This article is part of a series called
Antivirus For Your Mind.
best way to improve your explanations of setbacks is simply to
search for mistakes in your explanations as they arise in your
Our minds work automatically for the most
part interpreting, concluding, deciding, judging
and it serves us well. We would get bogged down if we tried to
analyze every explanation we made. So were not going to
even try to do that. It is completely unnecessary. When things
are going well and you feel good, let the good times roll.
But when things are not working
when things dont turn out as you hoped, when your mood
goes south, when you want to give up on your goal search
The easiest way to find mistakes is to
write down your demoralizing thoughts and argue with those thoughts
on paper. Consider yourself personally challenged by those demoralizing
statements and defend yourself. Imagine your least favorite person
said those statements and find something wrong with those statements.
Find everything wrong with them you can.
Decide right now who your least favorite
person is. If you have more than one in mind, just choose one.
Now use a mental image of that person when
youre arguing with your thoughts. Imagine that person explaining
your setbacks to you (with sneering derision).
The best way to do this is on paper. Writing
your explanations down on paper makes them tangible and gives
you something to work with. It is much easier than trying to
do it in your head.
When a setback occurs, write down something
you think caused the setback. For example, imagine a proposal
of yours has been rejected. You write down what you think caused
the setback. In this case, you think, Nobody likes my ideas.
In other words, you think your proposal was rejected because
nobody likes your ideas.
Now argue with that sentence (on paper).
Imagine your least favorite person said to you, Nobody
likes your ideas! Now look for mistakes in that explanation.
You might write something like this: Nobody? That might be an
exaggeration. Maybe Im jumping to conclusions. I really
havent tried everybody, and besides, it might not be the
ideas, it might be the presentation, which could be changed,
and so on.
After arguing with your thoughts this way,
you can see that really only sometimes people dont like
your ideas. That is a more accurate appraisal of the real situation.
And it is not so devastating or upsetting as the thought, Nobody
likes my ideas.
So you have made your explanation of the
setback more accurate and less upsetting.
Being less upset wont make you ecstatic
or jumping for joy, but that is not our purpose here. The aim
is to remove demoralization that shouldnt be there. The
aim is to take away a feeling of defeat that is false, unjustifiable,
Feeling demoralized is debilitating
it handicaps you, so the only time you should ever let yourself
feel that way is when you really are defeated. Right now, you
often feel demoralized mistakenly. Were going to fix that.
It might not make you happy, but it will make you feel bad less
often and it will make you more powerful (more capable of accomplishing
what you want).
three little snags
It sounds pretty easy to argue with demoralizing
thoughts, but three problems tend to come up when you try. First,
negative feelings seem to arise on their own without any thoughts
causing them. That, however, is an illusion.
In fact, your negative feelings were preceded
by a thought such as, Nobody likes my ideas. That
explanation usually zips through your mind so quickly and so
automatically, you dont notice it. All you notice is the
effect: The resulting feelings.
The speed and invisibility of your own
thoughts is a problem. You have a difficult time arguing with
a thought you dont even know youre thinking.
The reason you dont know what youre
thinking when you explain a setback is that some thoughts are
so well-practiced you have thought them so many times
that the thinking goes on in the background of your mind.
You explain certain categories of setback with certain well-practiced
explanations, and then you feel a certain way, and all without
even realizing it. As far as you know, the setback itself made
you feel bad. It seems obvious that anyone would feel bad. It
seems obvious that feeling bad is the appropriate response. But
it only seems that way because your explanation zipped by so
quickly. And it only zipped by so quickly because you have practiced
that explanation so many times.
I want you to fully understand how well-practiced
your explanations are. You have many setbacks every day, all
of which you explain to yourself, and youve been doing
it since before you can remember.
What happens when you do anything several
times a day for that many years? What happens is that you stop
being aware youre doing it. It has gone completely automatic.
This would not be a problem if we always made good explanations.
But sometimes we make mistakes.
