How to Improve Your Explanations of Setbacks

The best way to improve your explanations of setbacks is simply to search for mistakes in your explanations as they arise in your mind.

Our minds work automatically for the most part — interpreting, concluding, deciding, judging — and it serves us well. We would get bogged down if we tried to analyze every explanation we made. So we’re not going to even try to do that. It is completely unnecessary. When things are going well and you feel good, let the good times roll.

But when things are not working — when things don’t turn out as you hoped, when your mood goes south, when you want to give up on your goal — search for mistakes!

The easiest way to find mistakes is to write down your demoralizing thoughts and argue with those thoughts on paper. Consider yourself personally challenged by those demoralizing statements and defend yourself. Imagine your least favorite person said those statements and find something wrong with those statements. Find everything wrong with them you can.

Decide right now who your least favorite person is. If you have more than one in mind, just choose one.

Now use a mental image of that person when you’re arguing with your thoughts. Imagine that person explaining your setbacks to you (with sneering derision).

The best way to do this is on paper. Writing your explanations down on paper makes them tangible and gives you something to work with. It is much easier than trying to do it in your head.

When a setback occurs, write down something you think caused the setback. For example, imagine a proposal of yours has been rejected. You write down what you think caused the setback. In this case, you think, “Nobody likes my ideas.” In other words, you think your proposal was rejected because nobody likes your ideas.

Now argue with that sentence (on paper). Imagine your least favorite person said to you, “Nobody likes your ideas!” Now look for mistakes in that explanation. You might write something like this: Nobody? That might be an exaggeration. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. I really haven’t tried everybody, and besides, it might not be the ideas, it might be the presentation, which could be changed, and so on.

After arguing with your thoughts this way, you can see that really only sometimes people don’t like your ideas. That is a more accurate appraisal of the real situation. And it is not so devastating or upsetting as the thought, “Nobody likes my ideas.”

So you have made your explanation of the setback more accurate and less upsetting.

Being less upset won’t make you ecstatic or jumping for joy, but that is not our purpose here. The aim is to remove demoralization that shouldn’t be there. The aim is to take away a feeling of defeat that is false, unjustifiable, and unreasonable.

Feeling demoralized is debilitating — it handicaps you, so the only time you should ever let yourself feel that way is when you really are defeated. Right now, you often feel demoralized mistakenly. We’re going to fix that. It might not make you happy, but it will make you feel bad less often and it will make you more powerful (more capable of accomplishing what you want).

three little snags

It sounds pretty easy to argue with demoralizing thoughts, but three problems tend to come up when you try. First, negative feelings seem to arise on their own without any thoughts causing them. That, however, is an illusion.

In fact, your negative feelings were preceded by a thought such as, “Nobody likes my ideas.” That explanation usually zips through your mind so quickly and so automatically, you don’t notice it. All you notice is the effect: The resulting feelings.

The speed and invisibility of your own thoughts is a problem. You have a difficult time arguing with a thought you don’t even know you’re thinking.

The reason you don’t know what you’re thinking when you explain a setback is that some thoughts are so well-practiced — you have thought them so many times — that the thinking goes on in the background of your mind. You explain certain categories of setback with certain well-practiced explanations, and then you feel a certain way, and all without even realizing it. As far as you know, the setback itself made you feel bad. It seems obvious that anyone would feel bad. It seems obvious that feeling bad is the appropriate response. But it only seems that way because your explanation zipped by so quickly. And it only zipped by so quickly because you have practiced that explanation so many times.

I want you to fully understand how well-practiced your explanations are. You have many setbacks every day, all of which you explain to yourself, and you’ve been doing it since before you can remember.

What happens when you do anything several times a day for that many years? What happens is that you stop being aware you’re doing it. It has gone completely automatic. This would not be a problem if we always made good explanations. But sometimes we make mistakes.

The way we explain setbacks to ourselves is the way we haphazardly got into the habit of doing it when we were younger. We’re not necessarily making the best possible explanations we could make, as you’ll find out. But now it’s automatic.

