If the subway is pulling away just as you reach the platform do you take it personally? Will it affect the rest of your day? Do you become angry with yourself for not leaving earlier? Does self-loathing spill over into other areas in your life?
Alternatively, do you shrug off the missed train and think to yourself surely another one is on the way? As annoying as it may be, you don’t let it cast a shadow over the rest of your day or affect your mood.
How we respond to life’s curveballs—both big and small— is known as our explanatory style. It has broad implications for our physical and mental health.
In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman discusses explanatory style in depth. He describes three crucial dimensions: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization – the three poisonous Ps:
Believing that the causes of bad events are unchangeable is a pessimistic explanatory style. In comparison, people who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are time-limited and apply to the situation at a given moment. Permanent explanations for bad events produce long-lasting helplessness whereas temporary explanations foster resilience.
Over-generalizing—the tendency to make universal explanations—when bag things happen is a pessimistic way to approach a challenge. Rather than persevering, people with this explanatory style tend to give up quickly when failure strikes. On the other hand, recognizing that failure in one area doesn’t necessarily predict failure in another keeps things in perspective and is a reminder to keep on trying.
When bad things happen, even things beyond their control, “personalizers” tend to blame themselves and feel helpless. Not taking things too personally is a more effective strategy if you want to stay hopeful and optimistic.
Avoiding these The Three Poisonous Ps — the thinking traps outlined above — engenders a positive outlook and a “can do” attitude. As we have written about before, mindsets are powerful and can shape our behavior and experience.
In summary, don’t take things personally, always maintain perspective and see the potential beyond adversity.
Think of a setback as a challenge not an exclamation point.