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.

How to Make Decisions

Decisions can be hard to make. And while it’s understandable that we’d have trouble making important decisions that are going to have a big impact on our lives, sometimes even the smallest decisions can be agonizing. And when we’re feeling anxious or depressed, it can seem impossible to make any sort of decision.

In this video we examine:

  • Different types of decisions, from day-to-day decisions to potentially life-altering decisions
  • Why some decisions are so difficult to make
  • Different decision-making strategies
  • Why some decision-making processes tend to lead to better decisions than others

Now just because we don’t like the results of a decision doesn’t mean we made a bad decision, or that we’re not good at making decisions. And so we explore how it’s possible to make a good decision, yet not get the results we want.

And then we learn a decision-making strategy that involves:

  • Assessing the pros and cons of our various options
  • Listening to our guts and intuition
  • Making a decision that’s in line with our goals and values

How to Make a Decision

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

How to make a decision. In this video we’re going to look at why some decisions are so hard and what we can do if we’re having trouble coming up with a decision. And we’re going to learn a decision-making process that can help us make decisions that we can be comfortable with and confident in.

Often it’s difficult to come to a decision because of the stakes involved: the higher the stakes the more careful we tend to be when making a decision. But even seemingly insignificant low stakes day-to-day decisions like what to wear or what to eat can sometimes seem overwhelming.

Sometimes decisions are hard because we feel like we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision other times we have too much information and just don’t know how to make sense of it all. Or there can be too many options to choose from. Or we can’t find any options that we’re happy with or that meet our criteria.

And sometimes when we’re struggling with a decision it’s not the actual decision that’s so challenging; our indecisiveness is a symptom of something else: like decision overload where we’re overwhelmed by the number of decisions we need to make and we just can’t deal with another one.

Or we’re afraid our decision is going to disappoint someone so we keep trying to put it off.

Or we avoid making a decision because we don’t know how to act on it.

Or don’t want to have to act on.

Or our difficulty making a decision could be related to anxiety about something connected with the decision for example we’re getting ready to travel and having trouble deciding what to pack being really anxious about it. But it’s not really the decision about what the pack that’s causing our anxiety we’re anxious about traveling and we don’t have much control over the aspects of traveling that are actually causing our anxiety so we redirect our anxiety onto our packing because that’s something we have control over. But unfortunately there is no perfect way to pack that’s going to make our travel anxiety disappear.

And making decisions can often be really hard if we’re depressed for many of the reasons above so do you recognize yourself in any of these.

Now let’s look at some of the ways we make decisions and see if any of these sound familiar a pros and cons list which could be an actual written list or it could just be a process we go through in our heads.

Or we go with our guts or intuition and choose whatever feels right.

Or we make decisions based on our values and goals.

Or we make impulsive or emotional decisions and choose whatever offers the most instant gratification or makes us feel better right away i can’t deal with all of this stress i quit.

Or we hate making decisions so much and just want to avoid them that we go with the first option that’s at all tolerable just to get the decision over and done with so we don’t have to think about it anymore whatever this is fine.

Or we can spend a long time agonizing over decisions continuing to mull things over and unable to come to a decision even though we’ve looked at it from every angle multiple times and already spent more time on the decision than is warranted based on the importance of the decision.

Or we make a decision and keep changing our minds second guessing ourselves and going back and forth between different choices.

Or make a decision and keep asking others for reassurance that we’ve made the right choice should i wear my navy suit are you sure that one’s okay.

Or maybe we ask someone else to decide for us can you please just tell me which one to wear.

So in most cases making a good decision is going to involve coming up with a list of options going through the pros and cons of each while listening to our guts and intuition and then making a decision based on our goals and values.

So let’s say we’ve been offered a new job and we’re trying to decide whether to take the new job or stay at our current jobs so first we take some time to think about all the various options we have and write them down and then we just go through these options and see which are worth further consideration. And let’s say we’ve narrowed it down to just two candidates worth considering.

And so now we make a pros and cons list for each. So we start with our first option and we come up with a list of pros of staying at the current job and cons of staying at the current job and then also pros of not saying at the current job, and cons of not staying at the current job.

