A woman wrote to me about her eating disorder. My answer to her was as follows.

I don't know much about eating disorders, but I can help you with something else. You said in your first message that you don't want to think of yourself as such a failure all of the time. You fight with it every day of your life and it's killing you inside.

I have one simple skill to teach you. Learn this skill, and learn it well, and some of what you fight with will disappear. The skill is explaining setbacks to yourself. A setback is when something happens that you didn't want to happen, or when something doesn't happen that you wanted to happen. That means you have setbacks several times every single day. There are very few days when everything goes exactly the way you want them to.

When you hit a setback, you explain it to yourself. You decide what CAUSED the setback. That's what your explanation is: It is an attribution of cause. For example, you said you had an issue at work and you didn't handle it well. That's a setback, and your mind will automatically explain it. You can't help it. That's what your mind does. It says, "X caused this setback." Some people might have a setback like that and assume that Johnny was having a bad day. Someone else with the same kind of setback might assume that it happened because "I have no self-control." Someone else might explain the setback in this way: "I didn't get enough sleep." But one thing is for certain: You explained that setback to yourself. And the WAY you explained it determined how you felt about it and what you did about it.

The way you explain setbacks determines, to a large degree, how you feel and what you do.

There is a tremendous amount of research on this subject. If you'd like to read about some of it, I recommend Martin Seligman's book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life or David Burns' book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated.

But I'll give you an example of one experiment on the Berkeley swim team. First they tested the swimmers to find out how they explained setbacks to themselves, and then the coach gave them all a failure. They were doing timed heats, which means they swim up to one end of the pool and back, and the coach gives them their time. Then they swim up and back again, and the coach gives them their time again. It's one method they use for their workout.

Keep in mind these are good athletes we're talking about. They know how the lap should feel. So when the coach gave them a time that was slower than the real time, they all had a feeling of failing. Something was wrong. It was a setback for each one of them. What happened next is extremely revealing. The swimmers who made good explanations for their setbacks swam their next heat FASTER. The ones who made the worst explanations swam their next heat SLOWER.

What makes an explanation good or bad? It is a good explanation if it doesn't have a lot of mistakes in it. It's a bad one if the explanation contains a lot of mistakes. Here is a list of the seven mistakes people make in their thinking:

1. Insufficient evidence
This means that you have assumed something without enough evidence to justify that conclusion. With the evidence you have, you could just as easily and just as plausibly justify other conclusions, but you have jumped to the one you jumped to for no other reason than that is your habitual way of explaining events. Psychologists call it your "explanatory style."

2. Distorted responsibility
This means that you have taken too much or too little responsibility for something. If you cannot control the outcome of something and it goes badly, but then you blame yourself for how it turned out, you're taking too much responsibility. You're taking more responsibility than you have the power to control. On the other hand, if you CAN control something, and you say you can't, you're taking too little responsibility.

3. Overgeneralization
If you used the words always, never, everybody, every time, nobody, etc., you're probably overgeneralizing.

By the way, these are mistakes our brains are prone to. Our brains are not designed perfectly. We have the ability to generalize, which is one of the things that makes us smart as a species, but our brains are so good at it, we overgeneralize. I knew a lady that had two bad marriages. Her explanation of this setback was that "all men are pigs." Think about it. There are three BILLION men on the planet. She sampled two of them and wasn't happy with them. So she assumed ALL men were like that. That's overgeneralizing.

4. Mistaken unchangeability

If something CAN be changed and you assume it can't, your assumption can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I've seen people do this with depression. Getting depressed usually has followed some kind of setback. But getting depressed is ITSELF a setback. And many depressed people assume that depression cannot be changed, and because they've assumed that, they take no steps to change it, which makes it stay the way it is.

5. Exaggeration
This one is self-explanatory.

6. Unjustified certainty
Of course, many of these mistakes overlap with each other. Almost all of them have this element in them. There are very few things we know with certainty, and when you have concluded something depressing with certainty, it is worth looking at it to see if you really KNOW it for sure. If you don't, and if you realize you don't, it can lighten the intensity of the negative feeling.

7. Plain assumption
Most of our explanations are an assumption.

Now if you look at these seven mistakes, you can see that they are simply common sense. So why would you make those mistakes in your thinking?

The reason you make those mistakes is that you've been explaining setbacks to yourself since you could explain setbacks. Maybe since you were five years old. And you get several setbacks a day.

What happens when you practice 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. So you explain these setbacks automatically, and the way you feel and what you do ensues from what you have decided, but you aren't even aware you're doing it!

