Whether you are a pessimist or an optimist is about the story you tell yourself and how you tell it. Joan Borysenko, PhD says it all boils down to your resilience and how you react to stressful events in your life. The good news is even if you’re hard-wired with a pessimistic bend, you can shift your brain’s circuitry. By learning to optimize realism, have faith in something bigger than you, employ radical creativity, build a support network and have a keen sense of humor, you will find yourself living in the world in a way that makes you smile.
What does optimism look like then? Borysenko says it’s important to distinguish false optimism and optimal realism. For example, in Vietnam, POWs who told themselves “this is going to be a grind and we’re going to be here for awhile” did better psychologically than those who said “we are getting out next Friday,” a premise which failed to be true over and over again. The second group was constantly disappointed and eventually became discouraged. To translate that into weight loss terms, those who tell themselves “this is a diet” vs. those who tell themselves “I am equipping myself with new ways of living in the world with food” will fail and find themselves less successful. The second group will be more resilient.
The 12 Step model has mastered this concept. For a variety of reasons, people can take this one to extreme in one direction or the other. Bottom line: we each have a unique purpose on this planet, and if we can believe in the importance of our mission and purpose, I don’t see any way possible this can not help our outlook.
It’s about getting out of the box. This creative process can invigorate us with a stronger immune system, clearer thinking, and an enthusiasm for life. This isn’t reserved for the “special people.” Each one of us has a creative fountain inside waiting to be turned on. Borysenko points to priming the brain for creativity through exercise. Even better, exercise in nature. Yoga or walking first thing in the day can make all the difference to turning on your creative flow, and consequently, to how your life plays out.
Again, with the 12 Step Process on this. The sponsorship model saves lives. Also, in the company I work for as a health coach, support is a key component. Health coaches are almost always people who have gone through the weight loss process, understand it fully, and can support someone else along the journey. (www.jamieweil.net for my story. I love being this person for others.)
Comedy Clubs are about my favorite place to be. Recently, my husband and I went to the Crow’s Nest in Santa Cruz, CA for comedy night and I’d forgotten my glasses. I wanted to sit in the first row in front of the stage (my favorite spot even when I do have glasses.) I didn’t want anything between the jokes and me. My husband and the server both seemed to think we were going to get heckled. “I never get heckled,” I told my husband.
Towards the end of the show, the comedian shocked me by turning to me and saying, “I want to give you this CD. You’ve been such a champ!” As he handed me the CD, I was so surprised that when I went to grab it, I karate chopped it out of his hand and it went flying across the room. Now, we were all laughing.
Afterwards my husband said, “Now I know why you’ll never be heckled. You are their bread and butter. You generate them.” What he meant was I go there to laugh, they feed off that, and that makes them feel good. We all leave feeling healthier than when we started. That was an insight for both of us.
Find friends that make you feel this way. Life is too short for those who don’t. (A whole blog on laughing if you need more: https://jamieweilhealthcoach.com/2012/12/03/laugh-yourself-healthy/)
It’s probably obvious that an optimistic style is healthier than a pessimistic one. But how do you know if you see the world through a pessimistic lens?
Borysenko says it starts with the 3 “Ps:” personal, pervasive, and permanent.
- Personal: “It’s all my fault.” Your first reaction is to blame yourself.
- Pervasive: You criticize yourself in many ways. This is the “because snowball idea” of taking self-blame for one thing and rolling it into a whole slue of other not seemingly related concepts. (Like this–I ate that Twinkie, because I always eat when I’m stressed because I have no will power because I have a horrible boss because I’m stupid and I didn’t go to school because…)
- Permanent: You always end up here. It’s the story of your life.
If this sounds like your explanatory style, what’s the first step to changing it? Recognizing it. One of my favorite anonymous quips has always been, “You can’t change the way the wind blows, but you can adjust your sails.”After you recognize your pessimism, the next step is to do something about it.
In Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning, Frankl talks about how in the concentration camps (where he was imprisoned during the Holocaust) when a person had given up, the others knew right away. The person would sit on the edge of the bed, smoke his cigarettes (which were used as negotiating power in the camps) and shortly after they would die from immune changes or a heart attack. Their minds and hearts had given up and now their bodies would, too.
The good news is you have control over your brain’s circuitry. You come with hard wiring, but science has proven again and again (as if it needed to), that the hard wiring is anything but permanent. It’s your choice. Here’s your prescription.
First, recognize it. Second, tell yourself a different story. Third, challenge yourself to reinvent yourself. (Resilient people welcome adversity to hone their skills…or at least, tolerate it.) Fourth, put your energy into the things you can control (like your sails, not the wind.) Finally, stay engaged. DON’T QUIT.
If you decide it’s not worth it, recognize the costs of pessimism: overeating, eating disorders, drug/alcohol addiction, sex addiction, bullying –any sort of behavior that we develop to help soothe ourselves. As we don’t tell ourselves the truth about what’s happening, and we self-soothe with self-destructive behaviors, depression can often set in.
There’s a better way. This is your life. Live it well.