And then we look at the second option and consider the pros of taking the new job and the cons of taking the new job, as well as the pros of not taking the new job and the cons of not taking the new job.

So now we look over our pros and cons list with the intention of selecting the option that scores highest. But often our pros and cons lists don’t point to a clear winner there are pros and cons to each option that are relatively equal and seem to balance each other out so what do we do now.

Well we can go back to our list of options and see if there’s another option we overlooked that didn’t make our original list. But assuming there’s nothing we left out and there is no better option that we’ve overlooked then what often happens is we keep going through the pros and cons hoping we’ve missed something and that if we keep thinking about it long enough eventually the right decision will become clear. But this usually just leads to us thinking in circles we’re changing our minds back and forth and back and forth again and in the end still never getting any closer to making a decision.

So then the next step is to try listening to our guts and intuition and see if they’re telling us anything. So what does this mean? Well sometimes we just get a feeling about something and so if our intuition is pointing us in a certain direction then we can factor that into our decisions. So maybe when we went for the interview we just had a bad feeling about the new place our intuition was telling us something was off so maybe that points us towards staying at our current jobs.

Or maybe our guts are telling us no matter how long we stay at our current jobs things just aren’t going to get any better and so that helps tip the scale towards accepting the new job.

And then before making the decision we want to consider our goals and values. So maybe our goal right now is to advance our careers as much as possible and one of our values is we’re not going to let fear rule our lives. So we single out the things on our pros and cons list related to these goals and values and maybe assign them a little more weight.

Or maybe one of our goals is wanting to work less and spend more time with our families and one of our values is we don’t want to decide things just based on money. And so we single out the pros and cons related to these and so considering our goals and values can bring some clarity to our pros and cons lists and can help us make a decision.

But let’s say we’ve done all this and we’re still no closer to being comfortable making a decision now what do we do? So at this point first we need to realize that we’ve been using a solid decision-making process and we’ve spent enough time on this decision that whatever we choose is going to be a reasonable decision and we’re making a good choice. But still how do we actually make that decision?

Well sometimes we can try on a decision for a while. So maybe we’re leaning towards taking the new job but still not ready to commit and so we decide to try acting as if we’ve taken the new job for a while and just see what that feels like. We visualize ourselves in our new jobs tell our friends we’re pretty sure we’re going to take the new job and just talk it through a bit with other people and just see how it feels living in that decision for a while and if it feels comfortable that can help us feel more comfortable committing to that decision.

And we can look back at our goals and values and maybe we decided you know i promised myself not to let anxiety rule my life. But there’s nothing so compelling about this new job that means I’m letting myself down if i don’t take it it’s okay to stay where i am for now while i try to find a better opportunity.

Or related to our goals and values we can ask ourselves if i choose this option will i be able to accept the results of my decision even if they’re not what i wanted? And maybe we think at least i know what my current job is like and if i stay here and things don’t get any better it’s not great but it’s tolerable and if i have to stay here for a while longer i know i can manage that but my new job could be a lot worse and i don’t know if I’d be able to deal with that. So I’m going to go with the option that has the least possible downside or the highest floor and I’m going to stay at my current job because worst case scenario i know I’ll still be okay working there for a while.

Or we could choose the option that has the highest ceiling or best possible outcome. I know what my current job is like and i know it’s never going to get much better than this but this new job could be so much better. And so we use that as the basis of our decision and if we still can’t decide we need to understand that if we’re unable to make a decision then by default we’re actually deciding that things are going to stay as they are the job is going to get offered to someone else before we decide whether or not to take it. So in the end one way or another a decision is going to be made.

And sometimes it seems more comfortable to allow that decision to be made for us as a result of our inaction because then if things don’t work out the way we wanted we don’t feel as responsible for the results since technically we didn’t choose that option. But the flip side to this is that then we can start to feel like we don’t have much control over our lives.

So what if we still can’t decide well when we get this stuck? Often one of the issues is that before we’re willing to commit to a decision we’re looking for some sort of certainty about what the results of the decision will be—which makes sense because it’s going to be the results of our decisions that ultimately impact our lives. But often decisions involve situations that are inherently uncertain. There’s just no way to know in advance if we’d like the new job any better than our current jobs and so the amount of certainty we’re seeking before we feel comfortable making a decision is never going to be possible.

