Personalization and Blame: Reducing Guilt and Shame

Feelings of guilt and shame are common when we’re depressed. Feeling guilty is often related to the cognitive distortion Personalization and Blame. We blame ourselves and hold ourselves personally responsible for negative situations and outcomes that aren’t totally within our control. And as a result we feel guilty or ashamed of ourselves.

On the other hand, sometime we don’t give ourselves enough credit when things go well. Personalization and Blame often goes hand in hand with a type of cognitive distortion known as Minimization. With Minimization, we minimize out contributions to positive situations and outcomes and fail to give ourselves credit where credit is due.

Reduce Guilt and Shame with CBT

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

When something goes wrong in your life or things don’t work out do you tend to blame yourself or feel guilty? And when things do work out or go well do you tend to give yourself enough credit? Or do you find reasons to attribute the success to other people or things outside of your control?

If we tend to blame ourselves and feel guilt or shame when things go wrong even when it’s not entirely our faults, we’re falling into a type of cognitive distortion known as personalization and blame. And cognitive distortions are a type of negative thinking, in which we look at things from a negatively biased perspective, that leads us to perceive reality inaccurately in ways that make us feel bad. And there are lots of different types of cognitive distortions, and I have a whole video on cognitive distortions that I’ll link to in the description.

And on the other hand we can end up not giving ourselves enough credit when things work out or go well. This could be an example of the cognitive distortion, minimization, in which we minimize our contributions to successes and positive outcomes.

So in this video we’re going to learn a way to counter both of these types of cognitive distortions, and not hold ourselves so personally responsible for things that go wrong that aren’t entirely our faults, which helps us feel less guilty about them. And also how to give ourselves some credit when things work out or go well and as a result feel better about ourselves and improve our self-confidence and self-esteem.

We’re going to use a tool called a responsibility pie. Which is a type of pie chart that helps us spread the responsibility around in situations with negative outcomes or when things don’t work out. And helps us give ourselves more credit in situations where things do work out and go well.

So let’s look at a few examples starting with situations in which things don’t go so well. Maybe a project we’re working on doesn’t get finished on time and we think, it’s all my fault, I didn’t work hard enough, I was too slow, I was too lazy, I’m just not good at this job, I’m not cut out for it. And we end up blaming ourselves and feeling guilty or feeling ashamed.

But chances are we’re not completely at fault. We’re not fully responsible for how things turned out. So to help us see this we can complete a responsibility pie. So the first step is to write down any factors we can think of that contributed to how things turned out. So this could be things that we did but also things other people did as well as any things about the situation that we didn’t have control over.

And so maybe I didn’t work hard enough, and I got confused about something and that ended up taking me longer than it should have; but also my boss gave me an unreasonable amount of work, and the deadline for the project got moved up, and my co-worker didn’t do their fair share.

And then in the pie chart we assign a share of responsibility to each of these factors. And so now we see that we’re not completely responsible for this negative outcome. And although we’re partially to blame, there were many other factors that contributed, and this helps us feel less guilty about the way things turned out, and is much easier on our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Or maybe we get angry at our kids, or argue with our spouses or partners, or get into a fight with our mothers, and we blame ourselves and feel guilty or ashamed. We vowed we were going to be more patient with our mother and try to have a closer relationship with her, but she calls one evening and we end up getting into the same argument we always have. And the conversation ends on a bad note with both of us feeling hurt and upset with each other and now we feel guilty.

I promised myself I’d be more patient with her. I knew she would push my buttons. I shouldn’t have let her get to me like that I should have just ignored those comments and not gotten so emotional. Why can’t I manage to have just one conversation with her that doesn’t end this way?

So if we’re feeling guilty about how this conversation went and blaming ourselves, we can fill out a responsibility pie. So we take responsibility for our share—we did get pretty emotional and snap at her—but she also bears some responsibility. She knows I hate when she brings those things up, and I’ve asked her not to.

And there were also some external factors in play. It was late and we were both pretty tired, and I’ve been really stressed from work lately, and there was still some work I needed to do after we finished talking, and I was a little distracted and preoccupied by that. And then we assign a share of responsibility to each of these factors.

And so we’ve spread the responsibility around. And maybe we still feel bad about how the conversation went, but at least now we’re not completely blaming ourselves, and we feel a little less guilty and disappointed with ourselves.

Now on the other end of the spectrum we can fail to give ourselves credit when something goes well for example let’s say a project we’re in charge of at work is a big success if we have the tendency to downplay our contributions we can minimize our part in achieving this good result and tell ourselves things like, the project was pretty easy, I barely did anything, anyone could have done what I did, my team did most of the work, I even had to ask my boss for some help.

So if we find ourselves minimizing our roles, we can also use a responsibility pie to help us see that we deserve more credit than we’re giving ourselves. So again we write down everything that contributed to the success of this project. The project wasn’t that difficult. And my team did a lot of work. I got help from my boss. But I worked hard and put in a lot of hours and ultimately I was in charge and it turned out really well. And then we assign a share of responsibility to each of these factors.

So we’re not trying to take all of the credit, but we’re helping ourselves realize and see that we’re at least partially responsible for this positive outcome, instead of just minimizing our contributions. And as a result we feel better about ourselves, and we gain some self-confidence and improve our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. So if you’d like to download a copy of a responsibility pi worksheet you’ll find the link in the description and on the end screen.

Now another thing that can contribute to feelings of guilt and shame is telling ourselves too many should statements—I should do this; I shouldn’t do that—and I’m going to cover this in a video I have coming up.

The Responsibility Pie is a CBT worksheet that reduces Personalization and Blame, so that feel less guilt and shame. And it helps us stop Minimizing our contributions so that we can take credit for our successes. You can download the Responsibility Pie Worksheet in PDF or Word format.

