Feeling Badly About Yourself? Try This.

A research model offers a way to turn our frown upside down.

Posted Sep 26, 2019

We would like to share an experience that one of us (Suzie) had before we left for our month-long trip to Australia which we wrote about in our post last week. Naturally, we had a lot of planning to do in advance of our Adelaide City Library Residency. In order to manage the natural stress involved with a busy work schedule one of us, (Suzie), regularly goes on long outdoor runs in an attempt to relax her mind and positively energize her body.

During one specific one, she was running uphill traversing a bridge and finding it particularly challenging on this unbearably muggy day. Although Suzie was feeling more lethargic than usual, she reached down deep inside of herself mustering up the strength needed to continue putting one foot after another. Despite her exhaustion, she managed to keep a steady gait. She was feeling good about her persistence and progress. 

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie running across the bridge
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

Suddenly, Suzie noticed a woman whizzing by her. Watching her peel away into the distance Suzie felt utterly deflated. Like a complete failure. And now, just moments after feeling good about herself, she felt even more tired than usual wondering if she could even make it halfway through her run up to the top of the bridge.

What was going on? How could she feel so badly about herself when moments ago she was proud of her tenacity? How could one incident cause her to suddenly shift emotional gears? 

Well, you see, it wasn't this person breezing by her that caused her mood to plummet. It was her beliefs about the situation that did. What ran through her mind at that very precise moment were thoughts like:

I can't believe how slow I run! I am as slow as a snail! What's wrong with me since this woman of similar age is running at such a greater speed? Maybe I should just stop running cause I can't even keep up with my peers!

Suzie somehow managed to move past these flooding negative thoughts to summit the top of the incline. She noticed that the woman who had raced by her a few minutes ago had stopped to stretch her legs at the peak of the bridge. Suzie sheepishly approached her to say hello, despite her initial embarrassment for being so slow. Suzie said, "hi, I saw you shoot past me. You are so fast!"

The woman smiled and took off her sunglasses. Suzie suddenly realized that the woman appeared to be years younger than her. Suzie then asked the woman, "do you mind me asking you how old you are?" The woman replied, "sure. I'm 17."  At this point, Suzie laughed realizing she was more than twice the young woman's age. In fact, she was nearly three times older than the teen!

Suzie remarked to the young woman what a great runner she is. The woman smiled humbly.  Suzie explained how she was interested in getting into a healthy habit of running with their eight-year-old son since he plays on a travel soccer team, loves the sport, and is always wanting to build his skills. The woman said that she started running with her father when she was about eight. Suzie was impressed that she began running at such a young age and then asked if the woman played any competitive sports. The woman smiled again and in a barely audible voice uttered something about being nationally ranked. Suzie asked her if she could repeat what she had said.  

To Suzie's utter amazement, she learned that not only was the young woman nationally ranked, but she was also in the top 20 of her age-range in the country! And she was at this very moment training for an upcoming race! That's why she sprinted up the hill past Suzie at such a fast pace. 

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie and the nationally-ranked runner post for a picture at the peak of the bridge.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

Suddenly, Suzie no longer felt bad about herself, but rather good about herself. The fact that she was able to even run in the young woman's company—someone who was a fraction of her age and nationally ranked—made her feel a lot better!

After speaking for a while, Suzie asked if she could take her picture and connect with her online. The young woman agreed. They talked briefly about their families and healthy habits before parting ways. 

As Suzie began her descent down the hill, she smiled to herself, feeling a lot better. She felt energized from the interaction and picked up speed. She then saw the nationally-ranked teen running past her, who smiled and waved. 

Suzie learned a great lesson that day, one in which she had been taught years ago as a child but obviously needed to remember and practice:

  • Don't make assumptions. 
  • Stop comparing yourself with others.
  • Avoid hasty generalizations. 
Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
The nationally-ranked teen races past Suzie and waves
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

By following these rules above you can avoid the downward spiral of emotions which led Suzie to feel miserable about herself. If Suzie's experience resonates with you, rather than getting stuck in a rut feeling sorry for yourself, remember your ABCDEs, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman's brilliant model for helping us build optimism and fight pessimistic thoughts.

  • Adversity – This is the event that causes stress. (e.g. In Suzie's case, the fast runner speeding by her.)
  • Belief – This is how a person interprets the event. (e.g. "I'm as slow as a snail!")
  • Consequence – The resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity. (e.g. Suzie began to feel bad about herself and her abilities.)
  • Disputation – The search for evidence to challenge negative thoughts from A-C. (e.g. Suzie fought her inaccurate beliefs and learned that the woman was just a fraction of her age and was a nationally-ranked athlete.)
  • Energizing – The result when a person practices conditioning themselves into positive thoughts and behaviors. In response to A (adversity), B-D can lead to a person feeling energized, rather than depleted. (e.g. "Wow! I feel pretty good to just be able to run in the proximity of this nationally-ranked young woman! And she's so nice. Happy to have connected with her!") 

The next time you may be feeling down in the dumps due to perceived adversity, stop yourself from going into a downward spiral by remembering your ABCDEs. While it's not as simple as your ABCs, with time and practice, Seligman's model with help tame those intrusive negative thoughts and ultimately replace them with optimistic and energizing ones. 

References

Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.