And so here the issue isn’t with our decision making but with our difficulties accepting uncertainty. And managing the stress and anxiety and worry associated with that uncertainty and we’ll look at some ways to help us manage these challenges in a minute. But first let’s talk about uncertainty regarding the results of our decisions so in a moment I’m going to flip a coin and you need to decide whether you want to choose heads or tails and if you need a moment to think over your decision you can pause the video.

And here we go.

So did you make the right decision? Well if you chose tails you got the result that you wanted but does that mean if you decided to pick heads you made a bad choice? Well no because in this example either option was a perfectly reasonable choice because each outcome was equally likely and you had absolutely no reason to choose one option over the other. And so based on the information available there was no way to know to choose tails and so choosing tails wasn’t a better decision than choosing heads, it just led to a better result but you had absolutely no control over what that result was going to be when you made your decision.

And did you spend much time making your decision to choose heads or tails? Hopefully not because there was nothing to be gained by spending any time on that decision because unless you can see into the future there was no information available that would have been relevant to your decision one way or another.

Now not all of our decisions are coin flips but a lot of the time when we’re having trouble coming up with the decision it’s because the various alternatives are so close that they might as well be coin flips. And no matter how long we spend researching our decisions there’s usually going to be an element of chance influencing the results that we’re not going to be able to eliminate. So in most cases there’s no way to know what the right decision, if we’re judging based on results, is going to be.

So in order to come up with good decisions we need to focus on using a good decision-making process like the one we’ve been learning rather than trying to get certainty about what the results of our decisions will be, because to at least some extent the results of our decisions are going to be beyond our control and all we really have control over is the process we use to make our decisions.

And now instead of flipping a coin I’m going to roll a die and you have to decide whether you think I’m going to roll a 2 or below or 3 or above and you can pause the video if you need time to make your decision I’m going to roll the die in three two one.

So did you make the right decision? Well if you picked two or below you got a good result but you made the wrong decision. Because there’s six numbers on the die I’m gonna roll a three or above four out of six times. So two thirds of the time it’s going to be 3 or above. So in this case using a good decision making process—the laws of math and probability—the correct decision is clear. We should always pick 3 or above. But the thing is a third of the time I’m gonna roll a two or below and you’re gonna get a bad result even if you made the right decision.

So the point here is that we can make what’s clearly the right decision and it still leads to a bad result. And we can make what’s clearly the wrong decision yet have it lead to a favorable result. And so this is why we need to focus on the process of making the decision rather than worrying about having certainty about what the eventual results of our decisions are going to be, because it’s the process that we have control over, and there’s always going to be some uncertainty surrounding the results.

And one last thing about results is that in most cases even if we’re not happy with the result of the decision we made we’ll rarely know what the results would have been if we’d made the other decision. So if we take this job, for example, and we don’t like it, that doesn’t necessarily mean we got the worst result, because if we’d stayed in our current jobs maybe things would have ended up just as bad or even worse.

And so if we start second-guessing our decisions based on the results and telling ourselves things like i knew i should have gone with the other decision, if only I’d gone with that things would be so much better now, how could I’ve been so stupid, I’m ruining my life, we usually have no way of knowing if this is actually true or not and are just making ourselves feel bad for no reason.

Okay but we still haven’t decided whether or not to take the job. What do we do now? Well at this point it doesn’t really matter what we choose. We’re not going to find any more information that’s going to make our decision any clearer. So we just need to pick something.

And then once we’ve made our decision the final step is that if we’re still feeling anxious about the decision and finding the uncertainty difficult to tolerate we need to focus on managing our anxiety and accepting the uncertainty, rather than second guessing our decisions and going through the whole decision-making process over and over and over again hoping we’ll find a decision that eliminates all anxiety and all uncertainty because that’s never going to happen.

So how do we do this how do we manage our anxiety and learn to accept uncertainty? Well i have a number of videos with strategies that can help that I’ll link to in the description. And we can also use our less significant decisions when there’s not so much at stake to practice managing our anxiety around decisions and uncertainty.