In the next post we’ll look at Should Statements, another type of cognitive distortion that can leave us feeling guilty. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Should Statements, Guilt and Depression

In the last post we learned how the cognitive distortions Personalization and Blame can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. “Should” statements, also knowns as “shoulding,” can also leave us feeling guilty.

Shoulding, Guilt and Depression

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Do you ever feel guilty? Maybe you did something you shouldn’t have done and so you feel guilty about it. Or there’s something you should be doing but you’re not so you feel guilty about that. One of the biggest reasons we tend to feel guilt is because we’re not living up to our shoulds. And not living up to our shoulds also hurts our self-esteem and self-confidence and can leave us feeling depressed. And should statements can also be a big source of stress and anxiety, and they play a big role in perfectionism. And should statements are simply statements we make to ourselves about what we should and shouldn’t do.

Should statements directed towards ourselves are often referred to as shoulding ourselves. And they’re a type of cognitive distortion, which are exaggerated ways of thinking about the world that distort reality. So in this video we’re going to look at the different types of should statements we tend to tell ourselves, why they leave us feeling stressed anxious and guilty, and how we can reduce our shoulding in order to help reduce stress anxiety and guilt and make it less likely we become depressed.

And we’re going to start by looking at what Karen Horney had to say about should statements. She’s a Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, and there’s a chapter from her book neurosis and human growth called “the tyranny of the should.”

So describing the tyranny of the should she says:

We hold before ourselves our image of perfection and unconsciously tell ourselves, forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are, this is how you should be.

I should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody and to be always productive.

I should be the utmost of honesty, generosity, considerateness, justice, dignity, courage and unselfishness.

I should be the perfect spouse lover parent child.

I should never feel hurt, sad, scared, anxious, angry. I should always be calm and serene.

I should be able to solve every problem of my own and other people’s immediately.

I should be able to overcome every difficulty as soon as I see it.

I should never be tired or sick.

I should always be able to do things in one hour which can only be done in two or three.

And these demands we place on ourselves aren’t feasible they’re things nobody could fulfill. Now Horney is talking about unconscious should, but often our shoulds are explicit in our conscious thoughts. I should find a better job. I should save more money. I should buy a house.

I shouldn’t drink so much. I shouldn’t eat so much. I should get more exercise. I should get more sleep.

I should spend more time with my friends. I should spend more time with my family. I should spend more time working. And so a lot of our shoulds can be incompatible with each other, because, for example there just isn’t that much time for us to do all of that.

So we have this idealized version of ourselves, of what and how we should and shouldn’t be, and there’s no way we can live up to this version of ourselves.

And trying to do everything that we feel we should do can be very stressful and can cause us a lot of anxiety.

And then whenever we don’t live up to one of our shoulds we end up feeling guilty, because should statements come with a moral judgment: if I do the things that I should, and avoid doing the things that I shouldn’t, then I’m a good person. But when I fail to do the things that I tell myself I should, or do some things I tell myself I shouldn’t, i’ve committed some sort of moral offense, and so I’m a bad person, and I feel guilty. And the more this happens the more likely we are to start feeling depressed.

So what can we do about our should statements? Well anytime we find ourselves telling ourselves we should or shouldn’t be doing something, instead of just letting that should statement go unchallenged, we can start by asking ourselves why? Why should I or shouldn’t I do that?

We often take our should statements for granted without questioning why we believe we should or shouldn’t do these things. But once we start looking at these beliefs they often don’t hold up. Maybe they were things we learned growing up from our parents that reflect their values but not really our own anymore. Or they reflect some cultural or societal values that we’ve adopted without ever really thinking about them and maybe they’re not really that important to us.

And so once we start questioning our shoulds we often find we don’t have an answer to the question of why. And so we can start letting some of our shoulds go and not feel bad if we don’t live up to them, because we realize that we don’t really believe that we should or shouldn’t do these things. And so we don’t need to feel bad or guilty if we don’t follow them because they’re not really that important to us.

But what if we have an answer to why we think we should and shouldn’t do them that makes sense to us and so we don’t want to just dismiss them?

Sometimes our shoulds are pretty vague and it can be helpful to break down exactly what we mean by them, because even if we’re dedicated to being a better parent or working harder or not being so lazy, it’s hard to act on that without having a clearer idea of what we mean.

Maybe being a better parent means being more patient with our kids or spending more time with them. Or being more interested in things that are important to them.

And what about work harder? Maybe we don’t even know what we mean by work harder. It just sounds like something we should do. But we’re already working more than we want to and we’re coming home tired at the end of the day, and so even though there’s a voice in our heads telling us we should work harder, we’re already working as hard as we can. And so there really isn’t an “I should be working harder” to feel guilty about.

And what about I shouldn’t be so lazy? Well maybe we mean, we’d like to procrastinate less and when there’s something we need to do we’d like to just do it. Or maybe we spend more time than we’d like on our phones just killing time, and we’d like to do something more productive with that time. Or maybe after dinner we just plop down on the couch and watch tv all night, but I’d like to change that and start making plans to do things that I enjoy in the evenings. And so now instead of just not being lazy, we have specific plans about what we’d like to be doing. And these are much more actionable than just some vague notion like I shouldn’t be so lazy.

And one of the most effective things we can do about should statements is to express them as a desire or intention to do or not do something, because desires and intentions don’t carry the same moral weight as should, so they cause us less stress and anxiety and are less likely to leave us feeling guilty or like we’re bad people if we don’t follow through.

So instead of I should spend more time with my family we can phrase it as a desire I’d like to spend more time with my family or as an intention I’m going to do my best to spend more time with my family

Instead of I shouldn’t order in so much, it would be nice if I didn’t order in so much, or I’d like to start cooking more and eating healthier.

