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Get Yourself Unstuck With 3 Simple Questions

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When you feel stuck, it’s hard to imagine how you will ever get yourself unstuck. Stuck sucks!

But stuck is usually a mindset issue – and the good news is that you are in control of your mindset. With the three simple questions in this article, you can challenge and refresh your thinking, getting yourself unstuck and moving again.

The 3 simple questions that will get you unstuck

Martin Seligman, in his excellent book ‘Learned Optimism’, talked about how our “explanatory style” (the way we explain the events of our lives to ourselves and others) drives whether we feel helpless (pessimistic style) or powerful (optimistic style). 

There are three key elements of every person’s explanatory style:

  • Pervasiveness
  • Permanence
  • Personalisation
An image of three dials, labelled "Pervasive", "Permanent" and "Personal"
The 3Ps are like dials - you can turn them up or down based on the way you explain events to yourself

Think of each element as being a dial from 0 to 100%. As you tell yourself and others the story of the situation, issue, challenge or event, you are setting the dial for each element.

The wonderful thing about this is that you have a choice about where you set the dial for each element.

If the way you explain something that is happening to you is making you feel powerless, stuck, and unable to take action, you can decide to tweak the dials. You can tell a story that makes you feel powerful, gets you unstuck, and inspires you to take positive action. The situation might not have changed, but your perspective on it has.

A note on the examples that follow: I’m applying the 3Ps to a negative situation (because these are usually the ones we struggle with the most). However, they can also be applied to positive situations, to ensure that you are telling yourself the story that helps you boost your sense of efficacy (belief that you can take effective action) and wellbeing. See “Applying the 3Ps to positive situations” for more information.

Pervasiveness

The first element is your belief about how extensive the situation, issue, challenge or event is.

This is about deciding whether the thing you’re thinking about affects all aspects of your life, or is confined to a specific area.

Examples of thinking at each end of the “pervasiveness” dial, according to Seligman:

Universal (pessimistic)

  • All teachers are unfair
  • I’m repulsive
  • Books are useless

Specific (optimistic)

  • Professor Seligman is unfair
  • I’m repulsive to him
  • This book is useless

Permanence

The second element is your belief about how long-lasting the situation, issue, challenge, or event will be.

A while back I wrote about the best piece of advice I had ever received: this too shall pass. The extent to which you believe this advice will influence how “stuck” you find yourself, and the extent to which you can get yourself unstuck and moving forward.

Examples of thinking at each end of the “permanence” dial, according to Seligman:

Permanent (pessimistic)

  • I’m all washed up
  • Diets never work
  • You always nag
  • The boss is a bastard
  • You never talk to me

Temporary (optimistic)

  • I’m exhausted
  • Diets don’t work when you eat out
  • You nag when I don’t clean my room
  • The boss is in a bad mood
  • You haven’t talked to me lately

Personalisation

The third element is your belief about where the cause of the situation, issue, challenge, or event is – internal or external.

If your explanatory style is internal, you blame yourself for everything that happens. If your explanatory style is external, you blame everyone but yourself for what happens. There is a link to self-esteem here – people with higher self-esteem tend to view negative events as having external causes/influences – but, like anything, there is a point at which this can become pathological.

Examples of thinking at each end of the “personalisation” dial, according to Seligman:

Internal (pessimistic/low self-esteem)

  • I’m stupid
  • I have no talent at poker
  • I’m insecure

External (optimistic/high self-esteem)

  • You’re stupid
  • I have no luck at poker
  • I grew up in poverty

Using the 3Ps to get unstuck

Take a moment to think about where you’ve positioned each dial of the 3Ps. What effect is that combination of Ps having on your ability to get yourself unstuck?

If you’re already feeling ready to take action, that’s great – get to it!

If, on the other hand, you have realised that your story isn’t helpful and is keeping you stuck, read on to find out how to revise the 3Ps to get yourself unstuck.

Ask yourself the 3 simple questions:

1. How pervasive is this?

It’s easy, when we’re in the grip of uncomfortable feelings, to think that everything is affected by what we’re facing.

But that’s usually not true. And even if it is, the permanence element reminds us that it won’t always be the case. 

Example: the coronavirus pandemic. It can feel like it has altered every aspect of our lives, but in reality, the vast majority of our lives are unchanged: we still eat, sleep, drink, move, connect, argue, create, break up, make up, laugh, cry, rest, play, work… Acknowledge the areas that have changed, as well as the things that continue, even if in a modified way.