And as we become more comfortable making these smaller decisions and managing the anxiety and uncertainty around them they start to cause us less anxiety. And we’re building skills that transfer over into our bigger more important decisions where we’re feeling even more anxiety and more discomfort with the uncertainty about the results of these decisions. But this anxiety and uncertainty is somewhat more manageable now as a result of the practice and experience we’ve gained through our smaller decisions.

So some decisions are always going to be difficult but as long as we have a good decision-making process in place, and understand that there’s almost always going to be at least some uncertainty surrounding the results of our decisions, and have some practice from our smaller decisions managing the anxiety around decisions ,then we’ve prepared ourselves to be able to make any types of decisions that might arise, even though we may still experience some anxiety making the decisions and accepting the uncertainty surrounding the coming videos when they come out

This decision-making process doesn’t guarantee that we’ll always be happy with the results of our decisions. Sometimes the results are beyond our control. But this decision-making process is an effective way to make decisions that we can be comfortable with, and confident in, knowing we’ve done everything possible in order to make the best decision with the information available.

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

All or Nothing Thinking and Depression

All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which we see things in black or white terms, with no shades of grey in between. Things are either all good, or all bad. We’re perfect or we’re a failure. If we don’t accomplish all that we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing. If someone doesn’t do everything we ask of them, then it’s like they’ve done nothing.

All or nothing thinking leads to stress and anxiety, because we put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve or accomplish all, rather than be left with nothing. And all or nothing thinking can damage our self esteem and lead to depression. If we’re often feeling like we’ve done or achieved nothing, it hurts our self worth and can leave us feeling depressed.

All or Nothing Thinking

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

If you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious a lot of the time, or are struggling with low self-esteem or depression, one of the reasons could be all or nothing thinking. In this video we’re going to learn all about all or nothing thinking: what it is, why it can be such a problem, and what we can do to reduce our all or nothing thinking so that it doesn’t have such a negative impact on our lives.

All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased patterns of thinking that distort reality and lead us to perceive or evaluate situations and experiences inaccurately. I have a video that describes a number of different types of cognitive distortions that I’ll link to in the description. But i wanted to make a video just about all or nothing thinking because it’s one of the most common cognitive distortions and it can negatively affect us in a lot of different ways.

So when we engage in all or nothing thinking, we see things as black or white with no shades of gray in between. Things are either all good or all bad. If we don’t do something perfectly, we failed. If we don’t accomplish everything we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing. Someone makes a mistake or disappoints us and they’ve let us down completely. All or nothing thinking arises in all sorts of contexts so let’s look at some examples.

All or nothing thinking often involves how well we do at something. Either we completely succeed—we ace the test, we come in first place, we get a promotion at work—or we’ve completely failed. We get a b plus when the class average is a c, but because we didn’t get an a plus, as far as we’re concerned we might as well have gotten an f. Or we come in second place with a personal best, but because we didn’t come in first who cares that means nothing. We get a raise, but someone else gets the promotion we wanted, so our careers are going nowhere and we’re terrible at our jobs.

All or nothing thinking can also involve how much we accomplish. If we don’t complete everything we’ve set out to do today, then we’ve achieved nothing. We had 10 things on our to-do list but since we only knocked off eight, what a waste of a day, we got nothing done. Or we were going to clean the kitchen tonight, but after we did the dishes and put them away and wiped the counters and cleaned the sink, we were too tired and had to be up early the next day. So we went to bed before we got around to sweeping and mopping the floor, so we’re just so lazy. Or we cleaned the whole kitchen but it’s not spotless so we might as well not bothered cleaning it at all.

And all or nothing thinking doesn’t allow for any understanding or compassion or mistakes. We get impatient with our children and we’re terrible parents, even if it’s just one lapse over a stressful day in which we handled everything else really well. And we can apply our all or nothing thinking to other people. Someone does us a favor but they forget one thing and so it’s like they’ve done nothing. Someone makes one small mistake on a project at work and they’re completely useless.

