This article is part of a series called
Antivirus For Your Mind.
ONE KIND of explanation most likely to make you want to give
up is an assumption that no matter what you do, you cannot win.
This is defeatism. It means you expect defeat. It means you accept
defeat and decide there is nothing you can do to change things.
That kind of thinking takes the fight out
of you, and if you ever had a chance to change things, it is
now lost only because of what happened in your mind.
But from now on, you will know how to prevent
defeatism from destroying your determination. You will have the
know-how to find it where it lurks in your mind, and crush it
before it causes you to give up.
Defeatist thinking means you assume you
cant improve the situation. It is an assumption; never
a fact. And you are not replacing that assumption with another
assumption. This is not an effort to convince yourself of a positive
thought. You are merely leaving the question where it really
is: You dont know. When you truly dont know, it is
foolish to assume youre helpless. It is unnecessary and
self-defeating to decide something cannot be done.
During the Civil War, the situation seemed
hopeless several times to the North, even though, of course,
the North eventually won. But if you read the newspapers of the
day, written by Northerners and published in Union newspapers,
you might easily be persuaded to think there was no possible
way the North would win. Lots of writers who ardently and desperately
wanted the North to win nevertheless expressed their absolute
certainty of losing. They were demoralized.
For example, an ardent Northern patriot,
Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, We have to
fight for a boundary that is all now left to us.
In other words, winning the Civil War against the South was a
lost cause. All that the North could hope for was to draw a boundary
and let the Southerners form their own separate government.
I can understand the awful reluctance
with which you can be brought to contemplate a divided nation.
But there is no help for it, Medill wrote, ...complete
success has become a moral impossibility.
Medills demoralization was not his
alone. During several trying periods, it was shared by a majority
of people in the North. So many setbacks (combined with the explanations
people made of those setbacks) had most Northerners convinced
the war could not be won by the North.
Their certainty was premature, as we now
know. Their pessimism was overdone, as it usually is.
When Admiral Byrd was a boy in the wrestling
match, he assumed he would lose, and he gave up. But what brought
him back to life was his realization he might be mistaken about
If he went a step further and assumed he
could win, that would have been positive thinking, which has
its place. But anti-defeatism is more sure and more basic, it
doesnt require trying to convince yourself of something
you are not convinced of, and always should be your first step.
The reality is, people often give up on
something and decide it cant be accomplished when it really
can. They assume the situation is hopeless when it actually isnt.
And so dreams go unfulfilled. Goals are forgotten. Relationships
fall apart. Finances crumble. Kids are left without guidance.
And so on.
The things you have in your heart
the things you really want to accomplish can probably
be accomplished. But you have to prevent your mind from reflexively
making the assumption it is hopeless.
The making of a defeatist assumption is
almost always reflexive, meaning you dont make it consciously.
Heres how it happens: You hit a setback and you feel like
youve been kicked in the gut. In self-defense, your mind
concludes the goal is impossible. Its a natural reaction,
almost a reflex. Thats defeatism. And the assumptions behind
it are almost always wrong.
If a goal is sufficiently important to
you, a setback will certainly make you feel bad, no matter who
you are or how many times youve read this book. But the
way you explain the setback to yourself will then bring you back
quickly and help you recover from the blow, or it will keep you
feeling bad, or even make you feel worse and worse.
In other words, the way you explain the
setback to yourself will determine how quickly your determination
comes back, and if it comes back at all.
How do you keep from giving up? How do
you keep from selling out? How do you keep from letting your
feeling of motivation die? This is a question of the ages. And
now you know the answer.
This applies to any goal you have. If your
marriage is on the rocks, the way youre explaining this
setback will determine whether youve reached an important
turning point in your relationship, or the beginning of the end.
People who make good explanations of setbacks
are more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke. Why? Because
they are more persistent. They are less likely to feel defeated
so they are less likely to give up on what they want. The way
they explain setbacks gives them a sense that their actions make
a difference which is a fact poor explanations conceal.
Good explanations prevent them from making the mistake of deciding
that something (like a smoking habit) cannot be changed.
If something is changeable or preventable,
it makes a big difference whether you believe it is or believe
For example, if you have frequent, negative
shouting matches with your teenager, this is a setback. Things
are not turning out like you want. So you will explain it. Lets
say you decide, Thats just the way teenagers are.
