Learned Optimism How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (2006, Vintage)

Review :

I first read this in 2013. I was really looking for something to help me with a problem I have struggled with all my adult life: learned helplessness. What is learned helplessness An overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that stems from either a traumatic event (true for me), or some persistent failure to succeed (also true for me, but the root cause was a traumatic event). What I discovered was that, somewhere along the line, I had become a serious pessimist.

I think the reason this book turned the trick for me was that it turned optimism into a process rather than some just-out-of-reach brass ring. I'd been tagged by an overwhelming feeling of despair for years. I felt a real sense of relief when I read what Seligman had to say on the unhappiness caused by learned helplessness (which is in turn caused by pessimism): this is a nameable and fixable problem. Suddenly, something that felt totally ethereal and therefore unsolvable suddenly had a name and a possible solution--something within my control. Just reading the book put me in a better frame of mind. (I, er, didn't do the exercises when I first read this. I would suggest going ahead and doing them and not waiting.)

Basically, I think the steps can be boiled down to these:

1. Pay attention to your thoughts. When you start to feel overwhelmed:

2. Distract yourself.

This really only works short-term, but it's a good technique to use when you can't sit down and do the next step. Even something as simple as "I'll think about this later" can get the Inner Critic to shut up. I've also found that finding something constructive to do helps. Painting works great for me. Something else might work for you. For longer-lasting results:

3. Refute the Inner Critic.

Seligman doesn't call it this--I can't remember his wording, and he explains it a lot better than I do here. But to really do the job, you have to refute the constant ruminating your brain does. Don't let it go unchecked. The key here isn't dismissing the Inner Critic, it's mitigating what it says to you so that it doesn't spiral out of control. So it's not a dismissive "Haters gonna hate" or a mindless list of affirmations.

I can see how some believe the book is more theoretical than practical, but there are steps to helping your thought process in there. Most importantly, I think, is that Seligman manages to convey all of this in a way that totally does not blame the reader. In fact, he points out that it can be difficult to know if you are a pessimist. (If you frequently experience people reacting negatively to you and you don't know what you said wrong, you might be a pessimist.)

All I can say is, this book really helped me. I had a small writing job that turned into a lot of work, which wound up pulling me out of poverty-level wages. In two years, I've not gone back. I went from sleeping on a friend's sofa to getting my own place. (Not the greatest apartment, but still, it's mine, and I've paid my own rent for the better part of a year and a half now.) I'm not saying my life is all sunshine and roses, or that I don't still struggle. I'm still in the negative numbers when I take the test. But even a movement of four points (-8 to -4) has yielded huge results for me. I've definitely felt a push into a better life from reading this book. I just have more work to do.


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