Staying Motivated Tip #7: Beat the Three P's of Failure

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Do you feel like you consistently sabotage your own good intentions and don’t understand why? Or that you have an evil twin who takes control of your mind sometimes just so she can do the opposite of what you intended, no matter how much trouble it causes?

Welcome to the club. Many good intentions end up as pavement on that proverbial road to a certain well-known, extremely hot place. But, no, the devil did not make you do it. And it’s not very likely that you have an evil twin sharing your brain and body, either.

For most of us, there’s a very simple explanation for what looks like self-sabotage–and a simple solution, as well.

For most of us, failing to actually follow through on our good intentions (like healthy eating and exercise) on a consistent basis can usually be traced to a certain style of thinking that many people use to explain to themselves why they do what they do and why they get the results they get. Psychologists often refer to this “attributional style” as learned pessimism.

The Three P’s of Learned Pessimism

In daily life, learned pessimism operates like a self-fulfilling negative prophecy. You expect to have problems, and sure enough, you do. And these problems seem to come from within you, not from the outside, which makes it seem like you are deliberately sabotaging yourself. There isn’t any “real reason” why you continually fail to follow through on your plans, you just do.

But there is a reason this keeps happening, and it’s mostly in your head. If you’re a learned pessimist, you probably have three basic assumptions about why you have such a hard time sticking to your good intentions:

1. You assume some personal flaw or characteristic (weakness, incompetence, lack of will power, self-indulgence, etc.) is responsible for the problem. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that, when you are in fact successful, it must be due to something external to you—luck, assistance, or something about the situation. In other words, you personalize failure and externalize success.

Not surprisingly, people who are usually successful tend to follow the opposite pattern: they externalize failure and internalize success.

2. You assume that this personal flaw is permanent, some unchangeable trait you will always have to contend with, rather than something that can be rectified through education, practice, planning, support, or personal growth.

Again, the most successful people tend to do the opposite. They assume that a personal shortcoming can be changed or worked around—if they put in the appropriate effort.

3. You assume that the personal, permanent flaw is also pervasive—that it affects all areas of your life, not just the problem at hand. Thus, everything that doesn’t go the way you want just confirms your pessimistic assumptions about yourself. And since you think you can’t change this flaw, it’s almost impossible for you to learn from negative experiences and make appropriate changes in behavior.

Together, these three assumptions--Personal, Permanent, Pervasive-- become the Three P’s of Failure. They make it very hard to stay motivated, and to change your behavior.

How to tell if you’re a Learned Pessimist.

Most of the time, people aren’t aware of all the basic assumptions they are using to explain why they do the things they do over and over again. If you were, you’d be able to see how biased and illogical they are, and change them. So how do you know if a pessimistic attributional style might be at least partly responsible for your problems?

If you’re caught up in The Three P’s of Failure…
  • You probably talk to yourself in ways that you’d never dream of talking to a friend, or even someone you don’t like very much. When something goes wrong, you may call yourself names, feel extremely ashamed, agitated, and/or angry with yourself, and become emotionally and verbally abusive towards yourself.

  • You don’t spend much time or effort thinking through what’s happened in an objective way, you just jump straight to the conclusion: “This happened because there is something seriously wrong with me that isn’t going to change, and I am doomed to fail forever.”

  • Emotionally, you can go from disappointment to despair and hopelessness in a few seconds, usually over something that’s pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things—a bowl of ice cream or a missed exercise session. The end result is that you rarely learn anything from your own experience, and this pattern just keeps repeating itself, with no progress towards changing the unwanted behavior.

    Part of this process is unconscious, and if you’ve been doing this for a while (and gotten pretty good at it), it happens so fast that it doesn’t seem like there are any steps or stages to it, but there are. In order to intervene and stop this process, you need a rough idea of how it works:

  • Something happens (you skip an exercise session, or eat something you wanted to avoid, etc.) and you feel a “normal” level of anxiety, guilt, or disappointment—the feeling that motivates people to try again.
  • You start thinking about why this happened and Unconscious assumption #1 kicks in, causing you leap to the conclusion there is something wrong with you, without benefit of doubt or investigation—you just “know” it’s true.
  • Now you feel a little worse (mild shame, self-blame, etc.), so you start thinking about how to deal with this problem, and Unconscious assumption #2 kicks in: You “realize” that you’re always going to have this problem, it’s just the way you are.
  • Your feelings escalate to desperation, frustration, and helplessness. This is getting very unpleasant, so you try once more to think your way out of the mess. But now Unconscious assumption #3 kicks in, and you’re forced to admit that you’re really a pretty poor excuse for a human being, and that’s not going to change.
  • Your feelings are in high gear—self-hatred and hopelessness on top of everything else—and more thinking isn’t going to help. You have to do something to make these feelings go away.
  • If you have learned some basic skills in emotional self-management, maybe you’ll just blow off your diet for the rest of the day (or week), or go on a short-term binge to drown out those painful feelings. Some people do much worse to themselves.
  • Once the storm is over, you’ll reconfirm what you concluded about yourself—that there is something wrong with you that you can’t control or manage.