Instead of I should exercise more, I’m going to do my best to start exercising more.

Instead of I shouldn’t procrastinate so much, I’d prefer to not procrastinate so much and I’m going to do my best to stop putting things off and I’m going to try to do them right away.

So it can be really helpful to rephrase shoulds with less judgmental terms like I’d like to I’ll do my best to it would be nice if I’d prefer it if I plan to I’m going to try to

Now we can often think of should and shouldn’t statements as motivating. I should exercise more. I should stop procrastinating. I shouldn’t eat so much junk food. I shouldn’t watch so much tv. But the problem with using should statements to try to motivate ourselves is that they’re not actually motivating, and instead they often have the opposite effect, because when we fail to do something that we’ve told ourselves we should we can feel so bad about it and get so discouraged that we give up even trying anymore.

And should statements can make us rebel against them. If someone tells you you should or shouldn’t do something, does that make you want to listen to them and obey what they say? Or do you feel resentful and sometimes want to do the opposite just to spite them? Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do? And the same can be true when we try to tell ourselves what we should and shouldn’t do. And the more we tell ourselves we should do something the less we want to do it.

So reducing our should statements finding other ways to express our desires and intentions that aren’t as judgmental as shoulds reduces the pressure we place on ourselves to do certain things or to be a certain way, which leads to less stress and anxiety over these things, and makes it less likely we end up feeling guilty or depressed.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Increase Optimism and Decrease Depression & Pessimism With CBT

In the last couple of posts we’ve looked at how Martin Seligman and his colleagues developed a theory of optimism out of their research into learned helplessness and depression. Our Explanatory Styles/Attributional Styles determine how pessimistic or optimistic we are.

In this video, you’ll learn how to assess whether your own Explanatory/Attributional Styles are optimistic or pessimistic with examples from the Attributional Style Questionnaire (link to PDF article; reference below). And then learn how to increase you levels of optimism, making it less likely you become depressed.

Increase Optimism and Decrease Depression With CBT

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Well what does that even mean? In psychology there are a few different ways to measure optimism. One of them, conceived by martin seligman and his colleagues, is in terms of our explanatory or attributional styles, which refers to how do we explain, or to what do we attribute, the causes of negative and positive events in our lives.

In this video we’re going to get a sense of our own levels of explanatory or attributional style optimism. And then we’re going to learn what we can do to make ourselves more optimistic, and as a result improve our sense of well-being and self-esteem, and make ourselves less susceptible to things like depression.

So to start I’m going to ask you to imagine yourself in one of the following negative situations: you’ve been looking for a job unsuccessfully for some time; you can’t get all the work done that others expect of you; you meet up with a friend who doesn’t seem very happy to see you; you go out on a date and it goes badly. So once you have one of these in mind, picture yourself in that situation as vividly as possible, and pause the video if you need some time, and if you’re going to answer all of the questions you’ll probably need to pause the video throughout the first part or you can just follow along.

And then when you’re ready, write down if you can or just make a mental note of, what you think the main cause of that situation is?

And then ask yourself. Is that cause due to something about me or something about other people or external circumstances?

And in the future if you find yourself in the same or a similar situation will this cause be present again?

And finally, is the cause something that just influences this situation or does it influence other areas of your life as well?

And then when you’re ready we’re going to do it again but with examples of positive situations. So imagine that you apply for a position that you want really badly and you get it. Or you get a raise or promotion. Or you meet a friend and they seem really happy to see you. Or you do a project at work or school that’s highly praised.

So once you pick a situation picture yourself in that situation as vividly as possible?

And then write down or make a mental note of what you think the main cause of that situation is.

And then ask yourself is that cause due to something about me or something about other people or external circumstances?

And in the future if you find yourself in the same or a similar situation will this cause be present again?

And finally is this cause something that just influences this situation or does it apply in other areas of your life as well?

So what’s the point of these questions? They’re taken from something called the attributional style questionnaire, which was developed by seligman and his colleagues to measure our levels of explanatory or attributional style optimism. And it measures what’s known as the three p’s: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness.

So in terms of personalization, pessimists attribute negative situations to internal causes—it’s my fault; and see these causes as permanent—this cause will always be here; and as pervasive—this cause affects all areas of my life.

And pessimists attribute positive situations to external causes—it’s not due to anything I did; temporary causes—this cause won’t be present next time; and specific causes that only apply in this one area or one situation and nowhere else in my life.

Whereas optimists attribute good events to internal causes—that happened because of something I did; and see these causes as permanent and pervasive—this cause will always be here, and it affects many areas of my life.

And optimists attribute negative events to external causes—it’s not my fault; and see these causes as temporary and specific to this one bad thing or one area of my life—this cause won’t always be here, and it doesn’t affect other areas of my life.

So in the questions we just did, in the negative situations, the higher your scores on each of the questions the more pessimistic your view of that situation was, and the lower your scores the more optimistic you were. And then for the positive situations, the lower your scores the more pessimistic your view of the situation was, and the higher your scores the more optimistic you were.

So you can go back and look at the other situations and answer the same questions for those if you like. And there’s a quiz in seligman’s book learned optimism that’ll give you a score in each of the three p’s. There’s also a free quiz you can do online that’ll give you a score in terms of permanence and pervasiveness and that I’ll link to in the description. And I have another video that goes into a lot more detail about explanatory and attributional styles. And now in the remainder of this video we’re going to look at what we can do to make our explanatory or attributional styles more optimistic.

now in his book learned optimism seligman says the way we can move ourselves from pessimism towards optimism is through cognitive behavioral therapy, which makes sense, because our explanatory or attributional styles reflect how we think about certain situations. And a big part of cbt is looking at our thoughts evaluating how accurate they are and then seeing if there are any other ways we can think about situations that are more accurate, and if so modifying our thoughts to make them better reflect reality. So let’s look at how we can do this for each of the three p’s.

