How to Escape a Mental Vortex

The Negativity Spiral
Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking ‘it is all my fault, everything is going wrong, and it is never going to get better’?  If so, you adopt what Dr Martin Seligman, pioneer of Positive Psychology, describes as a pessimistic ‘explanatory style’ when managing the impact of a negative event. Seligman labels these thought patterns as the Three P’s – Personalisation, Pervasiveness and Permanence and he associates them with a state of mind called Learned Helplessness i.e. a sense that you are not in control of what happens to you. This way of thinking will not only impede your ability to recover from negative events but is likely to encourage you to be more passive, anxious and unhappy.
I was reminded of this, and its antidote Learned Optimism, when reading Sheryl Sandberg’s latest book Option B. As she chronicles her struggle to manage life following her husband’s sudden death, she credits Seligman’s Three P’s with helping to overcome the entrenched beliefs that were impeding her recovery.

Trigger Points
I frequently work with clients who may not be recovering from such a major emotional trauma, but who hold these beliefs about something negative that has happened at work, and I have grappled with them myself. The trigger could be anything; perhaps its losing a materially important client; falling flat during a presentation; missing a major opportunity or making an expensive strategic mistake. It can be as small as copying the wrong person on an email. Whatever the cause, the outcome is invariably the same. You feel trapped, defined by the mistake and unable to recover and move on. Not only do you obsessively re-think the event itself, you compound your sense of failure and futility by insisting that it’s all your fault, everything is awful and it will never get better. This mental self-flagellation is emotionally exhausting and entirely unconstructive. The cure, however, is not to be told that everyone makes mistakes, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrapper or that it will all come out in the wash. Instead you need to re-establish control over your thoughts, regain perspective and take positive action.

Three Steps back to Positivity
There are three simple steps to regaining control. They are consecutive, but in my experience, you might need to zig-zag back over them until you get there:

  1. Recognise + challenge –  How are you explaining this event to yourself and others? Are you guilty of one or all of the Three P’s?
  2. Identify actions that will help you re-assert control. When you last managed a negative situation, how quickly did the impact recede and what can you take from that to help you now? What small step could you take now that would make you feel better? Who can you talk to help you clear your head, gain perspective and move forward positively?
  3. Act – don’t just think it through. Do it.  Even if its tiny. Make a list. Write one email. Make one call. Identify one new client etc. Small achievements will build your self-confidence and get you moving again.

If you think you could benefit from adopting a more positive approach to managing your thoughts and behaviour, I highly recommend Seligman’s book ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’.

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