Jackie Gingrich Cushman

So how can one unlearn helplessness? "Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work. It could be cured by teaching the subject to think differently about what caused him to fail." Seligman cites three ways of explaining events: Permanence (temporary or permanent), Pervasiveness (specific versus universal) and Personalization (internal versus external).

According to Seligman, "it's a matter of ABC (Adversity, Belief, Consequence): when we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs." And these beliefs have consequences.

"Pessimistic explanations (permanent, universal and internal) set off passivity and dejection, whereas optimistic explanations (temporary, specific and external) energize."

When looking for explanatory evidence regarding an event, instead of thinking of the permanent, pervasive and personal belief, scan for the temporary (or changeable), specific (i.e., related to a specific event rather than an entire life), and the nonpersonal (i.e., the event was not due to you).

Seligman notes that there are three ways to approach pessimistic beliefs: distraction, disputation and decatastrophization.

Finally, there is the question of usefulness: A given belief might be correct, but is it useful? If the belief inhibits you from functioning well in a crisis, it might be best to distract the thought until later.

Once the D (disputation) is added to the ABC (adversity, belief and consequence) the result is E (energy) rather that lethargy. It is energizing to believe that things do get better, that a given event was not about you, but about a specific situation.

Let's dispute our understanding of the current situation. Adversity: budget impasse. Belief: It's temporary -- it's just the news coverage that is nonstop -- it's specific and it's external. Consequence: We feel more optimistic about the future. Instead of hanging our heads in pessimistic disbelief, we can create the energy to figure out how to create a different dynamic in the future.


Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.