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The Three P's of Dealing with Bad Things

POSTED: July 3, 2017 4:54 p.m.

“Bad things” sometimes happen. This is a great truth we come to understand early on in life.

In fact, the often-quoted paradox of why “bad things happen to good people” has become part of the American lexicon, so much so that books have been written with that title.

Perhaps as you read this, a certain event or setback in your life may come to mind.

Perhaps as you read this, you may think of others in your life who never seem to have bad things happen to them.

Actually, what I have found is that those in the latter group do indeed suffer setbacks and encounter difficulties like everyone else. They are just resilient and deal with “bad things” positively.

Why do some people develop a resilience to setbacks and others struggle?

According to the well-regarded psychologist Martin Seligman, those who are resilient to life’s difficulties avoid three critical thought processes (3 P’s) that can stunt recovery.

The first “P” is personalization. This is the belief that we are at fault.

Often, we are the first ones we blame for a setback. We analyze everything we did that might have contributed to the problem. We say, “If I had only…”

Frequently, our self-criticisms are neurotic, where we exaggerate our influence in any situation. We apologize to everyone for everything. This type of self-flagellation is typically unwarranted.

That is, often things that happen “to us” do not happen “because of us.” And there really was nothing we could have reasonably done.

Pervasiveness is the second “P.” This is the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life.

When we suffer a setback or feel as if we are in crisis, we tend to extend that difficulty to everything in our life.

I have seen this often with someone going through a divorce.

“My whole life is a mess,” he or she might say.

“It is?” I ask. “Your kids are okay?”

“Well, yes, I think they will be fine.”

“Are you losing your job?” I press.

“No, everything there is okay.”

“Are you ill, besides feeling depressed because of the divorce?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you have a loving family, friends and a church who are all helping you get through this, right?” I ask.

“True. Yes, definitely.

“So, not everything in your life is a mess, is it?”

When we grieve some loss – and a setback is a loss (of a plan, a dream, etc.) – we can expand the effects of that loss in our minds. That is, we can let that event color everything else in our life.

Those who develop resilience in difficulties know how to compartmentalize their setbacks.

The third “P” is permanence. This is the belief that the after-shocks of an event will last forever.

Studies on “effective forecasting” – our predictions of how we will feel in the future – reveal that we tend to over-estimate how long negative events will affect us.

In one study, young people were asked to imagine their current romantic relationship ending and predict how unhappy they would feel two months later. Other peers were asked to report their own happiness two months after an actual breakup.

Those who experienced a real split were far happier than expected.

When we are suffering, we tend to project it out indefinitely.

Just as the body has an immune system that marshals it forces when attacked, so does the human mind.

In short, those who bounce back from a setback avoid the thinking that “it is my fault this is awful, my whole life is awful, and it will always be awful.”

Life doesn’t always give you roses. And we can’t do anything about that.

What we can do, however, is avoid personalization, pervasiveness and permanence when “bad things” do happen. That resilience will pay dividends to us and those in our lives in the long run.


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