How to Overcome Life’s Inevitable Challenges: Explanatory Style

Have you ever wondered how some people are able to bounce back from what seems like insurmountable difficulties and setbacks, while other are severely burdened by what appears to be trivial challenges? What causes a person to face some of the most daunting of life’s challenges, such as loss of a job, divorce, loss of a loved one, or severe illness, and still persevere and maintain a positive attitude? On the other hand, what causes a person to allow such trivial matters, such as something someone said, or the traffic or weather, to ruin their day?

The answer is an easy one. It is because of resilience. Now that’s obvious. The more resilient someone is, the better he or she will be able to handle challenges, difficulties, tragedies, and setbacks. But let’s dig a little deeper. The real question is, what causes an individual to be more resilient than others? Also, how can one develop the skills to become more resilient?

The answer to the variability of our degree of resilience is due to our explanatory style.  Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that determines how we explain to ourselves why we experience a particular event, either positive or negative. It is basically how we interpret our lives and the events that occur in our lives. We are often not aware of our explanatory style because it is unconscious, as most of our belief systems have been in place since young childhood.

Explanatory style is described by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., as a concept in the field of Positive Psychology, the branch of psychology that is the scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association is a leading motivational expert and an authority on learned helplessness. He is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

He describes three dimensions of explanation – the three P’s – permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. With regards to the first dimension, permanence, people who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent. They believe the bad events will persist, and will always be there to negatively affect their lives. This leads to a pessimistic explanatory style. Individuals with an optimistic explanatory style toward bad events believe that the event is temporary and has a temporary cause. The opposite is true when explaining good events. People who believe good events have permanent causes are more optimistic than people who believe good events have temporary causes.

With regards to pervasiveness, people with a pessimistic explanatory style believe that life’s difficulties are universal attributes of their lives whereas those with an optimistic explanatory style believe that the bad event has a specific, rather than a universal, cause. The opposite is true for good events. The optimist believes that good events will enhance everything he does, while the pessimist believes that good events are caused by specific factors.

The final aspect of explanatory style is personalization. When bad things happen, the pessimist tends to blame himself (internalize) while the optimist blames other people or circumstances (externalize). Once again, the opposite is true for good events. Optimists believe that they personally cause good things to happen in their lives, and pessimist believe that good things come from other people or circumstances.

Now that you have an understanding of explanatory style and difference between optimistic and pessimistic views, I would like to ask you a few questions. First, when a bad event happens to you, how do you explain it to yourself? Do you feel it is permanent, a consistent presence in your life, or a temporary struggle that will eventually pass? Do you think it is pervasive, effecting every aspect of your live, or just a specific part of your life? And finally, do you take it personally, believing that you bring the bad events to your life, or are they caused by external events?

To return to the question earlier, how do you become more resilient? First, it starts with the conscious awareness of your explanatory style. Second, actively change your explanatory style to an optimistic view and apply this for both bad events, as well as good ones.

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