So first personalization. So going back to the example situations, for instance if we thought the cause of not being able to complete all of the work that was expected of us was internal—something like we’re not good enough at our jobs or we’re too slow or we’re lazy or we’re not smart enough—and answered that the cause of this negative situation was totally due to me, we could be falling into a type of cognitive distortion known as personalization, which involves blaming ourselves and holding ourselves personally responsible for a negative outcome in a situation that’s not entirely under our control. And so we can ask ourselves questions like, is there any other way of looking at this situation in which I’m not completely to blame? Are there any contributions by other people or external circumstances that I’m overlooking that also helped lead to this outcome?

Maybe our supervisor was being unreasonable asking us to do so much work. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the amount of work but that a deadline got moved up and it would have been almost impossible to complete all of the work on time. Or maybe a co-worker didn’t do their fair share. We’re not trying to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the outcome, not trying to shift our assessments from it was completely due to me to it was completely due to other people or external circumstances, but just trying to see if we can move the needle a little bit so that we don’t see this negative outcome as entirely due to something about us.

And sometimes it can help to use a responsibility pie where we write down all of the factors that may have contributed to a situation, and then make a pie chart assigning a share of responsibility to each of these factors, to help illustrate how we’re not fully responsible for the way things turned out. And I have a whole video about using a responsibility pie to counter personalization that I’ll link to in the description.

Now regarding positive situations, if we have a pessimistic outlook we attribute the cause of these positive situations to external things rather than giving ourselves any credit. So we get offered a position we applied for and think, I didn’t get the job because of my own merits, it was due to external factors beyond my control. There must not have been very many applicants. Or they probably needed to hire someone right away. Or the person they really wanted probably got a better offer somewhere else and they were stuck with me.

But is there another way of looking at this in which I give myself at least some of the credit?

Well sure, we don’t really know about the other factors, whether someone else was their first choice or it wasn’t a very competitive process, but we do know that regardless of whatever the external circumstances, were we at least did something to convince them we were qualified. And we did well enough on our interviews to get offered the job. And so we no longer see the cause as entirely due to other people or external factors. And as a result we’ve given ourselves a more optimistic outlook about this situation.

Now let’s look at permanence. Permanence is all about always and never. If we think, I can’t find a job because I’m terrible at interviews, or my friend wasn’t excited to see me because I’m so boring, if we think this cause is permanent and will always be present—I always do badly on job interviews,

I’m always boring, I never have anything interesting to talk about—then that’s a pessimistic outlook. And the antidote for this type of pessimism is to try to shift from thinking in terms of always and never, to things like sometimes or recently or lately or this time. Maybe I just had a bad day. Maybe I was really nervous about the interview because I didn’t sleep well the night before, or because I’ve been really stressed lately.

Or sometimes I’m not really that social when I’m feeling really tired or a little depressed. But if we look for exceptions and counter examples we’ll often find them. I haven’t always done poorly on job interviews. I’ve done well enough to be hired for jobs before. I’m not always so quiet. Sometimes I can be outgoing, it depends who I’m with and how I’m feeling, it’s not like I never have anything to say. So anything we can point to that suggests that the cause of this negative event is not always present helps us be less pessimistic.

And now looking at permanence and positive outcomes. If we apply for something successfully and attribute it to, I just got lucky, well that’s a pessimistic outlook, because luck isn’t something we can count on as permanent.

So if we want to be more optimistic we can look for causes that have more permanence. Maybe I got a little lucky, but I also worked really hard on my application, and I prepared really well. And working hard and preparing well are things that I can always or almost always do, so there’s a permanent aspect to the cause, as well as maybe some luck. So it’s likely that at least some of this cause will be present in the future.

And finally pervasiveness. If I had a bad date or my friend didn’t seem happy to see me. If I attribute this to me being boring. Or because I don’t talk much and I’m too quiet; and I think that this cause influences not just this date or meeting with my friend but it’s pervasive—everyone I know and everyone I meet thinks I’m boring, or I’m always too quiet in every social situation—if we want to be more optimistic we need to start looking for some exceptions. So we can ask ourselves if we can recall a situation in which this cause wasn’t present?

So if I’ve ever had a date or friendship where I connected with someone, or if I get along with the people I work with, or at least some of the people I work with, then this cause—being boring or being too quiet—doesn’t actually influence all situations in my life. And so maybe our pervasiveness scores move to something like, this cause influences some situations in my life, which is less pessimistic and a more optimistic outlook.

And similarly if we attribute a good event to a cause that isn’t pervasive—I get along with this friend because I feel comfortable with them so I’m a little more talkative—but this cause isn’t pervasive—I don’t feel comfortable around other people so with them I’m always too quiet—hen we need to look for examples in which we did feel comfortable enough around someone else that we were a little more outgoing. And so even if this cause doesn’t influence all situations in my life it does influence more than just this one situation with this one friend, and so it has some pervasiveness which means we’re seeing this situation from a more optimistic perspective.

So if we tend to be pessimistic, cbt can be a great way to reconsider the causes that we attribute to various situations in our lives, allowing us to see things in a different light and from different perspectives, and help us find explanations that are more optimistic, and as a result improve our self-esteem and make us less susceptible to things like depression.

There is an Explanatory Style/Attributional Style Quiz in Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, and an online Explanatory Style/Attributional Style Quiz on his website. You’ll need to register, but it’s free.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49

Peterson, Christopher & Semmel, Amy & Baeyer, Carl & Abramson, Lyn & Metalsky, Gerald & Seligman, Martin. (1982). The Attributional Style Questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 6. 287-299. 10.1007/BF01173577.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.

