“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward” — Thomas A. Edison.
When things go badly for you, do you tend to blame yourself, and believe that things will probably continue to go badly for you in the future (i.e. think pessimistically)? Or, are you more likely to assume that it’s a temporary setback and that things will get better (i.e. think optimistically)? It should be obvious that these two different ways of thinking about difficulties are likely to promote very different emotional and behavioral responses. For example, when things go badly, those who think pessimistically typically respond with significant distress and anxiety, and may even experience feelings of defeat; those who think optimistically are likely to experience less distress and anxiety, and are apt to be more focused on how they can improve things as they go forward .
We now know that how we feel depends, to a large extent, on which information we attend to in a given situation, and how we interpret that information. Studies have shown that even though we each receive up to 11 million bits of information per second through our senses, our brains are only able to consciously process around 40 – 60 bits per second. This means that we regularly miss vast amounts of information, and that we only attend to a sliver of reality. In recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize that emotional reactions can be changed by helping people to adjust where they focus their attention and how they interpret the meaning of an experience.
So, if you are prone to pessimistic thinking, and are susceptible to the resulting anxiety and distress, remember that there are almost certainly many alternative perspectives and interpretations that you are not considering, and that that both can be adjusted: you can change where you focus your attention, and find different ways to think about the information you select.
The first step is to try to become aware of what you’re thinking when things don’t go well; if you realize that you’re being self-critical and expecting that things will continue to go badly in the future, you can take action to shift to a more helpful perspective. It is not recommended that you try to simply suppress negative thoughts, because that may cause them to become even more powerful and persistent. But, there are strategies you can use to help you manage and modify any unrealistic pessimistic thinking. It is best to be prepared with some of these strategies, so you can quickly interrupt what could otherwise become a downward spiral of self-criticism and worry. What follows is a sampling of some strategies you can try.
REDIRECT THINKING: The simplest and fastest way to block ruminations is to distract yourself and refocus your attention onto a constructive and absorbing activity. Create a “rumination escape kit” ahead of time and keep it handy. In your kit, include anything that can serve as a healthy distraction that you can use to quickly shift your attention when needed. Simply interrupting the negative downward spiral is often enough to contain and even reverse it. Negative emotions can sometimes provide clues about things that may need your attention, but rumination and negative downward spirals don’t benefit you. You can schedule a later time to think about/sort out the issue, in order to better address it; after scheduling a time when you will revisit the issue, use distraction to redirect your thoughts for now. The key here is to interrupt the rumination. But, if you have enough time , an effective and enduring way to shift your mindset is to challenge your negative ideas about the cause, meaning and implications of the negative event.
PRACTICE ARGUING AGAINST YOUR PESSIMISTIC AND SELF-CRITICAL BELIEFS: Disputing your beliefs with evidence you have not been considering is the basic framework of this approach. Brainstorm as much evidence as you can to dispute your beliefs, and then identify more useful, but realistic, beliefs. Recognizing more benign or even positive ways of viewing the situation can significantly alter how you think and feel, as well as facilitate your ability to acknowledge and address issues that do need your attention. Sometimes it can help to imagine that your pessimistic beliefs are the assertions of someone else, rather than your own. We are often much better at fighting back when criticism and negative thinking comes from someone other than ourselves. To build your capacity to dispute your pessimistic beliefs, try writing them out, and write down evidence that you can use to dispute those beliefs.
SELF-COMPASSION JOURNAL: Instead of arguing against self-critical beliefs, another alternative is to use self-compassion. When you are being self-critical, write down those thoughts and the feelings they provoke. Next, think of an imaginary friend who is kind, loving, accepting and compassionate, and write a letter to yourself about the situation from the perspective of this imaginary friend. Have your friend express love and support as s/he responds to your self-critical thoughts and painful feelings with acceptance and compassion. After writing the letter, leave it for a while, and then come back and read what you wrote, allowing yourself to really feel the love, support, compassion and acceptance expressed by your friend.
SELF-COMPASSION MANTRA: Another version of the self-compassion approach is to create a mantra that you can use whenever you are inclined to be self-critical. You can modify the language of the mantra, but the example provided by Kristin Neff (2011) is to repeat to yourself some version of the following phrases the moment you realize that you are being self-critical or feeling distressed: “I am having a very hard time right now. Everyone feels this way sometimes. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.”
MEDITATION AND RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Meditation and relaxation strategies are also helpful, but they need to be practiced regularly. We will discuss the issue of meditation further in a future article in this series.
You may recall that last time we discussed how shifting from pessimism to optimism involves three elements: (1) cultivating realistic optimism, which we covered in the last article in this Happiness and Well-Being series; (2) neutralizing unrealistic pessimism, which we’ve addressed today; and (3) developing a growth mindset, which is so fundamental to optimism that we will focus exclusively on this issue next time.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Neff, Kristin (2011-04-19). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
If you haven’t yet read the first four posts in this series, read them now to learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier? Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism
OVERCOMING PESSIMISM AND SELF-CRITICISM by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.