In 1934, Admiral Byrd was feeling demoralized, and for good reason. He was dying of carbon monoxide poisoning without knowing it. All he knew was he was sick and getting sicker. Byrd was stationed at a remote base deep in the interior of Antarctica, about as removed from civilization as a person can get on this planet. He was utterly alone and, he thought, without hope of rescue. That’s a setback by definition (he was doing worse than he expected). When Byrd arrived at the base camp, he had expected to make it home alive, of course, and now it looked like he would never make it.
He gave up. He was going to die, he admitted to himself. This is how it would end. He wrote a note to the people who would find his body the following spring and then snuffed out the candles. He lay in the dark for some time, sad at this horrible turn of fate.
But then he remembered a scene from his past. He had been in a wrestling match, trying to win the championship at the Naval Academy. Near the end of the match, exhausted and in great pain, he decided he had no chance of winning.
But his mother was watching and he wanted her to be proud of him, so he spontaneously invented a technique, and it worked. He stumbled onto the secret of determination. He immediately felt his strength resurge and he fought to the finish.
It worked then, he thought, so it might work here in the Antarctic even though his situation was now incomparably worse.
The single thought that revived him in the wrestling match was the realization that “although I seemed absolutely washed up, there was a chance I was mistaken.”
That’s the most important key to pulling out of a negative emotion: Admit to yourself you might be mistaken about a pessimistic conclusion. Introduce some doubt. The doubt is legitimate. Most of us are far more confident in our negative assumptions than is justified by the facts. As Norman Cousins put it, “Nobody knows enough to be a pessimist.”
In the gripping true story, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, two people died within 24 hours of deciding their situation was hopeless. Yet many made it home alive. It was a premature decision (they decided there was no hope of ever making it home alive), and in this case, their demoralization made them as incapable as they could be: It killed them.
Hopelessness sucks out your determination.
In the same story, on the other hand, is an example of suddenly feeling that some effort might make a difference. They suddenly spotted land. A minute before, they were all lying there, demoralized, waiting to die, without energy, without hope. Suddenly they saw land, and these wasted, dehydrated, starving, helpless men were suddenly filled with energy, even enthusiasm as they scrambled to propel their boat toward shore.
One minute before that, although their dire circumstances were real, the hopelessness was in their minds, which means it was changeable.
One minute before, their circumstances were essentially the same, and yet, they were demoralized and had no energy because of their conviction they were hopeless and helpless. It was a conviction that they had more confidence in than they should have.
This is an example of the difference between feeling demoralized or feeling determined. You are far more powerful and capable when you feel motivated than when you feel discouraged. And those feelings arise from the way you’re explaining the setback.
If your explanation is pure guesswork, as it often is, it is stupid to stick with a guess that demoralizes you. Introduce some doubt. It is the only sane thing to do.
Pessimistic thinking is almost always a mistake. Not only is it a mistake because it makes you less capable, but the thoughts themselves are usually in error. I have a lot more to say about that in a minute. But for now, just be aware that making a mistake in your explanation of a setback can make you feel defeated, overwhelmed, or beaten when you aren’t any such thing.
I’m not sure you really got that, and it is crucial that you do so. Please read the following sentence slowly and carefully:
Making a mistake in your explanation of a setback can make you feel defeated, overwhelmed, or beaten when you aren’t any such thing.
Mistakes in your explanations can take away your fight, suck out your desire, and kill your determination. Mistaken explanations can stop you from taking action. If your thought-mistakes fool you into believing you can do nothing about a difficulty, you will do nothing. This is hazardous to your goals!
If you explain a setback to yourself in a way that makes you feel bad, you can change your explanation. Even if you’re in the habit of explaining setbacks in a way that demoralizes you, you’re not stuck with that habit. You can change it.
You can improve the way you explain setbacks, it’s not hard to do, and it will make a huge difference to do so. Even if you already make pretty good explanations, making better ones will make you even more difficult to demoralize than you are now. You will feel better and get more done. You’ll have less negative emotion and you’ll be more effective with your actions.
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.