"And so what you do in a situation like that," he says as steadily as a general mapping out a battle plan, "is first, you treat that as if it was said by a rival for your job, someone who wanted to demoralize you and accuse you of things that were unfounded. And then you start to marshal evidence, like, 'Well, what I said in the first question to my interviewee drew a blank, but then when I fleshed it out, he started to come out of himself. And consider my last interview, in which I did this, that, and the other thing.' So you've basically marshaled evidence against the catastrophic thought."
I hear only the first part of that, because I'm too distracted with worry to understand that he's meeting me halfway. I'm like a fish that continues to thrash even though the fisherman has withdrawn the hook. I'm so busy accusing myself of flubbing the interview, I don't hear that it's actually going fine.
"If somebody were saying bad things about me or trying to get my job," I find myself arguing, "I don't know that I would confront the person, because I'd assume it wasn't going to work."
"How about if they're accusing you of something grossly false?" Seligman counters. "Then you'd probably stand up for yourself. Most people do. That's a skill," he adds, "that can be learned and built."
But, I persist, suppose you have an involuntary physical reaction—like blushing, or getting nauseous when you have to speak in front of people? Even if you "dispute" the voice that's filling you with fear and embarrassment, your body will give you away.
"Well, if you're describing a deathly fear of speaking," Seligman answers slowly, "then you're probably dealing with someone who needs face-to-face behavior or cognitive therapy for speech anxiety."
"He thinks I'm crazy!" I imagine myself in a Marx Brothers movie, with Groucho as the Viennese psychoanalyst: Me: "Doc, I'm so scared I'm afraid I'm going to throw up." Groucho: "What are you, some kind of nut?"
I summon up my calmest, most professional manner. Inwardly, of course, I'm 6 years old. "Sometimes I can successfully talk to myself," I assure the doctor, "and make myself feel better after some anxiety-provoking event. But then the bad thoughts will rush back in."
Yes, Seligman agrees, that's what tends to happen. "You're not going to still the provoking thoughts..."
"I knew it!"
"...you're just going to get better and better at neutralizing them."
"Well," I venture as his words finally begin to make sense to me, "that would be good enough."
"Better if you could eliminate them," Seligman says darkly. I can almost see the pessimist in him scratching to get out. "I don't think anyone's found a way of eliminating thoughts of danger and loss," he says. "It's rather that, when they're unrealistic, you become an acrobat at marshaling evidence against them."
The interview is over. As soon as I hang up the phone, the full frontal assault begins. First, the accusation ("I made an ass of myself"). Next, the kicker ("serves me right for assuming I knew what I was doing"). Then the dread ("I'm going to have to listen to the tape!") and the despair ("I'll never get a story out of this"). And then, as I clench my teeth and turn on the transcription machine, a revelation: "This is not the conversation I remember!"
Seligman wasn't going after me. He was listening very, very closely and working with what he heard—that's what psychologists do, after all. The interview wasn't going badly, and most of the time I sounded reasonable and assured. But I wasn't hearing everything he said. I was responding automatically; the voice in my head kept drowning him out. I was on the defensive, so I kept coming up with ways to challenge him, when what I really wanted to do was duck for cover. "Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations," Seligman writes. While optimists expect their problems to be temporary, and would never dream of blaming themselves, "[pessimists] automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive, and personal: 'It's going to last forever, it's going to undermine everything, and it's my fault.'"
My sentiments exactly. So how do I plan on getting over my pessimism? I'll try Seligman's technique, with a slight twist suggested by a Buddhist friend who practices "lovingkindness," a way of relating more humanely to yourself and others: Instead of pretending my inner voice is an enemy, I might start thinking of her as a dear but deluded friend. Maybe I'll be able to listen to what she tells me without taking it so much to heart. Maybe, after getting a little distance, I'll begin to be able to laugh at her a little, and gently dispute what she says. I might even try throwing in a word or two of self-approval. But that's another conversation.
Cathleen Medwick is the author of Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (Doubleday).
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