I’d like you to think about a particular episode when you had a strong craving, tried to resist it, and then gave in to it. Try to remember just once specific instance — perhaps the most recent one. Call to mind where you were, what time of day it was, what you were doing when the craving came. 

Now I’d like you to see if you can recall what kind of thoughts were going through your mind right before you gave in to the temptation — the very thoughts you were thinking as you decided to give in.

 
Please write in the box the top three thoughts that were going through your mind. Also mention the tone of the voice in your head that was speaking the thoughts — try to remember that as clearly as you can. (It would be a great idea to copy and paste them to a note program as well, for later use.)

 
Probably all of the thoughts you wrote in the previous screen can be called permissive thoughts, because all of them have the function of leading you to give in to the craving. You could say they’re paving the way for caving to the craving. They lead you to give up and give in. 

Some permissive thoughts are explicit: “It’s OK (just this once),” “This will be the last time,” “I’ll make things right later,” and so on. I think of these as being lighter, sunnier permissive thoughts. All of us fool ourselves at some times, in matters big or small, with this kind of permissive thought.

 
It’s the darker thoughts that are the problem. Their voice is much sadder than the explicitly permissive thoughts above, and they function as self-fulfilling prophecies: “I can’t get over this,” “This is too hard,” “I am weak,” “This is just the way I am,” and so on.

These thoughts give permission implicitly: “Since I can’t get over this, I’ll just give in;” “Since this is too hard, I might as well stop trying,” and so on.

You can identify a thought as implicitly permissive by asking, “If I were to really get stuck in this thought while having a strong craving, what behavior would result?”

 
Let's look at the thought, "I can't do this." Imagine this thought repeating over and over in your mind, leading you to the point of giving in to the craving.

What emotion do you think is most associated with this darker permission-giving thought?


 
Yes, it is despair, as can be made more clear by a simple exercise. Imagine the thought intensifying: I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this. No matter how hard I try I am always going to fail. I will be like this forever.  

As we intensify the despairing thought, you can probably feel the increasing darkness of that line of thinking. It would be the same with the other dark permissive thoughts: they all lead down the same path.

 
It's true that this thought contains an element of sadness -- but there's more. Imagine the thought intensifying: I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this. No matter how hard I try I am always going to fail. I will be like this forever.    

Do you notice the feeling intensifying? Intensifying the thought "I can't do this" brings out more clearly the emotion hiding within it: despair. It would be the same with the other dark permissive thoughts: they all lead down the same path.

 
While this thought may be compatible with anger, it's not a typical angry thought as it assigns no blame. Imagine the thought intensifying: I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this. No matter how hard I try I am always going to fail. I will be like this forever.    

Do you notice the feeling intensifying? Intensifying the thought "I can't do this" brings out more clearly the emotion hiding within it: despair. It would be the same with the other dark permissive thoughts: they all lead down the same path.

 
It's true that this thought contains an element of fear -- but there's more. Imagine the thought intensifying: I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this. No matter how hard I try I am always going to fail. I will be like this forever.    

Do you notice the feeling intensifying? Intensifying the thought "I can't do this" brings out more clearly the emotion hiding within it: despair. It would be the same with the other dark permissive thoughts: they all lead down the same path.

 
In my clinical experience, persistent addictions are made persistent by these despairing thoughts. The hallmark of these thoughts is that they turn a failing into a permanent personal trait. If anger leads us to blaming and anxiety leads to overestimating risk, the particular bent of thought brought on by despair can be called traitifying.

Despair sees everything as a fixed character trait, and so all effort to change is useless: the obstacles within seem insurmountable — and in fact they are, as long as the person keeps giving up.

 
Here's another example. Imagine a person who thinks of herself as being shy. She has just arrived at a networking event at a conference, and sees a room filled with people she doesn't know. Everyone seems to be talking to someone, and none of her colleagues at here yet. She begins to fuse with the thought, "I'm just a shy person. I'm not good at this." After a few more moments she leaves.