Depression, Optimism and Attributional or Explanatory Style

We all know what optimism means, but there are a few ways to conceptualize optimism in psychology. Martin Seligman defines pessimism and optimism in terms of our explanatory styles or attributional styles.

Learn the Three Ps—Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization—that determine whether we have pessimistic or optimistic explanatory style, and how pessimism leads to depression, while optimism leads to hope and resilience.

From Pessimism and Depression to Optimism and Resilience

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

In a previous video we looked at how Martin Seligman’s research into learned helplessness led him to come up with a model of what’s called our explanatory styles, that describes why only some people developed to learn helplessness. Learned helplessness refers to when we become helpless in one area or domain of our lives, and this helplessness starts to carry over into other areas of our lives. And so we’ve learned to be helpless, and we act as if we’re helpless in these other areas even though we’re not actually helpless.

Now learned helplessness resembles depression. And so once we understand why some people develop learned helplessness and others never do, we can apply this knowledge to preventing and treating depression. And for Seligman it comes down to how pessimistic or optimistic our explanatory styles are. And so in this video we’re going to learn what explanatory style means, and we’re going to look at the differences between pessimistic explanatory styles, which are associated with depression, and optimistic explanatory styles which are associated with resiliency and happiness.

So first what is an explanatory style. Well it’s called the explanatory style because it refers to how we explain the causes of negative and positive events outcomes and experiences we have. It’s also known as the attributional style: in other words to what do we attribute the negative and positive things that occur in our lives. And our explanatory or attributional styles consist of three dimensions. Known as the three p’s: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization, as well as hope.

So permanence refers to whether we see the causes of events in our lives as permanent and stable, in other words they’re not likely to change, or temporary and unstable and likely to change. A pessimistic explanatory style regards the causes of negative events and setbacks as permanent and stable; and the causes of positive events or successes as temporary and unstable: something bad happens and that’s because it always happens and it’s going to keep happening; something good happens and that’s because we just got lucky this time and who knows what will happen next time.

Whereas an optimistic explanatory style regards the causes of negative events or setbacks as temporary and unstable, and the causes of positive events and successes as permanent or stable: something bad happens and it’s because we got unlucky this time, who knows what will happen next time; and something good happens and it’s because that always happens it’s what we expected, and it’s what we think will happen in the future.

So we don’t get a promotion at work and we think, i never get any recognition at work, i always get overlooked. So we see this negative event as representing something stable. It’s never different, it always happens, so that’s a pessimistic explanatory style: we’re attributing a negative event to a permanent and stable cause and that makes us feel helpless.

But if instead we think I’m so disappointed i didn’t get a promotion this time, then it’s not something we see as permanent. It happened this time, maybe another time it’ll be different. So that’s an optimistic explanatory style. We’re attributing this negative event to a temporary or unstable or one-time cause. We don’t see it as a permanent state and so we don’t feel helpless.

Now on the other hand let’s say something good happens. We text a friend to meet up for coffee and they say, sure, and we think I’m glad they weren’t too busy today. This would be a pessimistic explanatory style because we attribute this good event to a temporary cause: they weren’t busy today, but there’s no guarantee that things will continue to go this well. Maybe they’ll be too busy in the future to spend time with us.

But if we think, I’m glad we’re such good friends, then that’s an optimistic explanatory style because we attribute they’re agreeing to meet up with us for coffee to something stable: our good friendship. And so we believe things will continue to turn out well in the future because this good event has a stable cause.

Now pervasiveness has to do with whether we regard the causes of events as global and universal, they apply to everything, or as specific to this one event. A pessimist sees the causes of negative events as global and the causes of positive events as specific to that event or to that one area of life. Whereas an optimist sees the causes of negative events as specific to that event, and the causes of positive events as global.

So we make dinner and it tastes terrible and we think, i can’t do anything right, I’m so bad at everything, i mess everything up. We’ve generalized our inability to perform well in this one area of our lives to apply in all areas of our lives. We see ourselves as failures on a global scale.

But with an optimistic explanatory style we ruin dinner and we think, i wonder what happened, i must not have followed the recipe. So we see our failure as being specific to that one dinner. Or maybe we even think, I’m just not a good cook. So we’re acknowledging that we’re not that good in this one specific area of our lives, but we haven’t generalized it as a global trait that applies to all areas of our lives, so we don’t regard this failure as pervasive.

Now let’s say something good happens. We get a promotion. A pessimistic view is, it’s due to something specific that happened with this one project, not something general and pervasive. So we’re attributing our success to something that’s specific to this one instance. It doesn’t have a pervasive cause, so there’s no reason to think we’re going to have the same success in other situations.

A more optimistic explanatory style would be, i got a promotion because I’m a really hard worker, or because I’m really smart. So we attribute our success to global traits. And those are pervasive causes that apply globally beyond this one promotion and even apply to situations outside our jobs.

Which brings us to hope. For Seligman hope is the sum of our pervasiveness and permanence explanatory styles. The more we see bad events or failures as pervasive and global, and permanent and stable; the more hopeless we feel. Everything is terrible. It’s never going to get any better. I’m a complete failure and that’s never going to change.

But if we can see bad events or failures as specific and temporary, then we have hope for the future. That didn’t go so well, but other things are going okay, and i think it’ll be better next time, and i usually learn from my mistakes.

And finally we have personalization, which has to do with whether we internalize or externalize the causes of events. A pessimist internalizes bad events and setbacks—it’s my fault—and externalizes good events and success—it had nothing to do with me, they were just being nice; or i hardly did anything i just got lucky. Whereas an optimist externalizes bad events and setbacks—it’s not my fault— and internalizes good events and successes—that happened because i worked really hard, or because I’m such a nice person.

