“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Epictetus 55-135 AD

explain explanatory style helping hurtingThe idea, put forth by the Greek Philosopher Epictetus as early as the 1st century AD – that it is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters – remains highly relevant to our lives today – almost 2,000 years later.

When something goes wrong we automatically develop a scenario in our mind of how the situation could have been different. We in effect choose a perspective or lens through which to focus on the situation.

Let’s consider the example used by Shawn Achor in is book, The Happiness Advantage to demonstrate this concept.

Imagine that you are at a bank with 50 other people. The bank is robbed and you are shot in the arm. No one else was injured. Were you lucky or unlucky?

What is your response and what did you use as supporting evidence?

  • Was your first thought that you were unlucky because you were the only one shot?
  • Or was it that you were lucky because it was only a minor wound?

Which thought pattern, do you think, is going to lead to more positive (resourceful) feelings and emotions about the situation?

Often, we believe that an event makes us feel “good” or “bad”. Based on the concepts of from disciplines such as Cognitive Behavioral Theory and Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP), it is actually the way we perceive events (our automatic thoughts about the event or situation) that evokes emotion and determines how we feel and subsequently what actions we take.

explain explanatory style helping hurtingHere is one example of how I used the concept to reframe a situation and have a more pleasant plane ride.

On a flight from Dallas to Illinois. I was becoming quite irritated with the flight attendant. I felt he was being overly demanding and quite frankly a jerk the way he was “pestering” passengers to fasten their seatbelts and turn off their phones.

I have trained myself to ask a question when I find myself being judgmental and this is the question:

“What else could be true?”

In this case, I came up with this: “He was very focused on making sure he did his job really well and just overly conscientious.”

Now both that he was a jerk and that he was overly conscientious were stories that I was making up – neither one had any factual basis. If I am making up stories about what is going on around me – and we all do it all the time – I might as well make it a story that looks at the situation from a positive, resourceful perspective.

When I labeled the flight attendant as “conscientious” rather than a “jerk” I could interact with him with a much more pleasant demeanor and the flight was a much more pleasant experience for me.

explain explanatory style helping hurtingHow can you use this concept to your advantage in your everyday life?

If you find your automatic thoughts are evoking negative emotions or feelings, try my simple (although not necessarily easy) way to begin to reframe those thoughts. Ask yourself, “What else could be true?”

For example, you pass your boss’s boss in the hall and she does not acknowledge you. Your automatic thought might be, “She didn’t like the report I prepared for the executive meeting.” Or, “She didn’t say hello because they are getting ready to fire me.”

Hit the pause button on your thoughts and ask, “What else could be true?”

Try to come up with two or three alternative explanations to your initial automatic thoughts about the situation. See if any of those would lead to a more positive interpretation of the situation.

We are constantly making up stories about events in our lives. Try telling yourself stories that lead to positive, resourceful emotions and see how it changes your view of the situation as well as the emotions you experience and the resulting actions you take.