 
In this example, the concept she had of herself being a shy person gave her permission, in a sense, to not speak with anyone and to leave the event early. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: it's a vicious cycle. The more she sees herself as being shy, the more she is forever shy, as she doesn't make the effort to improve. The emotion that drives her escape, perhaps hidden from her mind in the midst of her anxiety, is despair. The cognitive distortion she suffers comes from fusing with her own unhelpful concept of herself.

 
The thing about self-concepts -- like the woman's idea that she is a shy person -- is that the real issue is NOT whether the thought is true or not. Self-fulfilling prophecies have a way of MAKING themselves true. The real issue is that the more she thinks of herself as being shy, the more she gives herself permission to escape the situations where she could work on becoming less shy.

All negative thoughts about oneself are implicitly permissive thoughts: if you notice one, ask yourself, "What is this thought giving me permission to do? What struggle is it leading me to give up?"

 
To push the idea further, we can say that all concepts we have about ourselves tend towards despair, as all of them assign us labels -- and this is true whether they seem positive or not -- and all of them make improving ourselves more difficult. This is because every self-concept makes it hard for us to see any evidence that goes against the concept.


 
Even if a person has a positive self-concept, this concept will make it harder for the person to grow. Imagine a rather arrogant young man who believes, "I'm a caring and thoughtful person." While that thought may occasionally help him to be caring and thoughtful, it will also make it hard for him to see any evidence to the contrary, even to the point of blinding him. As a result he could be rude and thoughtless without ever noticing it.

 
Hope, in psychological terms, is the annihilation of all self-concepts. Once we are freed from seeing ourselves as being fixed with traits, we can think about how to best succeed in the challenge at hand. Hope reframes despair. Instead of seeing ourselves beset with traits, we see ourselves beset with opportunities to improve, grow and learn.
 
Take the example of the woman at the networking event. If the despairing thought were to come along, saying, "I'm just a shy person, I should leave now," the response of hope would be: "This is exactly the practice I need. I can welcome the anxiety I'm feeling, and I'll try to make sure I make good eye contact while introducing myself to at least five people."

 
Another way of arriving at the same conclusions is through the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford. She has dedicated her life to trying to understand why some children and adults thrive in the face of challenge, while others wilt.

She has a wonderful book (that I recommend to you) called Mindset, which summarizes her research findings over the past several decades. She also has a YouTube video, titled "The Effect of Praise on Mindsets," which is fascinating. You can watch it below.


 
OK, here's the video

 
As the video mentioned, Dr. Dweck studied how nine-year-olds worked on puzzles that required them to use blocks, painted different colors on each side, to reconstruct color patterns in a picture.

Some of the patterns were easy to match; others were much more difficult.

 
The researchers gave all the kids the easy puzzles and praised them once they had solved each one.

For half the kids, the researchers praised their intelligence: "Wow, what a nice job you did with that. How smart you are!" For the other half, they praised their work: "What a great effort you made!" The only difference was praising the kids for their intelligence (a fixed trait) or for the effort they put in (which they could control).

Let's hear your best guess: what do you think Dr. Dweck found?


 
An interesting hypothesis! Admittedly, however, we probably wouldn't be discussing the experiment if it hadn't taught us something interesting.  So I'll tell you this much: there was a difference.

 
Actually, it was just the opposite. You were right to suspect that there was a difference in performance between the two groups, but it wasn't what you were expecting.

 
Good! The praise did indeed make a difference, and the kids who got praise for their good efforts consistently did better work.  From that, we can learn an important lesson.

 
A big outcome difference emerged between these two groups of kids.

The kids who had their intelligence praised were much more likely to give up when faced with more challenging puzzles; they shied away from the effort that those harder puzzles took. They consistently wanted to go back to the easier ones. Dr. Dweck explained that it was as if they had gotten their 'smart credentials' on the easier ones, and so they wanted to keep solving those.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers would offer the kids puzzles to take, to keep working on at home. The kids whose intelligence was praised chose the easier ones.

 
The kids whose effort was praised performed much differently. When it came time for the harder puzzles, they welcomed the added difficulty; they seemed to say, "I love a challenge!" They threw themselves more enthusiastically into the task, because their effort was what mattered — their effort was being rewarded with praise.

