Resilience - Chapter 7

Charlottesville, Virginia


Change Skill #1 of 4 - Challenging Beliefs


Life Change Is Possible

The first step in becoming resilient is owning up to your weaknesses and flaws. We are all imperfect and that's ok.

The second step is to determine what aspects of those weaknesses can be impacted, what can be improved. The skills of resilience give you a freedom to choose that you didn’t have before. You can accept yourself as you are and continue down the same path you’ve been traveling. Or you can change.

The next four skills are about how to create that change. Now that you know what kind of thinking styles you have, we will go through skills to change your thinking to view the world more accurately, to be a better problem solver, to be less at the mercy of your emotions and behaviors, to respond better when adversity strikes -- to be more resilient.

Your beliefs about the possibility of change allow you to learn the change skills -- or prevent you from learning them -- and determine whether you persist in the pursuit of greater resilience or not.

The Change Skills

Each of the "know thyself" skills is a powerful tool to increase resilience. But the self-analysis the skills encourage you to do is also the groundwork for the change skills.

You can’t change your beliefs until you detect what they are whether by doing ABC to tune in to your ticker tape or by detecting your iceberg beliefs. Once you’ve uncovered all the beliefs that play a role in determining how you feel and behave in the wake of an adversity, the next step is to evaluate how accurate -- how realistic -- those beliefs are and to change to more accurate beliefs when necessary.

There are four change skills:

1. With Challenging Beliefs, you can analyze beliefs about the causes of the adversity.

2. In Putting It in Perspective, you can better determine the future outcomes of adversity.

3. Calming and Focusing works to impact the negative emotions directly or to push non- resilient beliefs out of your mind.

4. Real-time Resilience enables you to do Challenging Beliefs and Putting It in Perspective at the moment an adversity strikes.

Problem Solving: Why We Ask “Why” When Adversity Hits

When adversity strikes, what’s your first response? People generally react in predictable ways. For example, when confronted with a problem, people typically ask themselves “why” questions -- questions that are concerned with the cause of the problem: “Why did that happen?” “Was it my fault?” “Can I control this?” These questions pop spontaneously into our heads. The answers we give ourselves are our why beliefs -- our beliefs about the causes of the adversities we face.

We are most likely to have why beliefs following (a) failure (losing a job, being turned down on a date), (b) unexpected events (doing poorly on a task that you thought you would do well on, (c) learning that someone you believed to be honest acted dishonestly), and (d) interpersonal conflicts (fighting with a loved one).

We don’t tend to ask why following (a) successes (getting a job, having your proposal for a date accepted) or (b) expected outcomes (doing poorly on a task that you suspected you’d do poorly on, learning that someone you believed to be honest acted honestly).

Why do failures and unexpected outcomes trigger why beliefs while successes and expected outcomes do not? Probably because our survival rests on our ability to find a way to terminate or prevent negative situations, while how we respond to positive events is not so crucial.

Evolution, by predisposing us to think about why adversity happens to us, has given us a terrific problem-solving mechanism. We can’t solve problems without locating their causes. The faster we identify the true causes of the problem, the faster we generate a solution. And so we develop mental shortcuts, just as we saw with the thinking traps, that guide us to identify causes quickly, in fact, almost instantaneously. But as we saw with thinking traps, the mental shortcuts -- heuristics -- sometimes can lead us to make mistakes. And if we identify the wrong cause, we’ll pursue the wrong solution.

With Problem Solving Sometimes You Get Lucky?

How often is your problem solving like that of our early predecessors? How often do you stumble on a solution that, in retrospect, hurts you more than it helps you?

The Seven Steps of Challenging Beliefs

Challenging your beliefs will help you to clarify your problems and find better, more permanent solutions to them.


Who, what, when, and where of the adversity, as you learned in ABC.

Define your problem objectively and dispassionately -- just the who, what, when, and where.

Leave the why question out of the objective description of the adversity, the A of ABC.

Recall the most recent time your adversity occurred

Remember the ticker tape that ran through your mind when you last experienced the adversity. Note it down verbatim in the “Beliefs” space on the Activity Sheet.

Finally, list the emotional and behavioral consequences, the Cs of the episode.

Now that you have noted the ABCs of your adversity, focus your attention on the Bs.

Our ticker tape is composed of different kinds of beliefs. When we challenge our beliefs we focus on the why beliefs.


This step helps you get a deeper understanding of your why beliefs and how they affect your problem solving. Go back to the Activity Sheet and examine those ticker-tape beliefs you experienced in the midst of your adversity. Isolate the why beliefs. Be sure they are, in fact, causal beliefs or explanations for the problem.

The beliefs we want to test when challenging our beliefs are those that are specifically about cause.

Locate your why beliefs for your adversity.

We estimate how much each identified cause contributes to the problem, and we can represent that with a pie chart, with the size of the slices indicating their relative contribution.

Under these circumstances, it’s best to focus your problem-solving attempts on the most changeable cause.

You too have developed a style of explaining events that affects the way you perceive the problems you face and that influences the solutions you choose to pursue.


Explanatory style is our learned response to adversity, a pattern of ready-made explanations for the problems we experience. Remember that explanatory style can be described in three dimensions: “me–not me,” “always–not always,” “everything–not everything.” Our explanatory style limits our problem solving. Our styles draw us to a subset of the real causes of the adversity, thereby making available only a subset of the possible solutions. The next step in the Challenging Beliefs process, then, is to map out how our explanatory style hurts our ability to solve our own problems.