Is that a good explanation? Well, its
better than, I cant make anything work, but
no, it is not a good explanation. Why? Because it implies that
the situation cant change until your kid is an adult. And
that may not be true. It is a way of accepting the
situation without feeling too bad about it. But it doesnt
help you accomplish your goal having a good relationship
with your teen.
Your explanations determine whether you
will try again or not. Making a mistaken explanation like, Thats
the way teens are, can kill your motivation to try again.
Sales is a good testing ground for this
stuff. Salespeople hit lots of setbacks and the setbacks are
important too many setbacks and you cant pay your
mortgage! Thats serious.
MetLife Insurance Company used to hire
five thousand salespeople a year, spend time and money training
them, and by the end of the first year, half of them quit. Most
of those who didnt quit sold less and less, and by the
fourth year, eighty percent of them had quit. This was typical
of the entire insurance-sales industry, and it was a tragic waste
of training expenses and a tragedy of human failure and suffering.
MetLife wanted to do something about it.
Martin Seligman set up a series of experiments and heres
what he found out: Those who made the fewest mistakes in their
thinking (when they explained their setbacks to themselves) were
the most likely to do well. They made a lot more sales and they
were much less likely to become demoralized and quit.
Think about that. In a job full of setbacks,
strong explanations won the race by a mile. The salespeople in
the habit of explaining setbacks with minimum mistakes were more
successful and less demoralized they did better and they
Good explanations did more than simply
make them persistent. When a salesperson makes fewer mistakes
in her explanations, she stops feeling so disheartened by setbacks.
So setbacks themselves become less of a big deal. She then frets
less about upcoming sales presentations. If a sales call doesnt
turn out well, she now knows it wont be a catastrophe.
So she has less anxiety before a sales call, and less demoralization
after a rejection. This makes it easier to make the next call.
This makes success more likely.
The antivirus for the mind wont take
care of everything it is not the end-all, be-all for feeling
better and getting more done. It is only one of the tools.
The other four tools in this book will
help you go far beyond merely protecting yourself from demoralization.
But if you fully understand the antivirus for the mind and put
it into practice, you can immunize yourself against many unnecessary
negative feelings. This will make the achievement of your goals
easier and more fun.
a case in point
To see how the antivirus for the mind works
on a specific problem, a team of researchers took thirty-three
people with panic disorder who averaged five panic attacks per
week per person.
Sixteen of them had weekly sessions with
a therapist who provided emotional support. Seventeen of them
had weekly sessions with a cognitive therapist who taught them
to check their explanations for mistakes.
For instance, when a man felt chest pain,
he was taught to question his explanations. His first explanation
of chest pain might be, I am having a heart attack.
And that thought basically scared him into a panic attack. This
is a common side-effect of negative thoughts: A self-feeding
loop. In other words, a negative thought making a negative emotion,
and the negative emotion causing more negative thoughts, which
causes even more intense negative emotions. In his case, a feeling
in his chest scares him (because of his explanation of it) and
so his heart beats harder, which he can feel, which scares him
even more, etc.
The mans cognitive therapist coached
him to question his explanation and remind himself that when
these feelings occurred in the past, they had never amounted
He was also coached to come up with more
likely causes than the first thought that came to mind (that
its a heart attack). It was more likely to be heartburn,
In other words, he learned to doubt his
automatic, habitual, negative assumptions. He learned to recognize
the mistakes in his thinking. He learned that his first explanation
is not the only one possible and not necessarily the best one.
At the end of two months, twelve of the
cognitive-therapy people (the explanation-checkers) were totally
free of panic attacks. Only four of the emotionally-supported
people were free of attacks.
Among those who still had panic attacks,
the explanation-check people averaged one attack a week. The
emotional-support people averaged three per week.
The researchers did a one-year follow-up.
The success rate had not diminished in that time. Arguing with
their own negative, pessimistic thoughts dramatically changed
Hundreds of similar studies show the same
results on a huge variety of negative feelings.
Similar effects to cognitive therapy can
be achieved on your own using paper and pen. As a matter of fact,
thats often the most effective technique cognitive therapists
assign as homework. It is not difficult to do.
Read the next chapter: The
Basic Technique For Lifting Yourself Out Of Any Negative Emotion
This series has been published as a book.
Check it out here.