The way we explain setbacks to ourselves
is the way we haphazardly got into the habit of doing it when
we were younger. Were not necessarily making the best possible
explanations we could make, as youll find out. But now
So you explain setbacks automatically,
and the way you feel and what you do ensues from the way you
explain the setbacks, but you arent even aware youre
doing it. To you, your feelings are appropriate and fitting,
given the circumstances. You always feel this way when that kind
of thing happens. Not because thats the only way a person
could feel when that happens, but only because you always explain
those kinds of setbacks the way youre used to explaining
things like that, and your emotions in response are familiar
and seem perfectly normal.
Thats why its hard to notice
yourself making explanations. Youre explaining setbacks
pretty much automatically, just as you drive your car automatically.
You can carry on a conversation while you drive, allowing your
driving (a very complicated process) to happen automatically.
And you havent had nearly as much practice driving as you
have explaining setbacks.
The solution to this problem is to write
down your negative thoughts, and argue with them on paper. Your
explanations of setbacks are slippery and hard to get a hold
of. They move through your mind with practiced speed. But put
them down on paper and you can dissect them more easily.
Your thoughts are more airy than a physical
habit, and thats the only thing that makes them seem harder
to change. But when you write them down, it makes your thoughts
real, physical, and available for scrutiny.
So when you begin to try to improve your
explanations of setbacks, the first problem youll run into
is your explanations are well-practiced and move with a lot of
speed through your mind, making it hard to know what youre
The second problem occurs even when you
know what youre thinking. You know what you think, but
you believe your thoughts are true.
For example, after his divorce, a man decided,
I am doomed to miserable relationships. His mind
is made up. He is sure he is right. How can he successfully argue
with his demoralizing thoughts? He is defeated before he starts.
He may even be aware of thinking the pessimistic,
defeatist thought, but if he assumes hes correct, hell
make no attempt to argue with his thinking.
The solution to this problem is to look
at your thoughts with an already-existing list of virus
definitions (which youll find out about shortly).
In other words, you wont try to decide on the spot whether
your thoughts are true or not. If you feel bad, youll write
down your thoughts. Even if you think youre not making
any mistakes in your thinking, write down your thoughts if you
feel bad. Then look at your thoughts through the filter of the
virus definitions Ill give you shortly. You may be mistaken
about your explanation without knowing it. The virus definitions
will help you discover whether or not this is the case.
The third problem youll encounter
when you try to argue with your thoughts is not knowing which
thoughts to argue with. You have a lot of thoughts going through
your mind. Which ones do you write down and argue with? Its
not as hard as it might seem at first. We can be very specific
about what to look for:
1. something you believe caused the setback
2. a belief that makes you feel bad
Let me give you some examples. Lets
say you planned to exercise today, but the day is over, and you
are now in bed and you didnt exercise today. You
think about it for a second and conclude, I have no self-discipline.
And you feel like a loser.
That conclusion is what you would argue
with. The setback is: You didnt exercise. Youre trying
to get in shape, and you didnt exercise according to your
plan. The thought, I have no self-discipline is what
you believe caused the setback. In other words, the reason you
didnt exercise is that you have no self-discipline. That
reason is what you would argue with. (Youre going to learn
how to argue later in this chapter.)
Lets look at another example. Youre
a freshman in college and you get a failing grade on your first
exam, and you feel sad. You were enthusiastic but now all the
enthusiasm about school has drained out of you. That is a setback.
Remember, a setback is anything that happens you didnt
want to happen. Or anything that doesnt happen that you
wanted to happen.
You didnt want a failing grade, so it is a setback. You
think, I dont have what it takes. That is your
explanation of why you failed the test. That is what you believe
caused the setback its the reason the setback happened
so that is the thought you write down and argue with:
I dont have what it takes.
A woman who showed up to a book-signing
stayed afterwards to talk to me. She said she was compulsively
perfectionistic, but she considered it a fixed part of her character
so she had never tried to change it.
This is a setback. It doesnt seem
like a setback, perhaps, because it didnt happen suddenly.
But she didnt want to be a perfectionist. Her explanation
implied that she couldnt help it. She was born that way.
She thought genetics was the cause of her setback, so that was
what she wrote down to argue with.
