My in-laws bought a beautiful SUV with pristine paint and not a dent in sight. They came to visit us for the weekend, and my mother-in-law needed to run an errand. She offered to let me drive. I promptly backed the aforementioned SUV directly into a trailer parked behind it. I cried. My mother-in-law might have too. In the moment after the incident, I told myself things like, “You’re such a mess! You always do stuff like this. You’re never going to get it together.”
Years later, my in-laws were in town again, and we were heading out for a day at the lake. I had a sudden craving for coffee so we pulled into a parking lot. I made my purchase and exited only to discover my family talking to a stranger. Someone pointed to the bumper of our SUV, and I could see the crumpled metal and shattered headlight. The responsible party said, “I didn’t see you in the rearview mirror. It’s a work truck I’ve never driven before, and I’m not used to it. I wish I had backed out slower.”
I stood there, coffee in hand, and considered our very different explanations of two strikingly similar events. Back in graduate school, we learned about research by a psychologist named Martin Seligman. He asserted that there are two distinct ways of explaining events in our lives. The first style, pessimism, saw unfortunate events as personal, permanent, and pervasive. In other words, those with this style believe it’s their fault, it will last forever, and it affects every area of their lives (see my response to backing into that trailer as an example).
The second style, optimism, sees those very same events as external, temporary, and specific. In other words, they attribute the cause to something outside themselves, they believe it won’t last forever, and whatever happened is only related to this individual situation (see the response of the man who backed into Mark’s car as an example).
This optimism is not the stereotypical kind where someone ignores reality and insists that everything is good all the time. None of us want to be that way so try to put that definition of optimism out of your mind. What we’re talking about actually gives us a more realistic view.
Seligman found that those with the pessimistic style were more prone to anxiety, depression, and even physical illness. They were more likely to quit jobs, not push through obstacles, and give up. Here’s the good news: We can change our style. Doing so begins with recognizing our natural response. If we tend to react with a pessimistic style, then we can pause and choose to process events in a different way. We can ask,
What external factors contributed to this? (I was driving an unfamiliar car and the trailer was parked in my blind spot.)
Will this really last forever? (This is unfortunate, but it can be fixed in a few days.)
Does this really affect every area of my life? (One bad moment as a driver doesn’t make me a bad person.)
The goal of this reflection is not saying “I’m fine!” with a fake smile on our face. It’s also not about getting out of our responsibilities or passing the blame. The man in the parking lot and I both ended up paying for new bumpers. Explaining events differently simply helps us be more resilient and minimizes the long-term damage to our emotional, mental, and physical health, as well as our relationships. It decreases our anxiety and helps us fight off depression.
Also, while Seligman calls this optimism, it sure feels a lot to me like living in grace. As believers, we aren’t limited to just “pessimist” or “optimist.” We can go above and beyond either because we’re indwelled by and empowered through the Spirit.
Sometimes, I’m still tempted to look at what happens in my life as personal, permanent, and pervasive. We all have this tendency — when our spouse leaves, when our evaluation report at work is not what we hoped, when our teenager yells and then slams the door, when we get laid off, when our friend stops returning our calls, when we spill the milk.
We often can’t control what happens to us. But we can control what we think about it. “For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 NKJV). As a woman thinks in her heart, so is she too.
God, You have given us powerful minds that shape how we view ourselves and circumstances. When we start to give in to negativity and self-criticism, shift us back toward grace and compassion. We so often do this for others, but it’s much harder to do for ourselves. Empower us to do so. Amen.
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We often can’t control what happens to us. But we can control what we think about it. - @holleygerth Click To Tweet