VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 10 -October 1998

Seligman touts the art of arguing with yourself

The link between pessimism and depression begins in the way we talk to our inner selves.

By Patrick A. McGuire
Monitor staff

It won’t be drugs like Prozac, nor will it be widespread psychotherapy sessions that alter the epidemic of depression now affecting young people, warned APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, at the 1998 Annual Convention in San Francisco.

Rather, he said, at a Psi Chi sponsored lecture on 'Prevention of depression and positive psychology,' it will require psychologists to teach people how to take advantage of a simple skill they all have but tend to use incorrectly.

'It’s called disputing,' said Seligman—the act of 'monitoring and then arguing against the catastrophic things that you say to yourself.'

Those internal conversations, he said, revolve around 'explanatory styles' that we commonly adopt when bad things happen to us. Our particular explanatory style, he said, is clearly linked to our susceptibility to pessimism and, therefore, to depression. Learning how to internally dispute negative reactions, he said, is a critical step toward avoiding depression.

'The rates of depression and pessimism among young people and middle-aged adults have never been higher,' he said. 'The mean age of onset has gone from 30 to 15. It’s no longer a middle-aged housewife’s disorder. It’s a teen-ager’s disorder.'

Answering internal questions

Seligman said the style in which we explain negative events to ourselves, can be broken into three dimensions.

The first asks the internal question 'Who did it to you? Did you do it or was it external people and circumstance?' Those who habitually blame themselves for bad events, he said, experience a drop in self-esteem. In the second dimension—what he called the most important—feelings revolve around the question 'Will things change?'

'Those of you who habitually find changeable or transient causes to the setbacks in your life will recover rapidly from depression,' he said. As an example, he described someone who had been rejected in love and who admitted 'I didn’t work hard enough at it.' Working hard, said Seligman, 'is a transient and changeable cause. Whereas you might have said to yourself, ‘I’m unlovable.’ And unlovability tends to abide.'

He called the final dimension 'bleeding all over the place' and said it had to do with whether we allowed the damage from a bad incident to 'bleed' into every aspect of our lives.

'Some people, when they are fired from their job, may not look for a new job,' he said, 'but their marriage remains intact, jokes are still funny to them, they don’t get a cold that lasts all winter.' Others, though, 'find characteristics to explain their failures that hurt them in all situations,' he said.

In this dimension, said Seligman, he finds the definition of pessimism. 'It’s never going to change, it’s going to undermine everything you do. It’s your own fault. ‘I’m stupid, I’m unlovable.’ Isn’t this a risk factor for depression? When bad events strike, you’ll be at much greater risk for helplessness and depressive deficits and for a longer time.'

Pessimism among freshmen

Seligman described several studies and programs he has conducted in the area of explanatory style over the past two decades with students at the University of Pennsylvania. In several, he and his colleagues assessed pessimism and depression in incoming freshmen and then reassessed them in later years. Those originally classified as pessimists and who failed in their own expectations during college went on to become depressed. Those who received the special training offered by Seligman’s program on ways to dispute negative interior diaogues were much less prone to depression.

'Our young people have never before been at such a stage in which they think of themselves and their success and failures as so monumentally important,' he said. The 'great buffers' against failure, he said—'relationship to God, community, extended family, relationship to nation—have diminished so greatly. I think the spiritual furniture that our parents and grandparents sat in when they failed has become threadbare.'

Another negative factor, he said, is the self-esteem movement. 'It has become educational doctrine within the United States, and therapeutic doctrine and parental doctrine,' he said, 'that our first duty to our patients and children and students is to make them feel good.' In disagreeing, he suggested we think of self-esteem as a meter, whose function is to read out the state of the system.

'When you’re doing well at work, at school, at sports, at meeting other people, the meter reads high,' he suggested. 'When you’re doing badly it reads low. The self-esteem movement tells us to jiggle the meter without changing the underlying motor.'

The national ideology

But Seligman saved his greatest scorn for the rise in victimology, which he labeled 'our national ideology. It has become routine in our society to blame our problems on other people and circumstances,' he said. There are some obvious benefits. 'We side with the underdog; you feel better when you blame other people and circumstances—your self-esteem goes up; and it turns the usual wages of failure from pity and contempt into compassion and support.'

But there are heavy costs as well. 'First, the changes in self-esteem and feeling good are transient,' he said. 'If it turns out it is something you brought about and you don’t confront it, very shortly you will be troubled again. Second, sometimes when we do badly it is our fault. Third, it erodes a sense of responsibility. Fourth, it deforms our heroes and our heroines. And finally, and this is what I’ve spent my life studying, victimology is about learned helplessness. It is about the belief that nothing you do matters. And you’re a victim of others. And that directly, in my view, leads to the susceptibility to depression.'

Drugs such as Prozac won’t solve the problem, he said, citing the 'moral problems of drugging an entire generation of teen-agers so that they find their happiness and productivity dependent on medication.' And therapy? 'There aren’t enough of us to go around,' said Seligman. 'In numbers, the amounts of depression are unparalleled. What we can do as psychologists is give away these skills, teach these skills so that on a widespread basis we can prevent and make an inroad to this epidemic.'

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