Personal, Permanent, Pervasive.
“While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.”
– Martin Seligman
Many things in life are outside of our control. But one thing that is within our control is how we explain the things that happen to us.
This is known in psychology as our “explanatory style”. The language we use and the way we perceive our experiences — especially challenging ones — can have a lasting effect on who we become.
Like many of life’s big lessons, understanding a concept is far easier than putting it in action. In Martin Seligman's book Learned Optimism, he offers three explanatory styles that we typically use when we recall experiences: Permanent, Pervasive and Personal.
For each style, we can choose either an optimistic or pessimistic response. To understand these better, let’s use a recent example from my life.
Just the other day, I walked onto my balcony after a week away and saw my tomato plant nearly dead. Here are the different explanatory styles my self-talk could adopt:
Do I view this as permanent or impermanent?
Permanent: “I’ll never have homegrown tomatoes.”
Impermanent: “It didn’t work out this time, but there is is always next season.”
Do I view this as pervasive or specific?
Pervasive: “My tomato plant is like everything else in my life — all effort but no fruit!”
Specific: “I may have lost that plant, but I still have a garden of herbs.”
Do I view this as personal or external?
Personal: “I just don’t have a green thumb.”
External: “Maybe there wasn’t enough sun or the tomatoes needed more water while I was away or perhaps there are bugs sucking the life out of my plant.” (In my case, turned out to be those little bugs!)
This is not to say that all situations should be met with unchecked optimism. Critical thinking can help us minimize future risks, put things in perspective, and generally learn, grow, and flourish. It’s a matter of knowing our explanatory styles and understanding how they shape our experience in the world — and in what ways they lead us astray.
To growing with the garden,