Write down everything that is staying the same about your life. Which of your needs remain the same? Which relationships are still in your life? What goals will you continue to pursue? Which values haven’t changed? What else is still true?

Now, write down what has changed or will change. Chances are, you’ll find that this list is shorter than the first list.

A tool that can help with this is the Four Doors of Change – I’ve written an article about how to use it, and you can download a free template to fill out.

2. How permanent is this?

If you tell yourself that what you are experiencing is permanent, and no change is ever possible, you may as well pour quick-set concrete around yourself. While some aspects of the situation might be permanent, the way you are experiencing it is not. 

The experience might feel intolerable in the present moment, but we humans have the remarkable ability to bounce back to our “normal” level of happiness. It doesn’t matter whether we win the lottery or face a devastating loss – over time, we adapt to the event and go back to our baseline (see the Resources section for the link to Lyubomirsky’s research about this).

Example: the coronavirus pandemic. it might feel like it’s never going to stop, but in all of human history, every pandemic has come to an end. This WILL pass.

Take note of when you’re using words like “always” and “never”. Pause, and ask yourself “Is that really true?”. Train yourself to look for disconfirming evidence (a fancy way of saying “proof that you’re wrong”). 

If your story is “Things never work out for me”, what proof do you have that you are wrong? Do you have a place to live? A job? Friendships? Good memories? Have you overcome challenges in the past? Been sick but recovered? Missed out on something you wanted but survived? Some things have definitely worked out for you – after all, you’re still here!

3. How personal is this?

One of the first things kids learn is to blame others – “It wasn’t me!” While failing to accept any personal responsibility for anything in your life is pathological, accepting too much blame isn’t any better.

This is about looking for where each of the causes of the issue lie. There’s almost always more than one cause, so make sure you look at each of them in turn.

Going back to the previous example: the pandemic is not your fault; you aren’t solely responsible for it. And everyone on earth is facing this at the same time – you are not alone, we share a “common humanity”.

Take some time to think about what and who is influencing the situation (excluding yourself). What organisational or national culture, laws, norms, other events, other people’s opinions, ideas and actions, natural or manmade disasters, accidents and coincidences are contributing to what you’re experiencing?

Sure, you will always be playing a part in your experience, but (sorry if this comes as a surprise!), you aren’t the centre of the universe! Sometimes crappy things happen to good people, and good things happen to those we might think of as crappy people.

Use your answers to re-write your story

Now that you’ve considered each of the 3Ps, it’s time to re-write your story, dialling down the pervasiveness, permanence, and personalisation elements. Your new story will emphasise that what you’re facing is specific, temporary, and external.

Yes, it will feel weird to do this – that’s because you’ve taught your brain your old story so well that it feels natural. But you can re-wire your brain with your new story, and the more you go over that new story, the more quickly it will become your default.

A text-based image titled "Stuck?", with text "Ask yourself the 3Ps: How pervasive is this? How permanent is this? How personal is this?", credit: Martin Seligman; photo of Daria Williamson, plus logo

Take action to get yourself unstuck

Based on your new story, what action will you take to move forward?

Sometimes, simply reframing something from permanent to temporary is enough to get you unstuck and back into action.

At other times, you’ll need to create a specific action plan to take advantage of your new perspective.

Whether the reframe is enough to get you underway again, or you have identified a specific plan of attack, make sure that you make progress – tell a supportive friend, family member or colleague what you’ll be doing, then follow through. Change only gets going when you do!

Applying the 3Ps to positive situations

As much as it is unhelpful to view a negative situation as pervasive, permanent and personal, it’s not much better to view positive situations as specific, temporary, and external.

To have a healthy sense of self-efficacy (your belief in your own capacity to take action and achieve your goals), it’s helpful to dial up the pervasiveness, permanence and personalisation elements in your story.

So, instead of saying “I just got lucky (external) with my teacher giving me that grade (specific), it won’t happen again (temporary)”, you can tell yourself the story “I worked really hard (internal), like I always do (permanent), so I’ve earned all the good things that happen to me (universal)”.

Resources

  • ‘Learned Optimism’, Martin Seligman; Vintage Books [Random House], 2006
  • Hedonic Adaptation to Positive and Negative Experiences, Sonja Lyubomirsky, ‘The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping’, 2011 (via ResearchGate PDF download)

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