How full is your glass?

Do you look on the bright side of things or do you pride yourself on your realistic, or even pessimistic, outlook?

Many pessimists believe that their more negative attitude or tendency to anticipate undesirable outcomes will protect them from disappointment or prepare them to deal with unpleasant events. If you’re not naturally optimistic, why might cultivating a more positive and hopeful attitude be a good idea?

Research shows that optimism is strongly linked to our wellbeing and resilience and that optimists are happier, healthier and more successful than pessimists. Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from setbacks, is a critical component of any personal transition or reinvention and is particularly important if you are starting your own business or career so that you can sustain yourself through the inevitable highs and lows.

With all these advantages, you might be interested to learn how to become more optimistic. Dr. Martin Seligman, who is known for his ground breaking work in the field of positive psychology, identified the importance of what he calls our “explanatory style” in the face of difficult or stressful events. There are three main aspects to this; personalisation, pervasiveness and permanence.

Let’s think about your own explanatory style for a moment. Imagine you’ve just had an interview for a job you really wanted, you were nervous and couldn’t answer a couple of the questions. You’ve just found out that you didn’t get the job. What sort of things might you say to yourself?

Do you make it personal (internal) and blame yourself saying something like “I’m terrible at interviews, I get so nervous” or do you look for an equally feasible (external) explanation such as “Interviews are pretty nerve racking, I expect everyone dries up sometimes”?

Do you ascribe a pervasive, wide ranging explanation such as “Whatever I do seems to go wrong” or do you look for a more specific rationale such as “I know I get nervous in interviews, I just need to learn to relax so I can communicate as well as I usually do at work”?

How permanent do you believe your experience to be? Would you be likely to react by thinking “I’ll never get a job” or would you think “Well that was disappointing but there are lots of other opportunities out there for me”

If you tend to use more personal, pervasive and permanent explanations, your self esteem will suffer and it will be more difficult for you to move forward constructively in the face of difficult circumstances.

This is where the ABC technique can really help. This approach was created by psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis, and then adapted by Dr. Seligman. It works like this:

An adversity is something that happens that we perceive to be bad
We then think about the adversity in a particular way and create beliefs about it
Our beliefs influence what we do next, which leads to consequences

In our example this could look like this:
Adversity: You’ve just found out you didn’t get the job.
Beliefs: You blame yourself, tell yourself you’re no good at interviews and start to worry that you’ll never get a job.
Consequences: You lose confidence and the night before you next interview, you can’t sleep you’re so worried. Your self belief is at an all time low because you’ve been beating yourself up. By the time you get to the interview, you’re a nervous wreck and can’t string a sentence together…

Learning to eavesdrop on your own internal dialogue will allow you to understand your explanatory style. Writing down the beliefs and consequences that occur when you are faced with difficulties can make it easier to identify your typical thought patterns. If you become aware that your explanations are not helpful, you can start to use some techniques to change these.

Distraction can be a quick way to break the cycle when you catch yourself thinking negatively. Try doing something that will take your mind off your doubts and fears, like taking some exercise or talking to a friend who believes in you.

For a more lasting solution, you could also start to challenge your beliefs by replacing them with more inspiring alternatives. Look for the flaws in your thinking and come up with some positive affirmations that you are comfortable with that offer more balance or “realistic optimism”. For example, “Getting a new job can be a tough process but the right job for me is out there, I just need to keep going.”

Remember, we’re all human, we’re not perfect, we make mistakes but we can learn from them and move on!

To build your optimism and resilience, you need to change what you believe about yourself and the situation when something undesirable happens. The more helpful and energizing these beliefs are, the more positive you will feel and this will put you in the best frame of mind to create positive outcomes.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
― Winston Churchill

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