Being an optimist – or more accurately perhaps, having an optimistic thinking style when things are going alright – is one thing. Learning how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal defeat or anticipate failure, and when you are feeling doubtful or stuck, is another. Overcoming a negative explanatory style when we are in the midst of procrastination is the challenge.

People develop a predominant explanatory style based on some conditioned

[emotional] response from their development years or from some learned strategy for meeting their needs (or avoiding our distress). Those with a predominantly positive explanatory style tend to be optimistic and behave in a more pro-active way.

Those with a more negative explanatory style tend to be pessimistic and become stalled when facing adversity. Deep within lurks the twin rails of fear and habit; but the pessimist allows himself “to slide obediently along those rails, [even while] contemplating bitterly all the routes [he] would rather have taken.” (Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope.) They excessively worry about possible failure and negative outcomes and the consequent affect on self-esteem. It becomes a catch-22 however because the procrastinator also suffers negative effects on self-esteem for not taking action.

Righty or wrongly the optimist believes good things will keep on coming, and when bad things happen it is only temporary, isolated and not their fault. Moreover when faced with adversity people with a +e.s. tend to look for the silver lining and act in a constructive manner to overcome the adversity. The emotional response is positive and the bias is to action; and it becomes self-reinforcing. They don’t get stuck, and they don’t suffer the negative emotions for being stuck. At least not for long.

People with a negative explanatory style (-e.s.) when faced with adversity tend to interpret the events exactly opposite to the people with a +e.s.

People with -e.s tend to think that when bad events happen they are likely to be permanent, pervasive and personal: they think the bad event will continue, that it will spill over onto other parts of their lives, and somehow feel personally responsible for the bad events. Moreover, people with a -e.s. tend to think that when good things happen to them, it is only temporary, are situationally limited and that it was completely external to them. No wonder they get stuck when facing a new assignment from their boss.

Cognitive therapy offers the strategy that if we can consciously address what underlies our emotional response to adversity we can deliberately adopt another behaviour or action. If we can adopt the positive explanatory style that optimists seem to do innately we can reverse the tyranny of the negative explanatory style. And over time, with successful outcomes, we learn to adopt new, automatic, [more helpful] responses. How we can get control of our -e.s. and adopt a more +e.s is the subject of the next chapter: The ABCs and DEs of Cognitive Therapy.