So for example, we’re doing wordle or crossword puzzle or sudoku and we’re not able to solve it. With a pessimistic explanatory style we internalize the cause of our failure and think, i can’t get this because I’m so stupid. But with an optimistic explanatory style we externalize the cause of our failure and think, that puzzle was unfair or it was too hard today what a stupid puzzle.

Or let’s say we have some success, and we get an A on a test, or we do really well on a job interview and get offered the job. With a pessimistic explanatory style, we externalize the cause of our success: these questions were so easy anyone would have done well. But with an optimistic explanatory style, we internalize the cause of our success: i got that grade or aced that interview because i prepared really well, and i stayed calm, and i answered everything as well as i could have.

So it’s easy to see how a pessimistic explanatory style resembles depression. If we think everything goes wrong in my life, and it’s all my fault, and things are never going to get any better, then that’s a pessimistic explanatory style across all three Ps. And it’s also how we often think when we’re depressed.

But if we can change our explanatory styles to make them more optimistic, in other words if we can learn to attribute negative experiences events and setbacks to causes that are: specific to that experience or event; and that are not our faults; and that are temporary, then this optimistic explanatory style makes us more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression.

And we’ll experience similar benefits if we can change our pessimistic explanatory styles about good events that attribute them to specific, external, and unstable or temporary causes; to more optimistic explanatory styles that attribute these good events to pervasive, internal, and permanent causes.

And if you’re interested in learning what your explanatory style, is there’s a quiz in Seligman’s book Learned Optimism that’ll give you your score in each of the three Ps plus hope. And there’s a free quiz on his website that I’ll link to in the description that’ll give you a permanence and pervasiveness score as well as hope. But it doesn’t include a score for personalization.

In my next video on optimism we’re going to learn how we can make our explanatory styles more optimistic, and as a result make ourselves more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression. So please subscribe so you don’t miss that video.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.

Learned Helplessness and Depression

In the 1970s, Martin Seligman and his colleagues conducted research into the relationship between learned helplessness and depression. Learned helplessness describes how, when we learn that we’re helpless in one area of our lives, we can carry this helplessness over into other areas of our lives.

Learned helplessness is a type of pessimism. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that, no matter what we do, things are never going to work out. And learned helplessness resembles depression. So understanding how learned helplessness works helps us understand depression. And then we can use this knowledge to figure out ways to make it less likely we become depressed.

Learned Helplessness and Depression

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Learned helplessness occurs when we find ourselves in some sort of negative aversive situation or set of circumstances that we don’t have control over. We can’t escape from them or solve them, so we learn that we’re helpless in these situations and we give up even trying to do anything about them. And often this feeling of helplessness carries over into other areas of our lives. So when we find ourselves in different challenging or unpleasant situations that we do have some control over, we don’t even bother trying to do anything about them. We act as if we’re helpless in these areas as well.

And this experience of feeling we’re so helpless that we find it difficult to perform in many areas of our lives resembles a lot of the symptoms and behaviors associated with depression. So if we can learn how learned helplessness works, then we can apply this knowledge to our understanding of depression, in order to figure out ways to prevent depression, and come up with new ways of treating depression.

So in this video we’re going to look at Martin Seligman’s research into learned helplessness, which led him to come up with a way of explaining the differences between how pessimists and optimists think that can help us learn to be more optimistic, and as a result more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression.

Now the original and most well-known studies into learned helplessness involve dogs, but I’m not going to talk about those here. But then there was research conducted with human subjects that we’re going to look at now.

So the experiments involve two phases. In the first phase, one group of subjects was placed in an unpleasant situation that they couldn’t escape from no matter what they tried. An annoying tone was played through headphones at a loud volume and they were told that there was something they could do to stop the tone, and there was a button in front of them, but no matter how many times they pressed the button the tone didn’t stop. So in this phase of the experiment they were actually helpless. There was nothing they could do to escape the tone. And then in another group subjects also had this annoying tone played through their headphones, but they did have control over the situation. And if they press the button four times the tone would stop.

And then in the second phase of the experiment, both groups plus a control group were played this annoying tone through their headphones and once again given the task of trying to make it stop. And this time every group had control over the situation and could make the tone stop by moving a knob along a lever. And the research found that the group that was helpless in the first phase acted as if they were still helpless in this second phase. And some of them didn’t even bother trying to turn off the tone, and the ones that did took significantly longer to do it than the subjects in either of the other two groups. So that’s an example of learned helplessness. We experience helplessness in one situation, and that helplessness carries over into another situation and we continue to act as if we’re helpless even though now we have control over this situation.

So let’s look at a real life example of this. Let’s say things haven’t been going well at work. We’re sick of our jobs. We hate our bosses. Our co-workers are annoying. And on top of that we’ve been passed over a couple of times for promotions and we didn’t get a raise we’d been promised. We know it’s not going to get any better here nothing’s going to change we feel helpless about our job situation.

So we decide we need to look for a new job. And there are a lot of things we could do to help us find a new job, but we feel so helpless because of what’s going on in our current jobs, that our helplessness carries over into our attempts to find something new. It took us forever to update our resumes. We can barely get ourselves to look at job listings. And when we do it feels too hard to even apply.

So can you think of a time when you were in a really unpleasant ongoing situation that you had little or no control over and couldn’t really do anything about and you started to feel helpless?

And if so did that helplessness carry over into any other situations in which maybe you did have some control but you found it really difficult to do anything because even though you were not helpless in this situation you still felt helpless due to how helpless you were in the other situation? And if you want you can pause the video and take a moment to think about that.

