By Shawn Dwyer and Dr.L.Michael Hall

There are three magic words that conveys the inner spirit of resilience.

I stumbled onto them in reading Martin Seligman’s work on Learned Helplessness and then on Learned Optimism. In his books he tells the story of moving from being a strict Behaviorist to integrating cognition into his understanding of human nature and eventually becoming a Cognitive Behaviorist. It happened with his studies with animals and how he was able to train them to learn to become helpless.
What later happened, if I remember the story accurately, first he trained the dogs to learn to be helpless. They would just sit on the electrified grid having learned that there was no place they could move where there wasn’t the electricity and so they would just lie down and “take it.” It was as if in doggie think, the dog had concluded there was nothing he could
do. “I’m helpless to change things, and so hopeless.” This is “learned helplessness.” Then one day, one of the lab technicians physically moved one of the dogs, who had learned to be helpless, off of the electrified grid to a place where there was no electricity.

That’s when something magical happened

Whereas previously the dog had “learned” he could do nothing and so sat down in a helpless state, now having experienced something beyond the pain, the dog “learned” something else. He learned “there is a place where there is no pain.” He learned that there is hope! Something did make a difference. And even more incredibly, after that the dog could not or would not re-learn the learned helplessness. Seligman’s conclusion was that the dog had now “learned” optimism. That is, the dog had essentially learned, “There is always something that I can do. I am not helpless.”

The Formula

Seligman said that what the dogs “learned” was as if they thought that the unpleasant experience they were having was everywhere (pervasive), forever (permanent), and about them (personal). Comparing that to people with severe depression, he recognized that this is also the structure of clinical depression.
People assume the same things-about space, they assume that the problem is everywhere.
About time, they assume that the problem will last forever. And about the source of the problem, it is about them.
This gives us three Ps- pervasive, permanent, and personal. Use that template to think about a problem and you will draw the conclusion that you are stuck! You are helpless and hopeless. And, if you draw that conclusion, you inevitably create a good case of depression. It is a formula for personal misery.

Pessimistic Explanatory Style

Structurally, this gives us what he called the pessimistic explanatory style for interpreting events. It is characterized as seeing things through the following lens:
_ Permanent in time: unchangeable, insoluble, insurmountable.
_ Pervasive in space: effecting everything and undermining every
facet of life.
_ Personal in source: positing the problem with the self.
With these three perspectives, when facing a set-back a person sees himself as inadequate, deficient, lacking, selfish, mean, criminal, etc. That, in turn, creates dis-empowerment and non-resilience leading to feeling depressed, passive, and suicidal. Not a pretty picture! And when facing a set-back or a knock-down, looking at an experience with these lens makes things much, much worse. For humans it creates depression. But there is good news: You do not have to view things through these lens. There’s a better choice.

A Better Choice

The better choice is to use an opposite explanatory style. Seligman named it the optimistic explanatory style. Here a person interprets the set-back in a “positive” or optimistic way. The “optimism” here is not “Thing will turn out great!” It is rather an optimism that enables you to do something tangible about a set back. It keeps the “bad” or “evil” thing from getting into your inner game. The optimistic explanatory style enables you to interpret the unpleasant event or bad thing through the following lens:
_ Then – temporary in time: The event is about this person and situation in this moment of time.
_ That – specific in space: It is that thing in that space.
_ There – external in source: It is there, not me.
In the place of the pessimistic Ps, you have three new magic words to say, all of them start with T: “That- there- then.
Or if it is occurring currently, then “This- here- now.
With this style, you see the problem as in the environment, the behavior, etc., but not you. “Not me!”
This explanation prevents you from over-generalizing and coloring dark the future, life, or another person. You perceive what happened as occurring at a specific time, in a specific situation, involving specific people, etc.
This contains the “evil,” thereby preventing it from spilling over onto everything else. It keeps you open, hopeful, and responsible to taking effective actions.


What Seligman discovered concerned a person’s attitude (or meta-state) about three facets of his or her Matrix- Self, Time, and World which, in turn, then affects one’s sense of Power, Meaning, Intention, and State.
Framing a set-back or problem as you (your Self) undermines your power to do anything.
What can you do if you are the problem? By making it everywhere in your World you over-generalize and imply, “nothing is exempt.” And by making it last forever, you make the problem permanent. No wonder you feel helpless and hopeless. Here, as always, the problem rests in these frames.
Changing the frames (meta-states) so that the problem is outside and not you, limited to the here and now and not everywhere or forever contains the problem. And as it limits the problem, it frees you to be able to do something about it. And when that happens, then you can be resilient. You can bounce back from the problem. So, are you ready for some magic? Try on the three magic words: That, there, then. Or This, here, now.
Whatever the problem, say these three words to it. It will contained the “bad” thing so that you can bounce back. There’s more to resilience than this, yet this is the beginning and a powerful beginning at that!

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