So what’s the impact of all or nothing thinking? Well when we apply all or nothing thinking to ourselves, we put so much pressure on ourselves to hit that all level, that we can push ourselves too hard, which can leave us feeling really stressed out or give us a lot of anxiety. And when we don’t accomplish or achieve all, we come away feeling like we’re left with nothing, which can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed. And when we apply our all or nothing thinking to other people, it can damage personal and professional relationships.

And all or nothing thinking can lead to procrastination, because we know it’s going to be so much work to try to hit that all, all of the time, that we can’t even bring ourselves to get started.

And all or nothing thinking can make it harder for us to achieve our goals, because we give up halfway through when we realize all is no longer a possibility. And so since we’re ending up with nothing, we might as well save ourselves the effort and just give up now. I wasn’t going to drink on weeknights anymore, but i had a glass of wine with dinner so i’ve ruined today and i might as well just finish the rest of the bottle.

So what can we do about our all or nothing, black and white thinking? Well the simple answer is to learn to recognize some shades of gray in between, and to see things along a spectrum rather than on a binary scale. So how do we get ourselves to do this?

Sometimes a helpful first step can be to find a good enough compromise in between all or nothing. We can strive to get ten things done, but seven is going to be good enough. We don’t have to do the next three if we don’t feel like it. We can aspire to achieve the equivalent of an a or a plus on whatever we’re working on, but once we reach a b or b plus level that’s good enough, and we don’t need to worry about getting that extra bit of improvement if it’s going to take too much effort, be too stressful, and cause us a lot of anxiety trying to get there. And it also makes it less likely that we fail in ways that damage our self-esteem and can lead to depression.

But that’s only half the story, because it’s still not really seeing shades of gray. It’s just a single shade of gray in between black or white, which means that if we don’t hit that compromise not quite all but good enough level, we still can end up feeling like it’s nothing.

But achieving c level work instead of b or a plus, getting five of our ten things done instead of seven or ten, is still not nothing. Sometimes that’s all we’re able to do. Sometimes we could do more but the costs in terms of stress or anxiety are too high. And sometimes we could do more, but we choose not to because there are other things going on in our lives that also need our time or attention, or that we just want to do instead. And that’s okay.

So in order to recognize the shades of gray in between black and white, and to be able to accept results and outcomes across a whole spectrum of possibilities, instead of focusing on what we didn’t do, what we didn’t accomplish, what we didn’t achieve, we need to learn to reframe things in terms of what we did do, what we did accomplish, what we did achieve, even if it’s not everything or all we set out to accomplish or achieve. And as long as we can name just one thing, then we’re no longer at nothing. And maybe we didn’t do as well or as much as we’d hoped or wanted or expected, but at least we did something. We barely got started on our to-do lists, but at least we replied to that one email we’ve been putting off for days.

And even those times when it feels like we didn’t do anything, we probably did do at least something. We finished some tasks for work, and even if we didn’t do a really good job, at least we got it done. Or at least we got part of it done. And sometimes these things may not seem like a lot, and they’re certainly not all, but they’re still not nothing.

And even if we spend all day lying on the couch watching tv or, in front of our computers watching YouTube videos, well maybe what we accomplished is that we gave ourselves a bit of a needed break. We took some time to look after ourselves, to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives, and made it easier on ourselves to get back to doing more things tomorrow.

And even if we do achieve or accomplish so little that it might as well be nothing, that doesn’t make us bad people. When this happens there are reasons it’s happening. Maybe we’re just too tired, don’t have the energy, or are feeling too discouraged or depressed to be able to bring ourselves to do much of anything. And so in these cases we need to try to extend ourselves some compassion and understanding, rather than beating up on ourselves and feeling bad. Because when we don’t achieve or accomplish whatever we set out to achieve or accomplish, being too hard on ourselves serves no purpose. It’s just not helpful.

We often feel like we need to be hard on ourselves in order to push ourselves to do more and to reach our potentials. And while this attitude may be able to provide some motivation in the short term, in the end it catches up with us, because it increases our stress and anxiety, which eventually can become too much for us to manage, and it’s discouraging it can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed all of which make it more difficult for us to do things in the future. So if we don’t achieve or accomplish all that we set out to do, or even most of it, it’s much better to be understanding with ourselves, and learn to practice some self-compassion and self-acceptance.