So you explain setbacks automatically, and the way you feel and what you do ensues from the way you explain the setbacks, but you aren’t even aware you’re doing it. To you, your feelings are appropriate and fitting, given the circumstances. You always feel this way when that kind of thing happens. Not because that’s the only way a person could feel when that happens, but only because you always explain those kinds of setbacks the way you’re used to explaining things like that, and your emotions in response are familiar and seem perfectly normal.

That’s why it’s hard to notice yourself making explanations. You’re explaining setbacks pretty much automatically, just as you drive your car automatically. You can carry on a conversation while you drive, allowing your driving (a very complicated process) to happen automatically. And you haven’t had nearly as much practice driving as you have explaining setbacks.

The solution to this problem is to write down your negative thoughts, and argue with them on paper. Your explanations of setbacks are slippery and hard to get a hold of. They move through your mind with practiced speed. But put them down on paper and you can dissect them more easily.

Your thoughts are more airy than a physical habit, and that’s the only thing that makes them seem harder to change. But when you write them down, it makes your thoughts real, physical, and available for scrutiny.

So when you begin to try to improve your explanations of setbacks, the first problem you’ll run into is your explanations are well-practiced and move with a lot of speed through your mind, making it hard to know what you’re thinking.

The second problem occurs even when you know what you’re thinking. You know what you think, but you believe your thoughts are true.

For example, after his divorce, a man decided, “I am doomed to miserable relationships.” His mind is made up. He is sure he is right. How can he successfully argue with his demoralizing thoughts? He is defeated before he starts.

He may even be aware of thinking the pessimistic, defeatist thought, but if he assumes he’s correct, he’ll make no attempt to argue with his thinking.

The solution to this problem is to look at your thoughts with an already-existing list of “virus definitions” (which you’ll find out about shortly). In other words, you won’t try to decide on the spot whether your thoughts are true or not. If you feel bad, you’ll write down your thoughts. Even if you think you’re not making any mistakes in your thinking, write down your thoughts if you feel bad. Then look at your thoughts through the filter of the virus definitions I’ll give you shortly. You may be mistaken about your explanation without knowing it. The virus definitions will help you discover whether or not this is the case.

The third problem you’ll encounter when you try to argue with your thoughts is not knowing which thoughts to argue with. You have a lot of thoughts going through your mind. Which ones do you write down and argue with? It’s not as hard as it might seem at first. We can be very specific about what to look for:

1. something you believe caused the setback

2. a belief that makes you feel bad

Let me give you some examples. Let’s say you planned to exercise today, but the day is over, and you are now in bed — and you didn’t exercise today. You think about it for a second and conclude, “I have no self-discipline.” And you feel like a loser.

That conclusion is what you would argue with. The setback is: You didn’t exercise. You’re trying to get in shape, and you didn’t exercise according to your plan. The thought, “I have no self-discipline” is what you believe caused the setback. In other words, the reason you didn’t exercise is that you have no self-discipline. That reason is what you would argue with. (You’re going to learn how to argue later in this chapter.)

Let’s look at another example. You’re a freshman in college and you get a failing grade on your first exam, and you feel sad. You were enthusiastic but now all the enthusiasm about school has drained out of you. That is a setback. Remember, a setback is anything that happens you didn’t want to happen. Or anything that doesn’t happen that you wanted to happen.
You didn’t want a failing grade, so it is a setback. You think, “I don’t have what it takes.” That is your explanation of why you failed the test. That is what you believe caused the setback — it’s the reason the setback happened — so that is the thought you write down and argue with: “I don’t have what it takes.”

A woman who showed up to a book-signing stayed afterwards to talk to me. She said she was compulsively perfectionistic, but she considered it a fixed part of her character so she had never tried to change it.

This is a setback. It doesn’t seem like a setback, perhaps, because it didn’t happen suddenly. But she didn’t want to be a perfectionist. Her explanation implied that she couldn’t help it. She was born that way. She thought genetics was the cause of her setback, so that was what she wrote down to argue with.

