Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
Articles by Nicholas are here.
Are you always the same person? In some situations, you may feel stressed but strong, moving forward knowing that an adversity is at least partly within your control. In other situations, you may feel like an adversity is so overwhelming that all you could do is lie down and give up.
Between stimulus and response is the freedom to choose.
~ Viktor Frankl
Often we have no idea what creates our fear; it is just there. How can we change how we feel if we may not even know where it comes from? What can we do to uncover our fear and stress, and learn to better handle it or make it disappear altogether? In honor of this month’s optional theme of stress and resilience, here are some positive psychology tips on how to destroy our vampires and let our angels in.
Helplessness is a Vampire
Helplessness is a wildly destructive vampire. It pours acid on the fertile ground of our minds, sucking the blood out of our self-confidence and self-worth, crushing our self-esteem, and creating pessimism in all that we do. Helplessness has all kinds of negative consequences, including a lowered immune function, decreased satisfaction in life, and impaired relationships with others. (Doesn’t this even sound like the pale, sickly-looking, brooding, anti-social vampire in stories?)
Our greatest source of shelter from stress is our own mind. We’ve all seen it: the smiling cancer patient and the depressed college student. One has a short future to look forward to, the remainder of which will mostly be filled with pain. The other is in the prime of life, with an entire future to look forward to. Why are the responses of these people so out of whack with their stressors? One has angels, and the other is full of vampires.
Optimism is an Angel
Optimism is an angel for no other reason except that it is on your side. There does not need to be any kind of religious component, unless you wish there to be. Optimism empowers us to have control over our lives because we have control of our minds. Through optimism and having control of your life, we tend to take the risks that we want to take in life to grow, rather than shrink in the face of adversity. We believe that we can do something, and this belief causes us to persist longer at our task, thereby leading to our success, writes positive psychology founder Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism.
Optimism is good for you. It’s also more fun.
~ Martin E. P. Seligman
You might not be used to thinking optimistically. Not a problem. Here’s where this article comes in. Optimism, especially for the habitual pessimist, is all about practice. It is about practicing throwing your negative beliefs out into the daylight of truth and letting them burn like the vampires they are in the bright sunlight of day. It is about practicing replacing those vampires with the angles of optimistic beliefs that carry you on their wings to a happier, more fulfilled, more successful life.
Discovering your Beliefs through the ABC’s
Martin Seligman outlines the ABC method of thought discovery and disputation in Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. (You can read more about this in earlier PPND articles: my article Is feeling better as easy as ABC?, Dave Shearon’s article ABCing Parental Involvement, and Doug Turner’s Learning Optimism) These ABC’s are the backbone of what you need to destroy those vampires and replace them with angels:
A stands for ‘Adversity’
What is the event that caused you to feel a certain way? What was the activity that set your consequences in motion?
B stands for ‘Belief’
Your beliefs are how you explain the adversity to yourself. This is the heart of Seligman’s “explanatory style” of optimists and pessimists. “I can rule this” vs. “I am a failure.” “This is a new challenge” vs. “My childhood traumas are insurmountable.”
C stands for ‘Consequences’
The consequences are your feelings about yourself in this situation given your beliefs about it. Beliefs also lead to your behaviors, so sometimes you can see what your consequences are by looking at what you’re doing because of your beliefs.
Externalization: Throwing Vampires into the Light
Often, all we know is that we feel terrible in a situation without being aware of any “internal monologue.” Often, we read suggestions to “monitor your inner thoughts or your ‘self-talk’.” What if you don’t hear any? What if your vampires are hidden and you can only see the pale-white ghosts of their consequences?
The way to do this is to externalize your internal beliefs by creating some dialogue for yourself. In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman talks about a technique called “externalization.” This technique really helps if you know how you’re feeling or reacting in a situation, but you have no awareness of a thought process. (Also see Dave Shearon’s article I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?)
Two Techniques for Externalization
Journaling. Keep a journal, diary, or small notebook with you to jot down thoughts when you have a few moments. When you notice yourself feeling or behaving in ways that are like vampires (i.e. negative feelings or behaviors), write them down.
Write them down the moment you have theses behaviors or feelings for best results. It may be helpful to have three columns on your paper: A, B, and C. When you recognize vampire behaviors, write them down under Consequences. Next, write down either the adversity or the belief that may have caused your consequence. Typically, we know what the adversity was, but we draw a blank at what our beliefs might be. This is how this exercise really helps – by breaking out the components. To identify a belief, an in-the-moment thought, go with what feels most right and honest. You have thrown your vampire out into the sunlight by naming these aspects of your thoughts and feelings.
Talking. Another way to externalize is by going through these steps with someone you know well and who you feel won’t judge you negatively, especially if it is someone that cares about you. Verbally externalize these vampires for yourself with someone: “I’m not getting up excited in the morning,” “I leave the room when X– walks in,” or “I haven’t exercised in five days.” They lose their power in the light of recognition, in the light of scrutiny.
Slaying Vampires, Creating Angels
If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.
~ W.L. Bateman
There is one more step beyond the ABC’s. That’s the D – Disputation. We can follow Bateman’s truism and take the negative beliefs identified before – our vampires – and begin arguing against them. (Other great articles on this topic are Senia Maymin’s A.P.E. Method to Get Out of a Bad Mood, and Kathryn Britton’s Taking positive psychology to work: The reframing skill.)
There are four main ways to slay your vampire beliefs and create angel beliefs.
Evidence: The strongest way to crush a negative belief is by summarizing factual evidence as to why it’s incorrect. What is the evidence that this belief is false? “I am not like my parents in this adversity because I behave differently in these ways…” “I am not weak; I am usually able and strong because of these other situations where I have proven that to myself such as ….”
Alternatives: Almost all adversities have multiple causes. Give alternative reasons/causes for why the adversity happened in the first place. Focus on the cause that is less destructive or more under your control.
Implications: This is what you turn to when the facts aren’t on your side and your Beliefs may, in part, be correct. De-catastrophizing is the rule here. A good question here is: “So what? Is this really so awful? Are the implications of this really so bad? What is the evidence (above) that can weaken the implication of this belief?” Ask yourself how you can change yourself or your beliefs now and in the future in order to get new and different outcomes next time.
Usefulness: Ask yourself: “How useful is this belief to me?” The blood-sucking vampire beliefs we hold serve only to do one thing: keep us in a familiar place of helplessness, weakness, and powerlessness.
After each one of these four, ask: “Now, what are possible alternative consequences given these disputations? I.e., what else can I do? How else can I be acting in this moment?”
Go through these disputation methods for all of your useless beliefs until they shrivel up like a vampire in the sunlight. Write them down in your diary and journal about them. Dispute and argue against them until you are hoarse and they are dead, dead, dead.
Create a new column that lists your new angel belief. During this exercise, you hopefully have come across some possible new beliefs that you can adopt and carry with yourself into the future. Specifically, write them down:
- What are your new angel beliefs? What beliefs move you forward?
- What are your new consequences because of these new angel beliefs?
Literally write these new angel beliefs in conspicuous places for you to be reminded of them: on your bathroom or bedroom mirror, taped onto your computer, on your dashboard, put into a tape recording and listen to it the same time every day or whenever you feel you need it, make it your computer’s wallpaper or your put it on your cell phone. Tell your friends about your new belief, so long as they are open and supportive of your new belief. Be creative. Have fun painting your new beliefs throughout your life.
Enjoy your growth!
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.