend time and money training them, and by the end of the first year, half of them quit. Most of those who didn’t quit sold less and less, and by the fourth year, eighty percent of them had quit. This was typical of the entire insurance-sales industry, and it was a tragic waste of training expenses and a tragedy of human failure and suffering.

MetLife wanted to do something about it. Martin Seligman set up a series of experiments and here’s what he found out: Those who made the fewest mistakes in their thinking (when they explained their setbacks to themselves) were the most likely to do well. They made a lot more sales and they were much less likely to become demoralized and quit.

Think about that. In a job full of setbacks, strong explanations won the race by a mile. The salespeople in the habit of explaining setbacks with minimum mistakes were more successful and less demoralized — they did better and they felt better.

Good explanations did more than simply make them persistent. When a salesperson makes fewer mistakes in her explanations, she stops feeling so disheartened by setbacks. So setbacks themselves become less of a big deal. She then frets less about upcoming sales presentations. If a sales call doesn’t turn out well, she now knows it won’t be a catastrophe. So she has less anxiety before a sales call, and less demoralization after a rejection. This makes it easier to make the next call. This makes success more likely.

The antivirus for the mind won’t take care of everything — it is not the end-all, be-all for feeling better and getting more done. It is only one of the tools.

The other four tools in this book will help you go far beyond merely protecting yourself from demoralization. But if you fully understand the antivirus for the mind and put it into practice, you can immunize yourself against many unnecessary negative feelings. This will make the achievement of your goals easier and more fun.

a case in point

To see how the antivirus for the mind works on a specific problem, a team of researchers took thirty-three people with panic disorder who averaged five panic attacks per week per person.

Sixteen of them had weekly sessions with a therapist who provided emotional support. Seventeen of them had weekly sessions with a cognitive therapist who taught them to check their explanations for mistakes.

For instance, when a man felt chest pain, he was taught to question his explanations. His first explanation of chest pain might be, “I am having a heart attack.” And that thought basically scared him into a panic attack. This is a common side-effect of negative thoughts: A self-feeding loop. In other words, a negative thought making a negative emotion, and the negative emotion causing more negative thoughts, which causes even more intense negative emotions. In his case, a feeling in his chest scares him (because of his explanation of it) and so his heart beats harder, which he can feel, which scares him even more, etc.

The man’s cognitive therapist coached him to question his explanation and remind himself that when these feelings occurred in the past, they had never amounted to anything.

He was also coached to come up with more likely causes than the first thought that came to mind (that it’s a heart attack). It was more likely to be heartburn, for example.

In other words, he learned to doubt his automatic, habitual, negative assumptions. He learned to recognize the mistakes in his thinking. He learned that his first explanation is not the only one possible and not necessarily the best one.

At the end of two months, twelve of the cognitive-therapy people (the explanation-checkers) were totally free of panic attacks. Only four of the emotionally-supported people were free of attacks.

Among those who still had panic attacks, the explanation-check people averaged one attack a week. The emotional-support people averaged three per week.

The researchers did a one-year follow-up. The success rate had not diminished in that time. Arguing with their own negative, pessimistic thoughts dramatically changed their lives.

Hundreds of similar studies show the same results on a huge variety of negative feelings.

Similar effects to cognitive therapy can be achieved on your own using paper and pen. As a matter of fact, that’s often the most effective technique cognitive therapists assign as “homework.” It is not difficult to do.

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

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