How You Explain Setbacks Makes All The Difference

Right now you spend a certain percentage of your life feeling negative emotions — nervous, frustrated, sad, angry, worried, whatever.

I don’t know what the percentage is. One percent of your waking hours? Five percent? Ten percent? Whatever it is, the information in this chapter will lower it. You will spend less of your time feeling badly and more of your time feeling good.

And you will not only feel good, you’ll also become more capable of achieving your goals. The same thing that causes bad feelings also makes you less competent, less creative, and less energetic. It also makes you less persistent, less determined, and more likely to give up on a goal.

And as if that wasn’t enough, those negative feelings are bad for your health.

What causes all these things? What harms your health, impairs your ability, and makes you feel unnecessary, unpleasant emotions? One simple thing: Making a lousy explanation of a setback.

When you experience a setback of any kind, you explain it. This is one of the most important discoveries ever made by psychology. When you hit a setback, you will explain it. You can’t help it. The reaction is totally automatic. And your explanation is about what caused the setback.

For example, let’s imagine one morning, right after you get dressed for work, you spill coffee on your white shirt. This is a small setback. (A setback is something you wanted to happen that didn’t happen, or something you didn’t want to happen that happened.)

After you spill coffee on your shirt, you will automatically explain to yourself why it happened. How many explanations do you think are possible?

Here are a few possible explanations:

a) I am so clumsy!
b) I must have been distracted.
c) I am moving too fast.
d) I’ve got too much going on in my life and I can’t handle it.
e) I can’t do anything right!

As you can see, the possible explanations for this simple setback are almost endless. And as you can also see, the emotional impact of each explanation can differ quite a bit. You might feel it is no big deal, or you might feel terribly upset about the incident, depending on how you explain it to yourself.

This fact has important practical implications — very direct and significant practical implications. What do I mean? Just this: Some explanations help you and some impair you. If you think, “I am moving too fast,” and you slow down a little, that might help. You might prevent further accidents.

But if you think you can’t do anything right, you might not slow down, you might feel upset at that “fact,” and you might make more mistakes.

That particular explanation not only made you feel bad, but “I can’t do anything right” implies you are helpless to change it. That is the worst kind of explanation you can make if it’s not true — and it almost never is.

The very same event can cause one person to be motivated to change something, and another to feel defeated and helpless, depending on how they explain the setback to themselves.

The reason this simple fact has tremendous implications is because you and I experience many setbacks every single day. How many days do you have when everything goes exactly the way you want?

Because of the habitual way you explain setbacks, you have a feeling of motivation and confidence ... or a feeling of discouragement, and the feeling accumulates day after day. In the long run, the way you explain setbacks to yourself determines, to an astonishing degree, how your life will turn out.

Successfully losing weight depends on how you explain setbacks to yourself. If you want to lose weight and you’ve just finished eating too much, this little setback can make you want to give up on your goal to lose weight, or it can make you more determined than ever — depending on how you explain your “failure” to yourself.

If you try to improve your marriage and your efforts at communicating cause an argument, it can make you want to throw in the towel or it can make you want to try harder — depending on how you explain this setback.

If you try to lower the level of stress in your life but your efforts only seem to cause you more stress, it can make you feel defeated or motivated — depending on how you explain the setback to yourself.

What makes an explanation good or bad? This is the crucial question. Here is the answer: It is a good explanation if it doesn’t have a lot of mistakes in it. A bad explanation is one that contains a lot of mistakes. We will go into much greater detail about that in a minute.

But first, where do our block-headed explanations come from? How can a perfectly reasonable person like yourself make explanations bad enough to make you feel bad when it’s not necessary?

Bad explanations spring out of four sources:

1. Your brain’s naturally-occurring flaws sometimes lead you to explain your setbacks badly.

2. You picked up some of your explanations of setbacks from what you’ve heard others say.

3. Sometimes just the nature of reality itself can give you a false impression.

4. And of course, the intense flood of negative input from media sources can (and does) influence the way you explain setbacks.

Those influences enter your mind from many sources just as a virus can enter your computer from an email, or from downloading from a website, or it might have been lurking on a disk a friend gave you.

Wherever your “mind viruses” come from, once they enter your mind, they can infect you with a negative attitude, ruining your mood, harming your health, impairing your ability to act in your own best interest, and making it harder to succeed.

If you learn how to improve your explanations, you can be more successful at everything — your relationships with your children, your job, your golf game, whatever — and why? Because you are far more effective when you feel determined and motivated than when you feel demoralized (or any other negative emotion). You are more effective and you’re more likely to try again.

And as you can see, this doesn’t only apply to the big career-busting or heart-rending setbacks. We all experience many smaller setbacks every day.

We call “everyday setbacks” by other names, such as irritation, frustration, disappointment, annoyance, having a problem, running into trouble, etc. The small letdowns and difficulties are each a setback that either makes you feel motivated or makes you feel a negative emotion, depending on what you have decided caused the setback.

Below are some examples of everyday setbacks. Notice that some of them don’t take the form of an obvious setback. That’s important to remember:

a) Your wrist ached today for no apparent reason.

b) Your boss seemed sullen and distant when you tried to talk to her.

c) You have felt tired a lot lately.

d) You’ve gone two weeks without smoking but today you smoked one.

e) You want to cut down on junk food but you haven’t done it yet.

f) You’ve been trying to think more positively, but it hasn’t worked.

g) Your son doesn’t seem to want to talk to you any more.

h) You’re not as attractive to the opposite sex as you once were.

A setback is doing worse than you expected. Remember, a setback is something you wanted to happen that didn’t happen, or something you didn’t want to happen that happened. Each of the setbacks above could be motivating, energizing, fill you with determination ... or make you feel bad, depending on what you decide caused the setback.

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

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