What You Can Change and What You Can’t | Martin E.P. Seligman

Summary of: What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement
By: Martin E.P. Seligman


Embark on a journey of self-discovery and improvement with Martin E.P. Seligman’s ‘What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement.’ This book summary explores the effectiveness of various treatments for mental health issues and sheds light on the limitations and misconceptions surrounding self-improvement. Delve into topics such as the role of genes in personality, the persistence of phobias, and the challenges of weight loss, while uncovering strategies to achieve a healthy mental state. This guide offers a comprehensive resource for taking control of what can be changed in our lives, while embracing and managing those aspects that remain beyond our control.

Rethinking Self-Improvement

The effectiveness of current psychotherapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments for psychological problems is often limited, with a success rate of only 65%. This is due in part to the heritability of problem-causing personality traits. People need to understand that some psychological problems may not be curable, and instead must learn to live courageously with their problems. The self-improvement industry often fails individuals by providing short-term solutions that do not address underlying issues. It is crucial to recognize what can and cannot be changed in our personalities. By understanding our psychological state, we can learn to deal with it and possibly change it for the better.

Conquering Dysphoric Emotions

The ancient emotions of anxiety, depression, and anger haunt modern society. Humans can leverage their intelligence and biology to combat these emotions through natural methods such as meditation and progressive relaxation. It is important to remember to address serious disorders with therapeutic exorcism and not rely solely on temporary quick fixes like tranquilizers. The key message is to see these dysphoric emotions as bad weather and learn to calibrate them against the actual weather outside.

Overcoming Anxiety and Phobias

Panic attacks, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behavior can be cured.

Panic attacks affect one in twenty US adults, causing symptoms like heart palpitations, dizziness, and nausea, among others. However, people can learn how to control these symptoms with cognitive therapy. While some believe that panic attacks are caused by genetics or biochemistry, this view is generally incorrect. Phobias, on the other hand, have their roots in evolutionary history. According to therapists, there are two ways to treat phobias: systematic desensitization and flooding. In systematic desensitization, a person learns to cope with progressively scarier stimuli, starting with minor threatening experiences. In flooding, a person is immersed in a phobic situation and learns that nothing bad happens. This knowledge helps extinguish the phobia.

Obsessions, which involve thoughts that play repeatedly in the mind, can bring people down. OCD patients may try to avoid dirt or ritualistically wash their hands to keep repetitive thoughts at bay. Treatment involves making these patients confront their fear and then preventing ritualistic behavior. Through this process, the person learns that nothing bad will happen even without the usual ritual, and this disarms the obsession. With therapy, people can learn new skills and techniques to combat anxiety, phobias, and obsessive thinking patterns. Ultimately, these conditions can be cured.

Overcoming Mental Health Challenges

Mental illnesses such as depression, anger, and post-traumatic stress disorder have become prevalent in our society. Depression, which is the “common cold of mental illness,” is generally caused by loss, pain, and sadness. Studies show that depression and bipolar depression have a hereditary link and can be treated with medication and therapy. Interpersonal therapy helps individuals with depression get along with others, while cognitive therapy helps them find new ways to think about loss and failure.

Anger has three components – thoughts, bodily reaction, and attack – and can be triggered by the need to protect one’s domain or feeling righteous. Badly socialized angry people tend to lash out physically, while a well-socialized angry person may lash out verbally. Repelling anger involves controlling the thoughts that set one off, and trying to see things from the other person’s perspective.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterized by repeated reliving of traumas such as rape or war experiences. Drugs and psychotherapy can help some people with the symptoms, but sadly, some individuals may not find a cure effective. In all cases, managing these psychological problems takes courage, support, and the willingness to function effectively despite them.

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