    This process will continue until you begin thinking about your unconscious assumptions and the effect they have on you.

    How to stop being a Learned Pessimist

    The good news is that you can effectively interrupt this cycle at any point along the way—the earlier the better. You can't stop yourself from occasionally doing something you’ll wish you hadn’t. And it isn’t good to avoid normal feelings of anxiety, guilt, and disappointment—these are the feelings that motivate us to learn from our mistakes and do better the next time.

    So, the first place you can reasonably intervene is when you first start thinking about what has gone wrong. The best possible intervention at this stage is to not think about it at all. Simply acknowledge what you did, how you feel about it, (“I just ate three helpings of lasagna, and I really feel like a jerk right now.”), and move on without letting your assumptions have their way with you.

    If you can’t stop the verbal self-abuse easily, distract yourself. Focus on something else completely unrelated. Practice this until you’re pretty confident that you can successfully intervene whenever you want to stop the negative self-talk before it gets really nasty. Until you reach that point, don’t waste time or effort trying to argue with your pessimistic assumptions directly—they’ll win every time until you’ve mastered the art of intervening in your own mental process and stopping the negative self-talk.

    This intervention will probably feel a little uncomfortable, unnatural, and even scary at first. It’ll be both tempting and easy to “fail” at this, too, because that’s what you expect. But this is do-able,--believe me, I used to be a world-class learned pessimist--and well worth any temporary discomfort you may feel.

    Next week, in Tip #8, we’ll talk about how to replace negative assumptions with positive ones, and transform yourself into a Learned Optimist.

    Are you a Learned Pessimist? Do you feel like the 3 assumptions described here might be causing you to stay stuck in negative patterns?

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    CHRISINMIAMI 7/10/2020
    Thank you! Report
    74KGSTU 5/29/2020
    Sometimes I think I am too optimistic and I don't think the helps either. Report
    I tend to be optimistic is just about every other area of my life but this one. I can see that I have some work to do! Report
    Wow great read Report
    Thank You for a very motivating article. Report
    good article Report
    thanks Report
    Very insightful! Thanks for the helpful info. Report
    This was an enlightening. Report
    Enjoyed your blog. I am working on my attitude and restructuring my exercise plan Report
    ummmmm... I think that's me. And my husband would probably say, 'That's DEFINITELY you!"
    Good to know. Thanks. Report
    I am making a copy of this. Thank You Report
    A good "P" saying to overcome these three "P's" is: PROGRESS not perfection. Report
    Some days I am like this other days I am not. Mostly not, but I have those bad days. I love mornings and I love Mondays. Seems those are refresh or restart times for me. I almost didn't read this tonight, but I am so glad I did. Today was one of those days. Good night, starting fresh again in the morning. Report
    I am this way about a lot of things in my life - career especially. Trying to not be that way! Report
    I just discovered this last week on my own. I am not hungry when I am distracted. I give myself permission to do busy work to keep my mind off negative thoughts. Report
    I grew up in a cycle of abuse... I know plenty of people with abusive patterns, but I'm not here to change others... And I am involved with someone who has spent all of his life in prison from age 13 to now 22yrs..., and will be getting out for the (well second time after an eight month stint) and we are attached at the hip... It's challenging and fun at the same time! Report
    I am guilty of this as well. I find myself being talked down to my own thoughts. Thanks for this article. Report
    When you think you are alone and that you are the only one who feels exactly this way all you have to do is read the blogs and , surprise! , there are others out there who are just like you. I will join the rest of the crowd who just know this was written only for them! Report
    Great info. I can't believe it but that used to be me. I'm so glad the condition isn't fatal.... :) Report
    I am a teacher and so I research learning styles. One interesting theory about why people develop difficulties in middle school is that they have been told they are smart and so they do well in school.

    Unfortunately, when they get to those grades with more homework, just being smart doesn't get your homework done. When they don't get as good of grades they decide they just aren't smart because if they were, they wouldn't have to work hard.

    Those 3 Ps kick in and create a self fulfilling prophecy. If a student has always been told that their hard work is important to good grades then they expect to work harded and get better grades.

