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Seeing challenges as temporary setbacks

By: Steven Campbell
April 14, 2017
Mind, Body and Spirit

We have discovered in this column that we are not “Thinking people who feel!” We are “Feeling people who think!”

We have also looked at the work of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania and his work on “Learned Optimism.” 

We saw that a pessimist generally says, “Life happens to me!” and “I must simply learn to accept the evitable.”  They also exclaim “It will always be this way” and “The sooner I accept this, the better!”

Optimists however look upon misfortune as a setback in just one area of their lives. They also see setbacks as temporary and not always their fault (or for that matter, anybody’s fault…stuff just happens.)  In his groundbreaking book, Learned Optimism, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania refers to this as “Pervasiveness, Permanence, and Personalization.” By the way, Dr. Seligman has a wonderful web site at

When confronted with a hard situation, optimists perceive it as a challenge…rather than a defeat!

So rather than singing the pessimistic mantra, “Life happens to me!” they declare, “No. I’m not settling for that. I can make decisions! I can exercise other options in my life!” 

You see, thinking differently is the key…especially when the hard times come. There are choices we can make. 

In fact, Dr. Seligman says in his book, Learned Optimism, that “Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think!”

In fact, the first choice optimists usually make when confronted with really difficult situations is to “Isolate” them. “Yes,” they agree. “This part of my life is really hard…or even tragic. But everything in my life is not tragic. There are areas of my life that are wonderful, or very good, or healthy, or moving in the right direction.” (This is also called “Pervasiveness)

Today we’ll look at the second way which optimists use to perceive difficult situations, or challenges, or tragedies: they “Temporalize them.” (Another way of saying this is that they see setbacks as temporary.)

When a pessimist exclaims, “I’m all washed up!”  the optimist says “I’m exhausted!” When the pessimist says “Diets never work!” the optimists says “Diets don’t work when you eat out.” When the pessimist asserts “You always nag!” the optimist says “You nag when I don’t clean my room.” When the pessimist exclaims that “The boss is a real jerk!”  the optimist observes “The boss is in a bad mood” And when the pessimist says “You never talk to me!”  the optimist says “You haven’t talked to me lately!”

In other words, when you think about bad things in “always” and “never’s” you have a permanent, pessimistic style.  However, when you think in “sometimes” and “lately’s,” and if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on temporary conditions, you are being optimistic.

Remember this…that failure makes all of us feel momentarily helpless. It’s like a punch in the stomach. It hurts, but the hurt goes away…for optimists, often very quickly. For pessimists, the hurt can last, seethe, roll and congeal into a grudge. Pessimists can remain helpless for days or perhaps months…or their entire lifetime.  It is the choice they are making!

But remember this…we now know that it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can actually choose how we think.  And a wonderful characteristic of your brain is that it believes EVERYTHING you tell it. 

 So when you choose to view a tragedy, or a challenging situation, as a temporary setback, do you know what your brain says? OK!  Is it true? You know what? Your brain doesn’t even care.  All it cares what you tell it.  So when you say it, it believes it! And when you lock onto this new way of thinking, it will do everything it can to make it true…in your life.

After she dropped out of high school, she first worked as a bank teller, a bricklayer and a licensed cosmetician. She then graduated from Beauty College and worked in a mortuary dressing the hair and makeup of the deceased.  

She then went on to win an Academy Award and host the Oscars.  Her name is Whoopie Goldberg, and at one point she said, “I am where I am because I believe in all possibilities.”

Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.