Creative Connections & Client Communications

Helping Others Break out from the Status Quo

by guest astrologer James Kenneth Williams

James Kenneth Williams has practiced Western astrology for over 20 years and Eastern astrology (Jyotish) for over 15 years. His education and experience includes credentials from the state of California as a school counselor and clinical hypnotherapist. He has also worked with hospice, and as a social worker within residential treatment and foster family agencies.

In the July 31, 2006, "Counseling Insights" column (see Archives immediately following this essay), Noel Tyl wrote, "How many times have you...realized that your client--so desperately wanting that new shot in the arm, the new job, the relationship improvement, etc.--no matter what is going on, will stay pretty much exactly in the status quo of the Now. For many, the transient insecurity involved with choice is all too threatening."

Reading this takes me back to the mid-1960's and to a young graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania at that time, named Martin E.P. Seligman. Little did he know then that around 25 years later he would write a national best-selling book entitled "Learned Optimism" that would enable many people to exit "the status quo of the Now" for much greener pastures.

Seligman first became widely known as a graduate student, with ground-breaking research that soon came to be referred to as learned helplessness: "the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn't matter". He also soon discovered that learned helplessness was "the cause of depression: the belief that your actions will be futile. This belief was engendered by defeat and failure as well as by uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by defeat, failure, and loss and the consequent belief that any actions taken will be futile".

Seligman then found what he called the great modulator of learned helplessness, namely, explanatory style. Explanatory style is "the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen ... An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats".

Seligman discovered 3 crucial dimensions to a person's explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Permanence, the first crucial dimension of a person's explanatory style, is about time. Those who give up easily in the face of adversity and thus become helpless have habitually thought that the causes of the bad or negative events that happen to them are permanent. Bad events happened in the past, exist now in the present, and will exist in the future. Conversely, those who resist helplessness believe that the causes of bad or negative events are temporary rather than permanent.

Those who think about bad or negative events in always's and never's and adopt abiding traits, have a permanent and pessimistic explanatory style. Those who think about negative events in sometimes's and lately's and other qualifiers, while blaming them on transient conditions, have a non-permanent, temporary, and optimistic explanatory style. Examples of a permanent (pessimistic) explanatory style for bad events would be: "He always nags", "The boss is a bastard", "You never talk to me", "I'm all washed up." Examples of a non-permanent or temporary (optimistic) explanatory style for bad events include: "I'm exhausted", "You nag when I don't put my tools away", "The boss is in a bad mood", "You haven't talked to me lately."

Conversely, optimistic people explain good or positive events to themselves in terms of permanent causes: traits, abilities, always's. Pessimists, however, name transient causes: moods, effort, sometimes's. Thus, people who believe that good or positive events have permanent causes are more optimistic than people who believe they have temporary causes. Examples of a temporary (pessimistic) explanatory style for good events would be: "It's my lucky day", "I try hard", "My rival got tired." Examples of a permanent (optimistic) explanatory style for good events would be: "I'm always lucky", "I'm talented", "My rival is no good."

Now here's why the permanence dimension matters so much--and why some people stay helpless seemingly forever while others bounce back almost right away. Failure "makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. It's like a punch in the stomach. It hurts, but the hurt goes away--for some people almost instantly...For others, the hurt lasts; it seethes, it roils, it congeals into a grudge...They remain helpless for days or perhaps months; even after only small setbacks. After major defeats they may never come back". Thus, permanent explanations for bad events produce long-lasting helplessness, while temporary explanations for bad events produce resilience.

Pervasiveness, the second crucial dimension of a person's explanatory style, is about space. Some people can "put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their lives even when one important aspect of it--their job, for example, or their love life--is suffering. Others bleed all over everything. They catastrophize. When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels" (ibid., p. 46). Thus, those who make universal attributions for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. But those who make specific attributions may become helpless in that one area of their lives, yet march stalwartly on in the other areas.

Some examples of universal (pessismistic) explanations of bad events include: "All teachers are unfair", "I'm boring", "Books are useless." Some examples of specific (optimistic) explanations of bad events include: "Professor Freud is unfair", "I'm boring to him", "This book is useless."

Conversely, some examples of specific (pessimistic) explanations of good events include: "I'm smart at math", "My broker knows oil stocks", "I was charming to her." Some examples of universal (optimistic) explanations of good events include: "I'm smart", "My broker knows Wall Street", "I was charming."

Thus, the optimist believes that "bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes and that good events are caused by specific factors".

Interestingly, the concept of explanatory style brings the concept of hope into the forefront. Whether or not we have hope depends upon our permanent and pervasive explanatory styles. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is "the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair".

Hopeless thoughts can include examples such as: "I'm stupid", "Men are tyrants", "It's five in ten this lump is cancer." Hopeful thoughts can include examples such as: "I'm hung over", "My husband was in a bad mood", "It's five in ten this lump is nothing."

And this leads us to the third and final crucial dimension of a person's explanatory style, personalization.

When bad things happen, we can "blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do".

Low self-esteem usually results from an internal personalization style for bad events, such as: "I'm stupid", "I have no talent at poker", "I'm insecure." High self-esteem, on the other hand, usually results from an external personalization style for bad events, such as: "You're stupid", "I have no luck at poker", "I grew up in poverty."

Conversely, the optimistic style of explaining good events is internal rather than external, and people who believe they cause good things tend to like themselves better than those who believe good things come from other people or circumstances. Thus, high self-esteem usually results from an internal (optimistic) personalization style for good events, such as: "I can take advantage of luck", "My skill enabled us to win the game." Low self-esteem, on the other hand, usually results from an external (pessimistic) personalization style for good events, such as: "A stroke of luck", "My teammates' skill enabled us to win the game."

Of the 3 dimensions of explanatory style, personalization is the easiest to understand. After all, one of the first things a child learns to say is, "S/he did it, not me!" Personalization is also "the easiest dimension to overrate. It controls only how you feel about yourself, but pervasiveness and permanence--the more important dimensions--control what you do; how long you are helpless and across how many situations".

So how does all of this information relate to us as consulting astrologers?! We consulting astrologers can utilize all of this information to better understand each client's explanatory style, thereby greatly enhancing both empathic and skillful response, along with assisting greater client insight and objectification.

Seligman goes on to explain fully and specifically in "Learned Optimism" how to transform long-standing patterns of learned helplessness and pessimism into new habits of inner dialogue which produce not only astonishing positive results, but also new freedom to help build a life of rewards and lasting fulfillment--thus helping to break the bind and dilemma of "the status quo of the Now"...


Next Update: June 30, 2011


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