Now back to the research. So then they did another experiment where, in addition to the tasks from phase one and phase two of the previous experiment, a second type of task was added: solving a series of cognitive problems. So in the first phase of the experiment one group of subjects was given a series of unsolvable cognitive problems so no matter what they did there was no way for them to find the solution.

And then the second phase of the experiment involved another type of cognitive problem, solving anagrams. So in phase two the group that had been given the unsolvable cognitive problems in phase one, plus a group that had been given a set of solvable cognitive problems in phase one, plus a control group we’re all given the same series of anagrams to solve. And all of the anagrams were solvable.

And the group that had been given the unsolvable cognitive problems in the first phase of the experiment did significantly worse in solving the anagrams than either of the other two groups. And so this showed a second domain in which helplessness could be learned. The first domain was escaping the unpleasant situation. And now the second domain was solving a cognitive problem.

And they also mixed the two domains. So in the first phase people were given the annoying tone that they needed to try to escape or turn off. And then in the second phase they were given the anagrams to solve. And the group that was unable to turn off the tone no matter what they tried in the first phase did significantly worse solving the anagrams than the other two groups. And so the helplessness they had learned in one domain carried over into a second domain and affected their ability to complete the cognitive task of solving the anagrams.

And similarly the group that was given the unsolvable cognitive problems in phase one saw their helplessness carry over into the second domain of being able to escape the unpleasant situation, where they performed significantly worse than the other two groups in being able to turn off the annoying tone. So this demonstrated that helplessness that was learned in one domain didn’t just carry over into similar tasks in the same domain, but could also make us helpless in another domain.

Now in the last real life example, helplessness in one area of the work domain of our lives carried over into another area of the work domain, but learned helplessness from the work domain can carry over into other domains as well for example the relationship domain.

We feel helpless about our job situation, so when we hit a rough patch in our relationships, we find it hard to put any effort into fixing our relationships. We’ve resigned ourselves to things just not going well in our lives, there’s nothing we can do about it. Work is terrible, our relationships are terrible, and we feel helpless. Nothing’s going to fix either one maybe we should just break up.

And last time i asked if you could recall a time when you’d felt helpless in one area of your life and it carried over into another if you did have an example were both areas in which you felt helpless in the same domain or were they in different domains. Once our learned helplessness starts to cross over into most or all domains of our lives then this starts to look a lot like depression.

So based on this research Seligman came up with a theory of learned helplessness. But some colleagues pointed out that his theory failed to account for the fact that a third of the subjects in the experiments failed to develop learned helplessness. And some subjects only developed helplessness in tasks within the same domain and this helplessness didn’t carry over into other domains.

So now he and his colleagues set out to come up with an explanation for why. And this is important, because since learned helplessness resembles depression, if we can figure out why some people never developed learned helplessness, we could apply this to treatments for depression and make it less likely that we develop depression, in the same way that some people didn’t develop learned helplessness.

So Seligman along with his colleagues developed a model for what they called our explanatory style, that accounts for why some people don’t develop learned helplessness, and explains differences between how pessimists and optimists think, that can help us learn to be more optimistic and as a result more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression. And we’re going to learn all about this explanatory style in the next video.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23, 407-412. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203

Hiroto, D. S. (1974). Locus of control and learned helplessness. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102(2), 187–193. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0035910

Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 311–327. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076270

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.

Communicate Better In Your Relationship With Timeouts

Timeouts are a great way to help us manage our emotions during difficult conversations with our partner. A timeout gives us a break that allows us to cool down and calm our emotions. Then once we’ve taken this break, we return from the timeout and finish whatever we were talking about.

Timeouts prevent discussion from getting too heated or turning into big arguments or fights. And they allow us to discuss difficult topics without our emotions getting in the way, making it more likely we’re able to come to a resolution.

Improve Communication with Timeouts

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

When we’re talking something over with our partners the more tensions start to rise the more emotional either or both of us start to feel the less likely it is we’re going to be able to continue the discussion productively in a way that leads towards a resolution rather than turning into an argument or fight.

Now there are a few ways we can try to prevent tensions from escalating. We can soften our startups and bring things up with each other in a more gentle manner to set the stage for a more constructive conversation. And we can use repair attempts to ease tensions whenever they do start to rise. And i have videos that describe both of these techniques in detail that i’ll link to in the description.

But once tensions start to rise past a certain level and we start reacting emotionally towards each other, not listening to each other, or we’re getting defensive, upset or angry, then we need to take a break for a bit and allow things to cool down enough that we can then continue our discussions in a calmer and more constructive manner. In other words it’s time to take a time out. So in this video we’ll look at what we mean by a time out, why timeouts are important, and the best way to implement them.

Now pretty much everyone knows what a timeout is, and in the context of communication it can be any sort of break we take in the midst of a heated discussion that allows us and our partners to cool off and calm down enough, that we can then come back together and resume the conversation on a more even keel when emotions aren’t running so high.

So it’s great if we can use a non-verbal signal to indicate we want to take a timeout. If we say something like, “I’m starting to feel really upset, i don’t think i can talk about this right now can we take a little break?” This can sometimes lead to an argument about whether or not it’s okay to take a break right now. But if we feel the need to take a break then it’s important that we’re able to take it. And using a signal to indicate the timeout can make it less likely that we start arguing about it than if we were to make a verbal request.

And of course we need to agree upon this signal with our partners in advance. Maybe we use the standard timeout signal. But if we don’t like that we can come up with our own, like tapping ourselves on the head, or folding our hands together like the emoji. Or we can even both use different signals anything is fine as long as it’s clear what it means and our partners don’t find it obnoxious.

