Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Becoming an Optimist

How to turn away from the dark side.

I have always been a bit of a pessimist.  I generally expected the worst and and didn’t trust it when something good happened. In my early twenties I met two people who changed my life, both of whom were optimists.  These people wore rose-colored glasses, saw hope and promise in every situation, and seemed to generally feel happy. Given my negative nature, I immediately saw the flaws in this approach to life: they will be disappointed and hurt frequently and they will overlook their own mistakes. But in time, I grew to respect them and envy their sunny and positive approach towards life. I wished I could be like that but I didn’t know how to become that way.

It took a lot of work and required almost constant vigilance on my part. I would quickly find fault in something and then need to search for the good aspects of a situation to negate my own negativity.  I often had to ask myself what they would do or say in the situation—how they could possibly make lemonade out of the rotten lemons that were all that I saw. It felt wrong and stupidly positive sometimes to find the good in a situation when I saw only the dark and negative side of it. But with time, I noticed that it became second nature to see both the good and the bad in a situation and I was surprised by how freeing it was. 

I was also surprised by how much I needed to be able to see both my own good and bad characteristics—how important it was for me to be able to recognize that there are things that I am good at rather than to excuse those things as being “just luck” or something that “anyone could do.”  Even now, as I type those words, they cause a certain amount of anxiety for me—to say that I am good at something for fear or disappointing myself or others, but it also feels strangely exhilarating. I also realized that others need to hear positive feedback and the importance of balancing the good with the bad when giving students feedback, when helping someone through a tough time, or when trying to make sense of the bad things that have happened in life.

Don’t get me wrong, at times I still dip down into pessimism and find it hard to dig my way out. I have not entirely changed my “dark side” and it still rears its ugly head at times. But more often than not, I can see hope in difficult situations and if all else fails, comfort myself with the idea that things usually work out in the end even if they haven’t gone the way that I planned them to. The most surprising thing is that although I clung to my negativity for dear life and thought that it provided protection, I find that I need protection less than I thought that I did and that the optimism somehow “fits” better than negativity did.

So how does one become an optimist? We always say that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but clearly that saying was coined by a pessimist! 

1) Notice your negativity. Listen to what you say and how negative it is. Track your thoughts on a daily basis and notice the negative assumptions and conclusions that you draw. Identification of your negativity is essential to change.

2) When find yourself saying something negative, think of something positive to say even if it doesn’t “ring true” to you at the moment. If you are habitually negative, seeing the sunny side is going to feel false and Pollyannaish at first. That is okay. You can’t expect to change overnight.

3) If you identify a negative thought, write it down. Next to it, draw a column for the evidence supporting that thought. Then draw a column for the evidence that argues against the thought. You will be great at identifying evidence supporting the negative thought and struggle with the evidence against the negative thought but with practice this will come easier.

4) Search for positive aspects of situations. Your team lost the Superbowl this year, but at least you got to watch the game with your friends and had some delicious food. You lost your job but this gives you the opportunity to find a better job and you wouldn’t have taken that opportunity otherwise. Most situations can be seen in both a positive and negative light. You just have to find the positive one and keep reminding yourself of it in order to eventually believe it.

5) Think of someone you know who has a positive outlook on life and ask yourself what that person would do or think in particular situations. Then try to think that way too. This is a way of using others’ optimism to internalize it and make it a part of you.

6) Give others positive feedback. Even if someone has done something poorly, there has to be some aspect of it that is good. If you can find this, your view of the product will be more positive and the other person may feel encouraged to continue.

7) Give yourself positive feedback and notice when you discount it by saying that “anyone could have done this,” “it really wasn’t anything special,” “it’s only because I got lucky/worked hard.” These are excuses that you use to push off the positive feedback, usually because pessimists feel uncomfortable with good things and often fear disappointing others by acknowledging their own strengths. Deal with the anxiety and just say thank you if someone (including yourself) gives you positive feedback.

8) Identify the purpose of the pessimism. Does it provide protection against disappointment? Does it help you not to get hurt? Do you think that it helps you to plan for possible challenges? We often think that pessimism and worry are helpful but this is not true and we would handle the disappointment, hurt, and challenges even better if we were not bogged down by anxiety and negativity. Run some experiments to see whether the negativity is truly serving its purpose? Do you never get disappointed or hurt? Are you always prepared for challenges? If the answer to these questions is “no” that means that the negativity and worry are not working for you. It does not mean that you need to become more negative or worry more. Trust me on this one.

9) Take the risk of being positive and see how it feels. Try it on like you would try on a new pair of shoes. And just like new shoes, it may need some breaking in to really fit. But with time, optimism will start to fit like a glove.

10) Practice, practice, practice. It has taken me years of work on this and I still sometimes dip into pessimism. It took you a long time to learn negativity and will take you a long time to learn optimism.

With time and practice, you will notice that you can teach an old dog new tricks and that the old dog may become a little less anxious, depressed, and grouchy and a bit more warm and sunny over time. And who doesn’t like a happy dog?

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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