When the researchers offered these kids their choice of puzzles to take home, they wanted the hard ones.

 
Praising a person's intelligence, or any other seemingly fixed trait, fosters what Dweck calls a fixed mindset: people begin to think of themselves as simply being a certain way, with no opportunity to change. (Needless to say, putting people down also fosters a fixed mindset!)

In the case of praising intelligence, once people learn that their intelligence is being measured, they become afraid that it will be found wanting; they don't want to risk looking dumb. They begin to fear making mistakes. They shy away from challenges.

Worst of all, the fact that they have to make an effort at something shows that they aren't naturally good at it. So they often don't even make an effort wherever they cannot guarantee success.

 
Praising effort and struggle, on the other hand, fosters what Dweck calls a growth mindset. People in this mindset see challenges as occasions to make a good effort — they embrace challenge as a good thing.

Struggling to improve becomes easier when "struggle" is a good word, and when people believe they can improve. They come to believe that the harder they work at something, the better they get at it — which is true. Over time, they are more likely to care for learning and rising to challenges  than they are to care for grades.

Mistakes are opportunities for growth and learning. Talents are not fixed traits; the abilities that people have now are only their starting point. Effort makes those abilities grow.

 
Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted extensive research into how people explain their failures. In one study, his team of researchers asked seven-year-olds who had just failed a math test, "Why did you fail?" Then, they followed those children through adulthood.

Easy question: now that you've learned about self concepts, what do you think Dr. Seligman found?


 
You're right!  Dr. Seligman's research confirms the importance of the growth mindset, and of hope, in improvement.

 
That might have been a misleading question. It wasn't only the kids' success or failure that made a difference in their lives, it was also how they decided to react to it — whether they used failure as an opportunity to grow or as an occasion to give up.

 
The children who said things like, "Because I'm not good at math," or "I'm not good at school," were explaining failure in terms of a permanent personality trait. In their minds, their failures proved something about them — something unchangeable.

When re-examining them decades later, they found that these children, sadly, were more likely to be depressed as adults.

The other children said things like "I didn't study enough," or "I didn't practice those problems." These answers said something about their effort; since they imply no permanent trait, these explanations leave room for improvement in the future.

 
Pessimistic explanations don't leave much room for things to improve — if a student fails a test and says he's "not good at math," it is unlikely that next week he will be good at math. Optimistic explanations for failure focus on behaviors falling short, not on personality traits coming up short. With practice, behaviors can change.

Fortunately, Seligman also showed that pessimism isn't a permanent personality trait: you can teach optimism to pessimists. The key is to help people change their approach to setbacks and shortcomings, so that they see them in terms of learning and practice.

 
The insights of Dweck and Seligman show us that the key to growth and optimism is to change our attitude toward challenges. If we truly believe that we can get better at anything — if we only make good use of our many opportunities for learning and practice — our life will be marked by positive, practical efforts to improve.

We will not be afraid of mistakes, because we do not believe they can show us any permanent, essential character of ourselves: they only show us a new way of growing. Optimism turns challenges into something good; if we thrive on challenge, we will be immune to anxiety, addiction, and depression: we will be ready to grow.

 
The first small step toward developing hope is to try to use, and use frequently, three golden words: learning, practice, and — a word with special power — yet.

If you are hesitant to meet new people, you might say, "I'm not a social person," or "I'm not good at meeting people." Neither of these statements allows for change: they won't be any different next week, which is the proof of pessimism. But imagine that we turn that statement into, "I'm not a social person — yet." Just adding "yet" to a pessimistic statement makes it optimistic.

Even better, rephrase it in terms of learning and practice: I have to learn how to improve at small talk. I have to practice greeting people more warmly. I have to practice getting to know strangers.

 
At a deeper level, you need to be able to notice when you are getting stuck in a self-concept. Almost always, the identifying mark of this occurring is the emotion of despair that gets triggered when the thought comes to mind.

You need to work on this despair through mindful attention and acceptance, in exactly the same way as anxiety and cravings. We'll go through that in modules to come: stay tuned for more.

 
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