    I love seeing learning theory applied to this too! Report
    Wow! this sound like someone has been reading the pages of my life. I have been famous for illogical thinking. I have to learn to speak kind things to myself. Report
    I totally agree with FLASHJUSTFLASH. The first thing each person should read when they join SP. This info is exactly what I have been needing for YEARS! I knew I was like this but couldn't put a name or explanation to my thinking and behavior. I feel a sense of relief and empowerment now that I understand what I am (Learned Pessimist) and how to deal with it to change myself. THANK YOU! Report
    This explanation needs to be one of the first things anyone at SparkPeople reads. It's more important than learning how to track food, reminders about exercise, or even finding community support. Mind you, all of those things are essential. It's just that in order to begin, we all need to learn this lesson. Report
    I needed to read this today. Thanks. Report
    I've taught a couple semesters where I covered this topic, but the way you put it - HOLY CRAP! It's a real life issue, not some chapter in a textbook. The sad thing is, it's me to a TEE. And my Dad, as it turns out. It doesn't happen to me with overeating and feeling bad, but it will happen if I feel stuck with research or get bad student evaluations or something. Or if I get in a tiff with my husband, then I self-bash about it instead of solving the problem - I automatically assume that the argument is because I'm a crappy person or something. And, if I've been stuck at the same weight for awhile and making no progress (though I want to make progress) then I feel like I'm doomed to ALWAYS be fat, and there's something wrong with me and I'll never be thin. Why should I be thin? I don't deserve it. See how much ice cream I eat? Thanks Coach Dean, you absolutely rock. Report
    Oh my goodness---This is me! The breakdown of what happens after I mess up is spot on! Thank you...this proves there is hope yet! : - ) Report
    Very insightful and helpful article. Thank you very much. Report
    This is such a great article! Isn't it funny how we will talk down to ourselves, and we would NEVER say the same to a friend?! How self-destructive!!!

    I'm currently working on this problem in my own life :-) Report
    Personal - lack of willpower and discipline
    Permanent - Year after year I vow that I'm going to lose weight and get my house in order so that I can live the life I want and year after year it doesn't happen!
    Pervasive - Affects ALL areas of my life - marriage, friendships, etc. Hide in shame. My feelings escalate from desperation, frustration, and helplessness to thoughts of suicide and how my family would be better off without me. If I wasn't here, they could replace me with someone who is mentally and physically healthy. Someone who can do the things I can't. I do think I'm a sorry excuse for a human being! The only reason I'm still here is my desire to change. Yes, I am constantly coming up with plans to lose the weight and get my house in order. Of course, this just seems to make me feel like a BIGGER failure when I don't stick to the plan. Arghh!!

    I need to F.L.Y. (Finally Love Yourself, actually myself), but I think I need professional help to change my way of thinking.

    Thanks for the article and suggestions! I'm going to search for Tip #8: Learned Optimist.

    Here's hoping!
    I am definitely feeling like this now - and over something trivial too. I will include this blog on my sparkpage. I need to keep it as a reminder. Thanks Coach Dean. Report
    When I fall off my fitness wagon I remind myself that you can't see the future through a rearview mirror and focus on what I can do today not what I didn't do yesterday. Report
    This is exactly what I do. If I skip a workout I get so mad at myself, but then I say I'll double up on my workout tomorrow. Well, tomorrow comes and I don't workout and then I feel guilty because I didn't workout once let alone twice. Then I'll sabatoge my eating and say I already screwed up my workout so I'll eat crappy and then say I'll start over next week. I am such a procrastinator & a sabatoger. I know I just have to focus one day at a time. I also need to get routine in my life. I need a buddy to help motovate me and keep me on track. Anyone in Ohio? Report
    This article has clearly helped many people and I has helped me. I have always thought of myself as an optimist, but what I did was find something positive in every situation no matter how bad, thus enabling me to stay in situations far longer than I should have. I believe that trait is a good one up to a point but beyond that point it becomes self abuse and self sabotage. The 3 Ps of failure are part of this behavior. This article is exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you so much. Report
    This article has clearly helped many people and I has helped me. I have always thought of myself as an optimist, but what I did was find something positive in every situation no matter how bad, thus enabling me to stay in situations far longer than I should have. I believe that trait is a good one up to a point but beyond that point it becomes self abuse and self sabotage. The 3 Ps of failure are part of this behavior. This article is exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you so much. Report
    This article has clearly helped many people and I has helped me. I have always thought of myself as an optimist, but what I did was find something positive in every situation no matter how bad, thus enabling me to stay in situations far longer than I should have. I believe that trait is a good one up to a point but beyond that point it becomes self abuse and self sabotage. The 3 Ps of failure are part of this behavior. This article is exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you so much. Report
    Although I know people like this, I'm glad to realize that I'm not a learned pessimist! something to be greatful for... Report
    Very insightful thoughts Coach Dean. I think so many people here come from dysfunctional families. I tell myself constantly that the voices in my head condemning me are WRONG and that my parents were wrong about me. I am 47 and still wish I could let go of that little girl who is so wounded. My parents were two of the most negative people I have ever met and even with years of therapy, it is still so hard for my heart to believe what my brain knows. I am a good person, worthy to be loved and there is no shame in loving myself.
    Maybe someday I'll get it, I'm still working on it for now. Report
    VERY GOOD INFORMATION. I wanted to e-mail this to my brother. He has a terrible time with self esteem, and following through just because of the mind set he's stuck on. Report
    This article shocked me: it actually describes me exactly. I honestly thought I was the only one in the world with this thought process and that I was a nutter.
    Thank you so much. I'm printing it out to have it handy when needed (which is often at the moment) Report
    This is an amazing article...thank you so very much...I cannot wait for the next chapter.....I, too, suffer from my own verbal abuse and negative self talk...however, in the last three weeks this is starting to turn around somewhat and my eating habits are improving..have never seen it in print before...I am going to continue to do more positive things for me and my body...thanks for reinforcing something I was starting to learn..I pray that it continues so that I can become a healthier me! Can't wait for # 8!! Report
    OMG! I am a learned pessimist. I am my worst critic. Thanks for the insightful article. Report
    Thank you so much for this article. I'm a recovering 'learned pessimist' and when I first began being aware of how verbally abusive I could be to myself, it was shocking. I wouldn't say those things to the most vile person on the planet, yet I routinely said them, repeatedly, to myself whenever I felt I'd failed in even the smallest way. No wonder I was afraid to try to change myself or my life?