And it’s okay to use a verbal statement for a time out as long as we’ve agreed upon it in advance. And it needs to be short and to the point, unambiguous, and not up for debate. Something as direct as simply time out, or let’s take a break.

And we can never tell someone else that they need to take a timeout. If our partners seem so upset or angry that we’re convinced that they’re not able to continue the conversation in a productive manner, we can still ask to take a break as long as we don’t frame it in terms of, you need to take a timeout, or you need to take a break.

And then once we’ve indicated we want to take a break there’s no more discussion we can go do whatever we need to do to cool down without debate and we leave the room calmly no storming out or slamming the door. And no pleading for the other person this day, or following them out the room still talking. A timeout starts immediately.

And a timeout needs to last at least 20 minutes in order for us to have enough time to cool down. Some people may need an hour or even two, or it can vary depending on the situation. If we come back too soon tensions can start escalating again right away. But if we stay away too long our partners can get impatient and frustrated. So it’s important that they know that even if we’re taking a while we’re still going to come back and finish the conversation.

So it’s good to have a process in place. First the agreed upon signal or verbal request. And then a general time frame: a timeout will last half an hour and if one of us still needs more time we’ll check in with a quick text to say we need another half hour. Or if we’re generally going to need more than half an hour the check-in could take place after an hour. But again the check-in is not a discussion or debate. It’s a simple request for more time that needs to be honoured, not an invitation to start arguing over text about how they need to come back right now. But we do always need to come back

And the sooner we take a time out the better the less time we’ll need to cool off. We don’t want to wait until we’re so enraged that we’re about to explode or we can’t think clearly anymore. We should take a time out as soon as our levels of emotional arousal start to hit around four or above out of ten. Because at that point we’re starting to feel so emotional that we’re not able to continue listening or communicating that effectively anymore. And we need to give ourselves a break until we can calm ourselves back down to a level of about 3 out of 10 or below.

And often one of us wants a timeout because we feel like we’re unable to keep talking about things right now, but the other person is really upset and urgently wants to keep talking about things until they get resolved. And even if we’re feeling like we really need to keep talking about this right now and find it hard to stop and don’t want to take a break, we’ll probably benefit from taking a break. Because if we’re so desperate not to take a break until we’ve resolved whatever we’re talking about our own emotions are probably running pretty high. And we’ve probably reached a point where we’re not communicating or listening as effectively as we could.

So even if our partners have called for the break and we’re anxious to get right back to talking about things, instead of anxiously pacing back and forth waiting for them to return, which will keep us at a heightened emotional level, we need to use this break to calm our emotions and allow ourselves to cool down.

And then during the break or timeout we need to have a plan in place to help calm ourselves down some people like going for a walk or a run or a drive. Or maybe we like taking a long shower or a bath. Or we call a friend and talk for a bit. Or we listen to some music or a relaxation exercise. Or we do some meditation or yoga—just anything that helps us calm down and reset mentally and emotionally.

But it’s important to remember that there are three parts to taking a timeout. The first is actually taking the time out. The second is doing something during the break to calm our emotions and allow ourselves to reset. And then the third is to come back together with our partners and finish the conversation. And this third part cannot be skipped. Once we do cool off enough to be able to talk about things again we absolutely have to return and resume the conversation..

And this is a huge issue in many relationships. If one of us feels like the other is using a break or timeout as an excuse to get out of talking about something, then we’re going to resist allowing them to take a timeout, because we think if we stop talking about this now we’re never going to finish it. You always want to leave as soon as we disagree about something. We never get to finish a conversation. Don’t walk away from me when I’m trying to talk to you.

So it’s so important that we don’t just use the timeout as a free pass to get out of talking about an uncomfortable topic. A timeout is not an avoidance technique. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s a tool that gives us the ability to have difficult conversations, because when it feels like it’s too hard to continue talking about something, we can take a break. And then this allows us to come back to whatever we were talking about and discuss it in a less emotionally charged atmosphere when we’re both feeling a little calmer.

Now what if there isn’t time to continue a discussion after a timeout? Maybe we started talking about something over breakfast and if we take a time out there’s no time to come back to it and talk about it before we go to work. Or we start talking about something late at night and if we take a time out now it’s going to be the middle of the night before we can start talking about it again.

Well this is a good reason not to start potentially difficult conversations unless we know we’re going to have time to finish them. And it’s a good idea to schedule these conversations so that we don’t run into these sorts of time issues. But sometimes we’re just talking and we don’t know that things could get heated enough to warrant a timeout. Or sometimes we’re just really upset and bring something up spontaneously.

So in these instances we still need to be able to take a time out and give ourselves and our partners time to cool down, even though we may not be able to come back and talk about it in an hour or two, and we might have to wait until later that evening or even later the next day. And that’s fine, but we just need to check in with our partners to let them know what’s going.

I’m sorry i had to rush out this morning, let’s finish this conversation when we get home tonight.

I’m really tired and can’t talk about this anymore tonight, but let’s talk about it tomorrow.

And then no texting back and forth continuing the discussion during the day and just waiting until whenever we’ve set aside the time to continue the conversation before bringing things back up again.

And then when we resume the conversation we want to ease into it gently, not picking right back up where we left off if it was in the middle of a fight or argument, but going back a few steps before things started to get so heated and going from there, this time starting from a calmer and less emotionally charged place. And softening our start-ups or using repair attempts can help get things started on a better note than we ended off with before taking the time out.

Thanks for coming back and talking about this I’m sorry i lost my temper before.

Or i didn’t mean to get so upset. Let’s try to work this out.

So timeouts are an important tool in managing our emotions during difficult conversations, allowing us to cool down enough to be able to continue discussing these topics without our emotions getting in the way, making it much more likely we’ll be able to engage in productive conversations that lead to a resolution.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.