Linda is a recovering pessimist. She grew up in a family that had a basement freezer crammed with food, and cases of canned goods stacked against the walls. All this hoarding of food was preparation for the inevitable economic or political disaster that her parents were certain would occur. She grew up hearing stories about her grandfather's assault on an army officer who had taunted him with anti-Semitic remarks. As the story goes, he fled and deserted the military, leaving Russia to immigrate to the United States. There were stories about the pogroms and violence that occurred in the old country, particularly on Easter Sunday, when angry Christians took it upon themselves to punish the "Christ killers." There was also a steady stream of stories about all of the relatives who perished in the holocaust because they didn't leave Europe in time. Linda's parents' caution was well meaning, but it left her with a sense of anxiety and a pervasive belief that doom and catastrophe are always right around the corner.
When she left home for college, she thought that she had been admitted by mistake, and didn't think she would graduate. She expected failure. Linda expected to fall in love but would probably be left by her beloved. She had no idea that her general attitudes were deeply pessimistic. She just thought her ideas were realistic. By studying psychology and human development, she came to understand that we all form protective beliefs, and that these beliefs can be modified. What a concept! Linda put the theory to the test and was delighted to discover that it was actually possible for her to change her thinking! With a concerted effort, her rich imagination that had been catastrophizing, started to envision successful outcomes for the scenarios she had been anticipating.
So much of her happiness now is a result of her efforts to put her inner pessimist in his place. When he sneaks onto the scene and starts spinning his fearful scenarios, Linda knows that he is just doing his job to protect her by preparing her for trouble. But these days she talks back. Linda says things like: "That may or may not happen. Thank you for sharing, but I choose to believe that things will turn out well." She had losses and tragedy in her life.
Every life has to contain its share of joys and sorrows. She came to trust that it is possible to make a full recovery from some ordeals experienced, or at least a partial recovery from the most devastating blows. To waste precious life energy worrying about what might happen is unproductive and can even be self-fulfilling. Linda now knows that she has choices and has to exert effort when pessimistic thoughts arise. But with experience and practice, it has become easier over time, to trust that things generally do work out and not necessarily in the way in which she expects.
Some people see optimists as "Pollyanna’s," believing that they are in denial about reality. Of course optimism can be taken too far. But those that criticize optimists are often pessimistic themselves, and believe that they are stuck with their attitudes for life. Optimism as a life view, is a much more harmonious way of living in the world. Despite some negative experiences, people are basically good, the universe is a friendly place, and nature is trustworthy. So much of our energy that used to be used defensively with worry can be freed up for more creative pursuits.
So if you think that your beliefs and attitudes are fixed, challenge yourself to reassess, and to dare to believe in the possibility of transforming the darkness of pessimism into a more hopeful outlook. Working with our attitudes and beliefs is an essential part of cultivating the art of joyful living. But don't take my word for it; give it a try, and see for yourself. Who knows? You may be in for a surprise, a good one!
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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