Another reason it doesnt seem like
a setback is that her explanation of the setback probably evolved
before she really got a chance to form a goal of being more relaxed
(less uptight, less perfectionistic). But listening to her, it
was clear she didnt want to be a perfectionist. This implies
a goal of being free of that compulsion.
But the goal was never articulated because
she thought it was impossible. A lot of goals are like that.
You probably have some goals like that yourself. The very second
you formed the goal in your mind, you dismissed it because of
some explanation. So you formed a goal and hit a setback (in
your mind) in the same moment.
Things you always wished you
could do are in that category. You decided they were hopeless
dreams the second you thought of them. They sit there in the
back of your mind in a state of suspended animation, and until
you read this, they may have remained that way. You may never
have checked those explanations for mistakes.
I had one of those. When I was a kid, I
wanted to play the electric guitar. But before I even fully clarified
that goal in my mind, I had already killed it: Electric
guitars are really expensive, I would have to learn the acoustic
first (and Im not interested in acoustic guitar), I dont
have the patience for music lessons, and besides, everyone wants
to play the electric guitar (so Id never be able to play
in a band because of too much competition).
These are conclusions I never examined.
They were self-evident conclusions as far as I was concerned.
Conclusions like this destroy motivation and demote a potentially
satisfying purpose to an idle daydream. The battle was over before
I even knew a battle was going on.
We largely defeat ourselves. Wise people
have been saying that for thousands of years. But cognitive researchers
(scientists who study the effect of thoughts on feelings and
behavior) have discovered how we defeat ourselves.
If you have always wanted to
play the piano, but you think, Im too old now; I
should have learned as a child, you slam the door on that
possibility just as completely as if you had amputated your hands.
But what is stopping you? The only thing stopping you is your
explanation of the setback.
The setback: You would like to play piano,
but you have failed to do so.
The explanation: If youre going to
play the piano, you have to start when youre a child, and
youre no longer a child, so now you cant play the
Lets look at one more example of
a setback and an explanation and then well get to the meat
of the matter. It is vitally important that you understand these
first distinctions. The method I explain in this chapter rests
on the solid foundation of you knowing exactly what I mean by
setback and explanation of a setback.
Lets say you want to become a teacher
but youre afraid of speaking in public. Years have gone
by and youve never done anything about it. You feel like
a chicken, like you have no backbone, and youre a little
ashamed of yourself. Thats a setback. In this case, it
is something that doesnt happen that you wanted to happen.
And you feel bad because you believe it will never happen.
Your explanation of why youre afraid
to speak in public is, I was born shy. That is your
explanation of the cause of the setback. Thats the reason
youre afraid to do it. And that is the thought to write
down and argue with.
Okay. Enough examples. Now you know what
to look for and what to argue with. When you feel demoralized
or some other negative emotion, look for what you think caused
the setback. Look for the reason the setback happened.
Rooting out negative thoughts and
seeing them for what they are can eliminate the negative
emotions they cause. Successfully arguing against those demoralizing
thoughts will undemoralize you. It can, and probably will, make
you feel good again. And it will make you stronger, more creative,
more persistent, and more capable.
A feeling of frustration or demoralization
takes the fun out of your days. So immunizing yourself against
demoralization is not only good for you and good for your ability
to succeed, it makes life more fun!
It takes a little work, but it is worth
it. Some people try to take the easy way so they think
positive. Let me be very clear on this point: Arguing with
your negative thoughts is not positive thinking. If you handle
your explanations of setbacks by trying to think more positively,
it will not work nearly as well as finding out what is really
and truly mistaken about your negative thoughts.
This is not positive thinking. It is more
like anti-defeatist or anti-discouragement thinking. Aim at making
fewer mistakes in your thinking. This is a kind of antivirus
program for your mind. It is more fundamental than positive thinking,
and also more effective when you feel demoralized.
Youre not trying to make yourself
believe a more positive thought here. Youre not even trying
to make yourself believe your negative thoughts are mistaken.
Youre trying to find actual, real mistakes in your negative
thoughts. No convincing is necessary, no faith is
necessary, and trying to make yourself believe something you
dont actually believe is unnecessary.
Read the next chapter: Why
Negative Thoughts Seem So Right
This series has also been published as
a book. Check it out here.