    And you're right, this is so important to overcome and so lifechanging in and of itself, when you finally do start believing and supporting yourself in your thoughts. Even if you never lose a pound or improve your life in any other way --which you will, because this type of self attitude just changes everything---but even if you didn't, just developing this skill will make your life more joyful and sweet.

    I didn't have a concise way to express this idea or process in the past to my friends who've asked about all the changes I've made, so I'll be emailing this blog to A LOT of people with a big BINGO! This is one of the BIG SECRETS to my newfound success and happiness. Try it! Report
    I am an optimist & it is crazy how often my instinct to support in a positive way rubs people the wrong way. So many find comfort when they are down in the dumps.

    When I am down & out, I stand up & shout "I'm Down & I'm OUT"! Eventually I get back up & going again with greater force than ever before. Usually it is from the positive boosts I am fed from family & friends.

    The sympathetic pretending-to-understand approach seldom helps me. I much prefer an upbeat personality to come by & get me out of my dumps than someone who wants to come down into the dumps & whine with me.

    This is very appropriate as the final stages of winter sweeps across the wonderful USA. Thank You for all the reflections. Report
    O! my goodness I got the 3 P's too! The one I have and can admit to is the eat to much knowing of the bad foods and then feel so bad afterwards saying I shouldn't of ate that I know better so at times we can be our worst enemy? But I will say now lets not do that again and knowing that I am not alone that others go down the same path at times and reading other stories I can relate and feel much better about myself. Report
    Dean, I am exactly the 3 P's you spoke of, occasionally got the guilt of over-eating something that i shouldn't do. However, i am gradually improving myself from negative thoughts. Anxiety waiting for your next tips #8 to transform myself.
    Thkq, Coach....
    Mishell27 Report
    This was me for a very long time. Recently, I added an important goal in my goal tracker on Sparkpeople. It is to give myself a 5 minute mental pep talk everyday. It is amazing what a little chat with yourself can do. I actually do the chat, I look at the clock, and I start writing (I know it's supposed to be a mental pep talk but I lose focus and start daydreaming when I do it mentally so I decided to start writing it down and it works!) I write for 5 minutes which is usually a full page of writing which is simply put, nothing but positive thoughts. I don't think too much about what I'm going to write before I start, I just put it down as it comes to mind. I always start with something that I'm proud of myself for (even if it's something really small) because that makes it easier for me to think of other things I'm happy about and feel good about. I strongly suggest that everyone who has problems thinking positively about themselves give this a don't have to write it, you could just think it, you could record it, you could sing it, whatever works for you...Just do it! It will help. Report
    This seems to fit me. I'm glad to know this isn't a permanent non-fixable situation. Report
    What more can I say . There are so many ideas about this blog and about all the answers I read from dear people like me who have gone through bad times in there lives. As soon as I read it I thought , this is me and I don't want any body to know . My first feeling was embarrasment. Then. how can I get rid of this thoughts and feelings I have suffered through my whole life. How can I forget all my passed. It is hard. But that was long long ago and I know there is a way to fix it litttle by little. It's been my quest for many years. So now with the help of SP, there are many ways to change and keep on trying, keep on trusting that there are very good people out there, that's all there is to it . Being able to trust and believe in yourself. But every cloud has a silver linning. What a great, oportunity to learning about ourselves. We already learnt to survive, and now when we learn together we have a powerful group that is cheering for every single one of us and let us know that we will make it because we are just as good as we all want to be. Report
    Thanks for this valuable information because all I ever known conerning the three "P's" was Plup, Plup & Plup!

    Now I am going to try your way and I will keep you posted. Report