Learned Optimism

When you passively accept abuse and think that you can do nothing to change what is happening to you, you are learning to be helpless. After you learn this, it is hard to unlearn. The psychologist Martin Seligman first discovered "learned helplessness" when he saw that dogs, who had received an electric shock while in a cage and unable to escape, would stay there after the cage door was opened. They did not leave. They had learned to be helpless.They passively waited for the shock to happen again. Even with a clear escape route, they stayed. They were stuck in their helplessness. 

This concept has been useful in thinking about women who do not leave abusive partners. The thought of helplessness is clearly more powerful than the reality of the situation.

Seligman (1990) next studied people who experienced abuse or trauma to determine how many of them responded with learned helplessness. He found that about two-thirds learned to be helpless while one-third did not. 

Seligman wanted to know how this happened. How did one-third of them not learn helplessness? He divided people into two categories: Learned pessimists and learned optimists. Three factors were found to explain the difference between the two responses:
  • Permanence - How permanent does the person think the situation is?
  • Pervasiveness - What is the extent of the impact on the person's life?
  • Personalization - Does the person feel they are responsible for the situation?

An optimist looks at things as temporary, while a pessimist looks at things as permanent. The optimist is convinced that things will get better. What does the learned optimist say about permanence?

  • It's hard today, but it will get better.
  • This too will pass.
  • I don't like this, but I can get through it.
  • Nothing lasts forever.
  • Things will get better soon. 

When a person thinks that something is bad, and thinks that will make everything bad, she is a pessimist. Thinking that life is bad - all of life, not just a part of it - is learned pessimism. Learned optimism is seeing that something - a part of life - has problems, is difficult, hard, and painful. But that is not all of life. You can put boundaries around the area of life that is bad so that it does not infect other areas of your life. A pessimist thinks in a way that allows the negative experience in one area of life to infect other areas of life. What does a learned optimist say about pervasiveness?

  • This is only one part of my life.
  • This does not have to affect my work or my friendships.
  • I can still enjoy ___________ even though I am going through this.
  • It's okay to laugh and play.
  • I will enjoy my daughter, by garden, my job, ___________.

Negative and positive people or Pessimists and Optimists view life through a different lens.

If a negative event or situation happens to a person,  
The Negative/Pessimistic lens view is:

  • This is my fault.
  • I did it.
  • I caused this to happen.

The Positive/Optimistic lens view is:

  • This thing just happened. I didn't cause it.
  • I'm not at fault.
  • It's just bad luck.

If a positive event or situation happens to a person,

The Negative/Pessimistic lens view is:

  • Such good luck!
  • I didn't do anything to make this happen.
  • This isn't because of anything I did.

The Positive/Optimistic lens view is:

  • I'm glad that I was able to make that happen.
  • Wow, I can make a difference. I did that.
  • If I do more of this, I'll keep having good things happen to me.

When mothers find out that their children have been sexually abused, this is a negative, painfultraumatizing discovery. They will experience shock, denial, pain, and confusion. Initially, the pain and wrong and bad will feel like it is infecting everything. However, the situation is not permanent:

  • This too will pass. 
  • It won't last forever.
  • You can get through this.
  • The day will come will you can make decisions and changes in your life without doubting yourself. 
  • Your life is not ruined by what happened to you or your child.
  • You can survive.
  • You can get through this.
  • Your child can get through this.
  • Your child will recover



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