So the first step in improving the way you explain setbacks to yourself is to memorize that list of seven mistakes.

The second step is to make setbacks trigger an explanation check. This is the only hard part. There are only these two steps, but it will be difficult to do this second one. You will decide to do it, and a week later you'll find you haven't caught yourself once. A setback happens, you explain it, and you go right on. Then later you'll look back and think, "Oh yeah, I was supposed to check my explanation."

But if you keep trying you can do it. Do you believe me? If you don't, or if you try and fail, then check that explanation! Keep trying. Make this something you focus on for the next few months. Have a necklace made for yourself that says, "CHECK EXPLANATIONS EVERY SETBACK" and wear it around your neck. Write it on a card and carry it in your pocket. Put it on your screen saver of your computer. Post it on the bathroom mirror, on the dashboard of your car, on the referigerator door. Put it in your closet where you'll see it every morning. And try try try. You will fail a lot. Each time you realize you've gone the whole day and didn't ONCE catch yourself explaining a setback, that ITSELF is a setback, so check right then how you're explaining it.

And to find out what your explanation is, simply ask yourself, "What caused it?" What do you think caused that setback? NOT what you think you should think. But what do you really think caused that setback.

Say you have a disagreement with someone at work and you lose your cool. You get mad and yell at someone. Later, when you're thinking about it, and it kind of bums you out that you did that, ask yourself, "What do I think caused it?" What do you think caused you to lose your cool? Write it down to make it easier. Let's say you write, "Jim is a jerk."

Now look at that statement. Go right down the list. Do you have sufficient evidence to justify that conclusion? Maybe you do. Okay, next: Distorted responsibility. Were there some actions you COULD have taken that you didn't take that would have made it go better? Probably. Think about what you'll do in the future or what you could do now, in the way of training, that would make it go better in the future.

Next, overgeneralization. Bingo. Anytime you label someone, you can be pretty sure it is an overgeneralization. Everyone has good points and bad points. Human beings are complex. It is a mistake to summarize something very complex with a simple label. It's overgeneralizing that person's personality. Try to make a more accurate statement: Jim did something that I didn't like.

Do you see how that isn't as upsetting? It takes some of the intensity out of the negative feeling?

Please be clear YOU ARE NOT TRYING TO MAKE YOUR EXPLANATION POSITIVE. All you're doing is clearing up the mistakes. You're just trying to make your explanations more in line with reality as you know it today rather than reality has you knew it when you formed your explanatory style many years ago.

Here's what you do. Step one: Memorize that list. Really get to know it well. Memorize it so well you can say it off the top of your head without really trying. That should take you about a week.

Step two. Remind yourself over and over in every way you can to check explanations every setback. If you really concentrate on this, within a month, you should be able to form the habit, so that the bummed feeling you get after a setback will remind you to check your explanations. The setback itself will trigger the explanation-check.

And every time you can, after a setback, ask yourself, "What do I think caused the setback?"

And then look at what you've come up with. Match it against that list of seven mistakes.

Not only will this be good for your health and your general feeling of happiness in the long run, but you'll feel better immediately. The moment you realize that your thought is a mistake, the spell is broken. It immediately stops affecting your feelings. Only things you really believe affect your feelings. That's one of the reasons positive thinking doesn't work when it doesn't work: If you don't believe it, it has ZERO impact on your feelings.

But when you think, "Jim is a jerk," and you feel angry because of it, as soon as you recognize that may be an overstatement, your feeling of anger diminishes. Immediately. You now don't believe Jim is a jerk. Now you think maybe he doesn't speak very nicely to you sometimes. That's more in line with reality and not as angering. It reminds you that YOU don't speak very nicely to people sometimes. We're all just human. That doesn't mean you have to LOVE Jim, or even like him. Remember, this is not trying to do anything positive. Just take the nonsense out of your explanations. If you find one of your explanations is true, okay. Leave it alone. Don't try to make it nicey nice just because it makes you feel bad. Sometimes you will feel bad, because sometimes reality sucks. But more times than not, your explanations that are making you sad or angry or worried are WRONG. They contain mistakes.

Here's another way to analyze your explanation: If your worst enemy came up to you and said it, would you accept it, or would you be able to argue with it?

Once you are able to look at your explanation, it's pretty easy to see what's wrong with it. The only reason you haven't done that before now is that your explanations are automatic and zip by too fast and too unnoticed to analyze.

Are you willing to try this? I believe many of the problems you have, even ones that don't seem related to this, will clear up if you will do this. If you have any questions, please ask me.


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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