Ep 96. How our Stories can Rob us of our Successes

“Thoughts become things” is a message we hear a lot in the self-development space, which is all well and good for the optimists among us. 

They can let their thoughts run off willy nilly and they’ll be bolstered and buffered against life’s hardships, though I confess, I find this idea hard to believe. 

Perhaps that is because I am a pessimist – something I either didn’t know or couldn’t face about myself until very recently. Now, a recovering pessimist, I am learning what it means to think in ways that bolster me for the long journey towards the achievement of my biggest goals. 

I am learning that “pessimistic” isn’t something I am. It is something I do – by thinking a particular way.

If you’re not sure whether you have an optimistic or pessimistic style of thinking, click here to take the test before listening to the podcast or reading the rest of this post.

Explanatory Style

The stories we tell ourselves about our experiences – why they happened, what role we played, and how they predict what will come next – all come together to form our explanatory style, and there are marked differences between the explanatory styles of those who think pessimistically and those who think optimistically.

According to Martin Seligman, the three hallmarks to look at within our stories are:

Personal: Is this outcome down to something I did?

Pervasive: Is this outcome representative of something bigger than just this situation?

Permanent: Is this outcome explained by something that will change or stay the same?

Last week, I looked at  the hallmarks of a pessimistic explanatory style in the face of failures and setbacks. This week, I focus on how those hallmarks show up when we experience successes and high points.

Pessimism in the face of Success

Here’s how optimists and pessimists differ in the stories they tell themselves about their successes.

What does it mean?

Effectively, optimists find it easier to bank the energy and motivation that’s baked into their successes. They can then use this energy and motivation to fuel their efforts for the next round of challenge as they navigate the natural obstacles existing on the road between themselves and their goals.

Pessimists, on the other hand, find it more difficult to bank that same energy. Their successes bring fear, doubt, confusion and frustration because it’s difficult for them to know where to place their energy and attention when the next challenge comes. 

To use a video game analogy, once the optimist has faced an adversary, they pick up a new skill or trinket and place it in their backpack for use on the next level. The pessimist, having won the same battle, travels forward to the next level with the backpack still empty. They face the next level unprotected, making them more likely to fail or quit as the challenges mount but they perceive themselves to be no stronger or better off than they were on the previous level.

Why does it matter?

In most cases, our big goals require us to navigate many failures and setbacks. Starting a business, writing a book, raising a child, leading a team, even reaching personal fitness goals – these all require us to enter the arena and face adversity on a daily basis.

When our explanatory style has the capacity to break our spirit, the chance of us taking the necessary steps forward diminishes. Over time, our energy and enthusiasm wane and we lose heart, lose faith in ourselves, and dim the lights on the dreams that have guided us. In that way, our thoughts become either our empty backpacks or our protective arsenal, changing the options available to us in the choice points of our lives, when one fork leads us towards the life we want while the other leads us away from it.

In every moment and with every story, we decide what goes into the backpack for next time and, in so doing, shape our lives.

Your Thoughts

I’d love to know how this idea resonated with you and what thoughts it awakened in you about the stories you tell yourself.

Comment below or email me directly: natalie@bighappylife.co.uk, and if you’d like to receive these posts and podcasts direct to your inbox, subscribe for free to my Substack newsletter.

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