Another reason it doesn’t seem like a setback is that her explanation of the setback probably evolved before she really got a chance to form a goal of being more relaxed (less uptight, less perfectionistic). But listening to her, it was clear she didn’t want to be a perfectionist. This implies a goal of being free of that compulsion.

But the goal was never articulated because she thought it was impossible. A lot of goals are like that. You probably have some goals like that yourself. The very second you formed the goal in your mind, you dismissed it because of some explanation. So you formed a goal and hit a setback (in your mind) in the same moment.

Things you “always wished” you could do are in that category. You decided they were hopeless dreams the second you thought of them. They sit there in the back of your mind in a state of suspended animation, and until you read this, they may have remained that way. You may never have checked those explanations for mistakes.

I had one of those. When I was a kid, I wanted to play the electric guitar. But before I even fully clarified that goal in my mind, I had already killed it: “Electric guitars are really expensive, I would have to learn the acoustic first (and I’m not interested in acoustic guitar), I don’t have the patience for music lessons, and besides, everyone wants to play the electric guitar (so I’d never be able to play in a band because of too much competition).”

These are conclusions I never examined. They were self-evident conclusions as far as I was concerned. Conclusions like this destroy motivation and demote a potentially satisfying purpose to an idle daydream. The battle was over before I even knew a battle was going on.

We largely defeat ourselves. Wise people have been saying that for thousands of years. But cognitive researchers (scientists who study the effect of thoughts on feelings and behavior) have discovered how we defeat ourselves.

If you have “always wanted” to play the piano, but you think, “I’m too old now; I should have learned as a child,” you slam the door on that possibility just as completely as if you had amputated your hands. But what is stopping you? The only thing stopping you is your explanation of the setback.

The setback: You would like to play piano, but you have failed to do so.

The explanation: If you’re going to play the piano, you have to start when you’re a child, and you’re no longer a child, so now you can’t play the piano.

Let’s look at one more example of a setback and an explanation and then we’ll get to the meat of the matter. It is vitally important that you understand these first distinctions. The method I explain in this chapter rests on the solid foundation of you knowing exactly what I mean by “setback” and “explanation of a setback.”

Let’s say you want to become a teacher but you’re afraid of speaking in public. Years have gone by and you’ve never done anything about it. You feel like a chicken, like you have no backbone, and you’re a little ashamed of yourself. That’s a setback. In this case, it is something that doesn’t happen that you wanted to happen. And you feel bad because you believe it will never happen.

Your explanation of why you’re afraid to speak in public is, “I was born shy.” That is your explanation of the cause of the setback. That’s the reason you’re afraid to do it. And that is the thought to write down and argue with.

Okay. Enough examples. Now you know what to look for and what to argue with. When you feel demoralized or some other negative emotion, look for what you think caused the setback. Look for the reason the setback happened.

Rooting out negative thoughts — and seeing them for what they are — can eliminate the negative emotions they cause. Successfully arguing against those demoralizing thoughts will undemoralize you. It can, and probably will, make you feel good again. And it will make you stronger, more creative, more persistent, and more capable.

A feeling of frustration or demoralization takes the fun out of your days. So immunizing yourself against demoralization is not only good for you and good for your ability to succeed, it makes life more fun!

It takes a little work, but it is worth it. Some people try to take the easy way so they “think positive.” Let me be very clear on this point: Arguing with your negative thoughts is not positive thinking. If you handle your explanations of setbacks by trying to think more positively, it will not work nearly as well as finding out what is really and truly mistaken about your negative thoughts.

This is not positive thinking. It is more like anti-defeatist or anti-discouragement thinking. Aim at making fewer mistakes in your thinking. This is a kind of antivirus program for your mind. It is more fundamental than positive thinking, and also more effective when you feel demoralized.

You’re not trying to make yourself believe a more positive thought here. You’re not even trying to make yourself believe your negative thoughts are mistaken. You’re trying to find actual, real mistakes in your negative thoughts. No convincing is necessary, no “faith” is necessary, and trying to make yourself believe something you don’t actually believe is unnecessary.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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