The ABC of resilience and learned optimism

Why is it that when different people are faced with exactly the same circumstances some thrive, some coast, and some drown?

The answer is in the buzzword of this decade: resilience.

Resilience is our ability to adapt to stress and adversity. Resilience is a strategy, a process; it’s not just a personality trait. Some people seem to be naturally more resilient than others, but we can all learn the strategies and behaviours that create resilience.

Everyone is buzzing about resilience because it’s a fundamental skill for coping with life and workplace ups and downs.

Take for example, a common occurrence where an organisation downsizes and employees find themselves facing redundancy. How each of those employees responds to the situation will be a key indicator of how they will face up to the challenge and (hopefully) ride off into the sunset of a bigger, better, brighter future.

Optimism vs Pessimism

Let’s start with how resilience works. Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism, studied how people respond to positive and negative events. We are all faced with both success and adversity at various points in our professional and personal lives and events can often be outside of our control. The only part of it that we can always control is our own response to the situation.

Our response is how Seligman distinguished between two types of people, Optimists and Pessimists. Optimists being the ‘glass half full’ and Pessimists, the ‘glass half empty’ people. But it’s not so simple, because it’s not just an instantaneous reaction.

Seligman studied the way people analyse positive and negative events and identified that three key areas of self-talk will influence whether we take a resilient, optimistic or a less-helpful approach.

He calls them the three P’s: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalisation. Optimists apply the 3 Ps to a positive experience, but not to a negative one. Pessimists do the opposite by applying the 3 Ps to the negatives and not to the positives.

What are the 3Ps?


When an event happens, we can choose to believe that it is permanent or temporary, and that the causes of the event are permanent or temporary.

Optimists tend to believe that good things and their causes are permanent, for example, “I got good feedback on that job because I am skilled in doing that sort of task and I will do a good job on those tasks in the future.”

When faced with a negative event, optimists tend to see the event as temporary, and caused by temporary issues, for example “I was made redundant because the company has too many overhead costs, and fewer staff will enable them to compete successfully.” This enables Optimists to bounce back more quickly from adversity.

Pessimists will do the opposite. They view success and achievements as temporary, for example, “I was lucky that time” and adverse experiences as more permanent, such as “This problem always happens.”


Pervasive means everywhere. Is this event an example of something that happens everywhere or specifically this particular area? Optimists will apply Pervasiveness to positives like, “I did that well. I’m good at all that kind of stuff”, and not apply it to negatives such as, “I made a mistake on that task. That does not mean I make mistakes on everything.”

Pessimists? Not surprisingly, they do the opposite and tell themselves things like, “I did that well - for once”, or “I made a mistake on that task. I always make lots of stupid mistakes.”


Am I personally responsible for this? That’s the third P question that people ask. And, well, you’ve probably guessed, Optimists give themselves credit for the positives, and don’t blame themselves for adverse events, “I did that really well” versus “That was bad luck”.

Pessimists however, take personal blame for the bad stuff, but put the positives down to external influences, “I stuffed that up” versus “That was only a success thanks to someone else, not to me”.

Analysing your self-talk

So next time you’re faced with any situation, good or bad, check in on your 3 Ps, and self-assess whether you default to being more optimistic or pessimistic.

You can start off with the small stuff. Let’s say you missed the bus. Was it your fault? Are you always late for everything? Or was it bad luck, everyone has a bad morning now and again. Tomorrow you’ll aim to be five minutes early to the bus stop?

Listening and analysing self-talk takes a bit of practice, but is worth the effort.

Can we learn to be more optimistic?

Martin Seligman believes we can all learn optimism, and recommends it, because it creates the resilience we need to bounce back, and helps to protect our health from the stresses of life.

He outlines a process to re-direct pessimistic self-talk, called the ABCDE model:

A for Adversity - negative event
B for Belief – your interpretation of the event (the 3 Ps)
C for Consequence – your feelings and behaviour, how you respond to the event
D for Disputation – find evidence that disputes your belief (use the optimist version of the 3 Ps)
E for Energisation – tap into the positive energy created by the successful disputation and celebrate that achievement to build your optimistic approach.

An example of this might be:

“(Adversity) I’ve just been made redundant. (Belief) This is because I’m bad at my job. I make mistakes, I’m slow at my work, and some days I can’t do anything right. (Consequence) I won’t get another job. Why bother trying? Any job interviews I go for, I’ll walk in believing I won’t have a chance. (Disputation) Actually it’s not me, it’s the job itself that was made redundant. I’ve had several successes in my role here, and my manager is offering me some personal referrals and a really complimentary reference. So I have a good chance to get another job quite quickly if I put some positive energy into it. (Energisation) I have done it. I disputed my negative thoughts, and stopped myself from spiralling down into a slump. That will help me to present confidently and competently in job interviews.

Change your habits

Turning Pessimism into Optimism is like changing any habit - it takes focus and practice at first, then over time the new behaviour becomes a habit. Einstein said it takes six weeks, so keep at it.

Thanks to Seligman’s use of the alphabet, we have the 3 Ps as a lens in which to view our self-talk, and the ABCDE framework to realign our self-talk to a more constructive, optimistic and resilient approach.

Using it before, during, or after a challenging situation; using it in personal, social and work settings, sets us up for success, and success feeds off success.

Views: 3530

Comment by Maria Martin on March 24, 2016 at 8:29

thanks for highlightling the 3Ps. Inherently I'm an optimist but it's interesting to understand why and the associated behaviours

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