Me - Not Me

You may be thinking that your explanations don’t follow a style, that they change depending on the situation, and, of course, you’re right. There are times when we have clear information about the cause of the adversity.

You may be surprised at the degree to which our styles can blind us to explanations that to an objective person appear overwhelmingly true.

Explanatory style also fills in the gap when the information is not available. That’s the nature of a shortcut -- we use it when the cause is ambiguous.

Always Versus Not Always

Are the causes you identify likely to be around for a long time, or are they relatively temporary?

Can you intuit, by looking across incidents in your life, whether your style is more “always” or “not always”?

Everything Versus Not Everything

This dimension of explanatory style assesses the degree to which you believe the cause of a particular problem will affect many areas of your life or just a few. When you’re faced with a problem, do your ticker-tape why beliefs suggest that a wide variety of domains in your life will be affected—your work life, your marriage, your relationships with friends? Or do you typically envision a specific impact?

Are you more of an “everything” or a “not-everything” person? It’s important to understand your explanatory style because when an adversity strikes, the causal beliefs you generate will reflect this style. By preventing you from seeing the full range of causes of a problem, your explanatory style limits your ability to respond resiliently.

Coding the Explanatory Style

Some people have one style when they encounter problems at work and a very different style when they encounter problems in their personal lives.

What’s the Right Explanatory Style?

A lot of people have asked us what the right explanatory style to have. The short answer is that different styles have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, but any style is limiting. Our goal should be to think flexibly and accurately.

The difference between resilience and helplessness is explanatory style. Pessimists—those people who explained their adversities with a “Me, Always, Everything” style—tended to become helpless and depressed. Optimists -- those with a “not-me, not-always, not-everything” style -- most often remained resilient and depression free.

It is crucial to be flexible, to break out of our natural explanatory style. And it’s equally clear that we need to be realistic -- to accurately pinpoint the causes of the adversities we face.

The key to resilience is flexibility and accuracy.


Ever noticed that you often try to solve the same old problem with the same tired strategy, only to fail in the same old way? We’ve all done that at one time or another. That’s what relying on our explanatory style leads us to do: We’re blind to most causes outside our explanatory style, we come up with tired old solutions that try to reverse those same old causes, and we fail at solving the problem yet again. To get out of this loop, we need to break out of our explanatory style, and that means getting more flexible.

You’re entrenched in your thinking-style box, and it’s going to take more than a command to think outside it to get you out. You’ve spent many years building that box, with help from your parents, teachers, even society. You’ve fallen into thinking traps and developed radar to scan the environment for violations of rights, for loss, and for future threat. And you’ve cemented the box with the confirmation bias, screening out information that contradicts the box and systematically filtering in that information that concurs. None of this is good, but each and every one of us has built a thinking-style box. How can anyone, then, expect you to be creative -- to be flexible -- just by telling you to be?

When it comes to why beliefs, the three dimensions of your explanatory style is the box you’re stuck in.

To be creative, to think outside the box, we have to use the three dimensions of explanatory style to code the why beliefs that first pop into our heads and generate some alternative reasons why an adversity has occurred.

You can use the three dimensions to come up with some other possible why beliefs. Why should you go to the trouble to do this? Because unless you do, you are seeing only some of the causes of your adversity -- those that your explanatory style lens “allows” you to see. If you see only some of the causes, you are going to be able to solve only part of the problem. You need to get a comprehensive view of the causes and direct your problem solving to those causes you can impact most.

So a good start to getting more flexible, to thinking outside his explanatory style, is for you to come up with some beliefs in the opposite dimension of the “me-not me,”. To get real flexibility, “always not-always” and “everything not-everything” beliefs To get flexible means getting outside your explanatory style.


Getting more accurate in our why beliefs is an essential part of the Challenging Beliefs process. Without this step we are Pollyanna, susceptible to delusional positive spins.

Becoming an accurate thinker is like becoming a scientist, because your next step is to test both the why beliefs that popped into your head in the moment of the adversity and any alternatives you’ve generated against the solid evidence.

The biggest obstacle to becoming more accurate is your confirmation bias which leads us to hold on to information that’s consistent with our explanatory style while filtering out contrary evidence—details that don’t fit neatly into our prepackaged perceptions.


As you engage in the process of becoming accurate, marshaling a list of evidence for and against each causal belief, you’ll notice that you begin to build an intuitive sense of how important each cause is. The more evidence you find to support the belief, the more likely it contributes to the adversity. Of course, the reverse is true -- the more evidence against the belief, the smaller the contribution; you may even find that some of the beliefs you came up with have no support at all. That’s why we now want to draw a new pie chart. The process of being flexible opens up the possibility of more causes than were available for the first pie chart. The second pie chart should represent a more comprehensive and accurate analysis, one that surpasses our explanatory style–driven why beliefs.


Now you want to rate the changeability of each of the slices of your new pie -- how subject each cause is to change.

The process of Challenging Beliefs can dramatically change your solution landscape. And these solutions flow from a more comprehensive and accurate view of the adversity.


Challenging Beliefs is especially useful for people who wrestle with sadness, anger, guilt, and embarrassment. If you experience anxiety and focus on what-next beliefs, you will appreciate the next skill of Putting It in Perspective.

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