How ‘Learned Optimism’ Can Get You Through Tough Times
Have you ever felt yourself on the verge of a downward spiral? I’ve been there.
What kind of mother can’t get her baby to sleep?
There must be something wrong with me.
If I don’t get some sleep soon, I cannot continue to function.
Will this sleep drought ever end? I can’t take it anymore.
These thoughts swirled in my brain as I felt myself on the precipice of a sob fest. My baby had been teething and struggling with sleep, and I’d had just nine hours of sleep in 72 hours. I felt as though I was teetering on the edge.
I’ve struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety in the past and had faced this cliff before. Thankfully, after therapy and a deep dive into positive psychology, I had some tools to walk myself back from the ledge.
One of those tools is called “learned optimism” and involves reviewing thoughts for limiting beliefs. More specifically, it’s about recognizing the markers of pessimistic thinking. I knew that if I could reframe my limiting beliefs, I could maintain my composure.
The three Ps
Martin Seligman is a psychologist known for his theory of “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.” It’s the sense that no matter what we do, we can’t change our circumstances.
As Seligman reasons, bad things and good things happen to all of us. What varies is how we interpret them or what he calls our “explanatory style.” For example, people with a pessimistic outlook might interpret bad events through the lenses of the three Ps: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. These lenses can contribute to feelings of helplessness.
“Personalization” is the belief that the situation you’re facing is all your fault, rather than recognizing that other factors contributed to it. Accepting a certain level of personal responsibility is reasonable and realistic, but personalization takes it a step too far.
- Example: “There must be something wrong with me.”
I was blaming myself for my daughter’s restlessness. This kind of self-criticism and self-blame is a slippery slope that can lead to low self-esteem and depression.
“Permanence” is the belief that a bad situation is permanent and will last forever.
- Example: “Will this sleep drought ever end?”
At the moment, I had tunnel vision and couldn’t imagine an end to my daughter’s sleeplessness. I saw my sleep-deprivation as never-ending. I felt like there was nothing I could do to change the situation, short-term or long-term.
“Pervasiveness” is the belief that the situation you’re experiencing extends to other situations as well, instead of being an isolated incident. You generalize the bad situation to apply to other areas of your life. This can make the situation seem overwhelming.
- Example: “What kind of mother can’t get her baby to sleep?”
Instead of seeing my daughter’s bout of sleepless nights as an isolated incident, I generalized the experience and assumed I was a bad mother altogether.
In contrast to “learned pessimism,” we can use Seligman’s theory of “learned optimism” to reframe challenging events in our lives so they don’t seem so overwhelming. We can adopt an optimistic explanatory style by deconstructing the three Ps to make them impersonal, impermanent, and specific instead.
“Impersonal” is about considering how other factors contribute to a tough situation.
- Example: “There must be something wrong with me.” (Personal) becomes “It’s normal for babies to struggle with teething and sleep.” (Impersonal)
“Impermanent” is about recognizing how the situation you’re facing is temporary. When we see challenges as temporary, we feel better about facing the future.
- Example: “Will this sleep drought ever end?” (Permanent) becomes “I’ve just got to get through tonight. Then, I can ask for help.” (Impermanent)
“Specific” is about understanding that the challenge is limited to the current situation. It doesn’t affect other areas of my life or me as a whole person.
- Example: “What kind of mother can’t get her baby to sleep?” (Pervasive) becomes “I’m struggling now, and it doesn’t mean I’m a bad mother.” (Specific)
By taking a few deep breaths and reframing my limiting thoughts as impersonal, impermanent, and specific, a wave of relief washed over me. I knew my baby’s fussiness wasn’t about me, I recognized the sleepless nights would eventually end, and I realized my struggling now didn’t make me a terrible mother. I embraced this more optimistic perspective. My stress, though still intense, now was bearable.
We all face difficult experiences in our lives, and that’s not something we can control. What’s within our control is the lens we see them through — our explanatory style. We can use these insights to improve our ability to handle the challenges we face by taking the following steps:
- Acknowledge that you’re facing a challenging situation.
- Evaluate your thoughts about it. Are they personal, permanent, or pervasive?
- If so, try to reframe those thoughts as impersonal, impermanent, and specific.
For me, this framework works best with everyday life stressors (relationships, work-life balance, parenting, and so on). It doesn’t work for everything— particularly severe mental health episodes. Mental health is complex and personal, and there are no foolproof solutions. Always seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider.
What the three Ps and learned optimism can do is jumpstart your “emotional immune system” at critical moments. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explains, “Just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system — and [the three Ps] are steps you can take to help kick it into gear.” She used the three Ps framework to help her cope with grief after her husband's death. She found it so useful that she spoke about it during her commencement speech at UC Berkeley.
Personally, when I feel on the brink and I’m still able to self-reflect, I’ve found adopting an optimistic explanatory style is incredibly beneficial. Life can be tough, and it’s all too easy to be tough on ourselves.