And if we need to do better next time, being kind to ourselves now is not going to prevent this. It’s not going to get in the way. But if we adopt an attitude of, I’m such a failure, i can’t do anything right, i got absolutely nothing done, well that can get in the way because it’s so discouraging and demoralizing it can affect our motivation, damage our self-confidence and self-worth and self-esteem, which can negatively impact the quantity and quality of work we’re able to do.

Now we can still acknowledge if we didn’t try our best, if we could have done more, or could have done better, without being too self-critical and putting ourselves down. And maybe we do have to do better next time, but beating up on ourselves isn’t going to help us do that. And then instead of being self-critical and beating up on ourselves, we can reflect on anything we did accomplish—anything we did achieve, anything that went well—and try to find ways to do more of that in the future. And then look at what didn’t go so well and figure out what we need to do differently next time so that things go better.

And everything we’ve just talked about regarding ourselves applies to our interactions with other people as well. Holding others to strict all or nothing standards can damage personal and professional relationships, and doesn’t really encourage people to change their behaviors, and instead tends to lead to conflicts or just leaves them feeling discouraged or resentful.

So if we’re able to shift our mindsets away from all or nothing thinking, and recognize that accomplishments and achievements occur across a broad spectrum rather than just on a binary scale, we’ll be able to do more and perform better, while reducing the amount of stress and anxiety in our lives, and making it less likely that we become depressed, while improving both our personal and professional relationships.

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

Mindfulness, Depression and Acceptance

Acceptance helps us respond to negative and unpleasant experiences in ways that don’t make things worse, and prevent vicious cycles and downward spirals. Acceptance can be a difficult concept to grasp. In the videos below I do my best to explain the nature of acceptance in the context of mindfulness and psychotherapy, but it’s probably the topic that causes the most confusion in my comments.

Acceptance

I’m not sure how to try to clarify the difference between acceptance and resignation beyond what’s in these videos. I think part of the confusion is that there are various ways to define acceptance, and in some senses acceptance is very similar to resignation. But unlike resignation, in psychotherapy, acceptance is an acknowledgement and recognition of the current state of affairs, but without giving up.

Perhaps the most well-known use of this type of acceptance is the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

The video below elaborates on the nature of acceptance.

Allowing and Letting Be

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

Depression and Relapse Prevention

At some point I’m going to cover preventing relapse of depression in more detail. But for now we’re going to just consider two important aspects. In this post and the next we’ll learn how mindfulness and acceptance helps prevent depression relapse by disrupting vicious cycles before they can get started. Then we’ll look at how we can change negative core beliefs that make us vulnerable to depression with CBT.

MBCT and Depression

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was originally developed as a relapse-prevention treatment for depression. I have a whole course on MBCT, but these one aspect in particular we’re going to talk about here. The Parable of the Two Arrows teaches us that the way we respond to unpleasant experiences determines how they affect us, and that pain doesn’t need to lead to suffering.

This video looks once again at the interrelationships between our thoughts, feelings and emotions, behaviors, and physical symptoms. But instead of focusing on how unpleasant experiences pull us into vicious cycles, we learn how to react to these negative or painful experiences in ways that prevent vicious cycles from forming.

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

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

Emotion Regulation and Depression

One of the main features of depression is a depressed mood. In CBT we focus on modifying our thoughts and behaviours in order to improve our moods and how we’re feeling. We can’t modify our moods and emotions directly the way we can our thoughts and behaviours. But we do have the ability to influence our moods and how we feel. We can this emotion regulation, and it’s one of the main components of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Emotion regulation helps us regulate our moods and emotions so they become more manageable and feel less intense. This helps relieve our depressed moods. And as our depressed moods start to lift, our thoughts become less negative and we become more active, and so we begin to reverse the vicious cycle of depression.

Emotion Regulation

If you’d like to explore emotion regulation further, there’s a whole Emotion Regulation section in my DBT Skills Course. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.