The Art of Arguing with Yourself *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

In a speech at the American Psychological Association (APA) Convention last August, APA President Martin E. P. Seligman discussed the increased incidence of depression in young people and ways to combat depression. Seligman notes that depression is becoming more frequent among younger people.

"The mean age of onset has gone from 30 to 15. It’s no longer a middle-aged housewife’s disorder. It’s a teenager’s disorder."

His major method of preventing depression does not involve taking Prozac or attending repeated psychotherapy sessions. Seligman encourages psychologists to help people take advantage of a skill they already have – but they tend to use it incorrectly.

When bad things happen, Seligman believes you can ward off depression by "monitoring and then acting against the catastrophic things you say to yourself." To a great extent, it depends on how you explain what has happened to you. We may argue with ourselves about what to blame for negative events in our lives.

There are three dimensions of questions we ask ourselves when dealing with negative events. The first attributes causation. "Who did it to you? Did you do it, or was it external people and circumstances?"

Seligman believes the second dimension is most important – duration. In other words, will things change? According to Seligman, "Those of you who habitually find changeable or transient causes to setbacks in your life will recover rapidly from depression." He uses an example of a rejected lover. Suppose the rejected person admits, "I didn’t work hard enough at it." Putting more effort into a relationship is something that can be changed. However, suppose the rejected lover concludes, "I’m unlovable." That quality is seen as permanent, so that argument is more likely to lead to depression.

The third dimension could be labeled generalization, but Seligman calls it, "bleeding all over the place." In other words, you let one setback affect many other areas in your life. The way they explain their failures spreads to damage other areas of their lives. According to Seligman, the setback can be limited to the specific situation.

"Some people, when they are fired from their job, may not look for a new job, but their marriage remains intact, jokes are still funny to them, and they don’t get a cold that lasts all winter."

This last dimension is related to pessimism – an overall expectation of catastrophe. Pessimists argue, "It’s never going to change, it’s going to undermine everything I do. It’s my own fault – I’m stupid, I’m unlovable." With this view, when bad events occur, they are at much greater risk of feelings of helplessness and depression for longer intervals. More than ever, adolescents are likely to think of their successes and failures as so extremely important. Failing a course, losing a job, or being rejected by a partner are more often viewed – in contrast to temporary setbacks – as catastrophes that ruin their whole life. Partially, Seligman believes the "great buffers" against failure have weakened.

"Relationship to God, community, extended family, relationship to nation – have diminished so greatly. I think the spiritual furniture that our grandparents and parents sat in when they failed has become threadbare."

In addition, Seligman is scornful of the rise of "victimology" in the United States. He labels it "our national ideology." We have typically come to blame our problems on other people and circumstances.

"You feel better when you blame other people and circumstances – your self-esteem goes up; and it turns the usual wages of failure from pity and contempt to compassion and support."

Seligman is noted for his lifetime of study on learned helplessness – which is linked to victimology. "It’s about the belief that nothing you do matters. And you’re a victim of others. And that directly, in my view, leads to the susceptibility to depression."

Seeing ourselves as victims
negates any sense of
responsibility for our actions.

Sometimes, when we do badly, it is our fault. Although blaming other persons or circumstances may help preserve our self-esteem, the effect is only temporary. If we have done something to make the trouble occur – and we don’t confront it – it will probably happen again. We need to accept a sense of responsibility for our actions. If we assume responsibility for our actions, we can change them when they contribute to our suffering. Otherwise, we will continue to repeat our past mistakes – and our past misfortunes.

The doctrine of victimology also deforms our heroes and heroines. They are not invulnerable people like "Superman." They don’t have special talents or abilities that make them invincible while striving for their goals. However, they do have one special quality. In spite of their fears and doubts, they are willing to make changes. If these changes fail to help them reach their goals, they are willing to try again. With this persistence, they are more likely to reach their goals – and less likely to be depressed.

We all have failures or setbacks. In response to your setbacks, ask yourself what caused them. Evaluate options to remedy the situation. Map out the specific steps needed to fulfill the options you select. Then make the hardest decision – in spite of your fears – to actually do what needs to be done. You will find that you have persuaded yourself to become a "hero."

* Adapted from Patrick A. McGuire’s "Seligman touts the art of arguing with yourself," The APA Monitor, October, 1998, pages 13-14.

Go to first page of listing additional articles.

Go to second page of listing additional articles.

Go back to "A Line on Life" main page.