Stacey* had come to see me about her persistent low mood, but she had low expectations about seeing me as well. “I don’t see it working to be honest” she told me.
We spent some time talking about all of the things we need to enjoy emotional wellbeing – enough sleep, time with friends, interests, purpose, etc. What came over very strongly was Stacey’s sense of pessimism.
“I wouldn’t call it pessimism though,” she told me, “I see it as just being realistic. Plus, if you expect the worst then if it happens you’re not disappointed, and if it turns out t better it feels great. It makes sense to be pessimistic.”
“It makes sense to be realistic – but pessimistic and realistic are by no means the same thing,” I replied, “and as for preparing you for the worst – well, we’ll look at that in a minute.”
We started with the idea that was shaping a lot of Stacey’s thoughts – that being pessimistic equals being realistic. I asked her to talk me through some of her thoughts about people or events over the last few weeks. Then we went back through her pessimistic thoughts and objectively looked at how realistic they were.
Some of those thoughts were quite extreme, and Stacey agreed that they were unrealistic. Out of the others that seemed realistic to her most of them hadn’t just not happened, but had never ever happened to her. Stacey saw that by equating pessimistic with realistic, and realistic with likely, she was inadvertently painting a very dark and distorted picture.
Coming onto the idea of her pessimism preparing her for the worst Stacey could see as well that the worst that she could imagine didn’t happen. “But then it’s a nice surprise when good things do happen” she argued.
We went back again over the last few weeks, this time looking at her responses to good luck and good news. What we found was that Stacey’s pessimism was draining the joy out of those moments too. “I suppose I do think that good things won’t last, or I wonder what someone is up to if they do something nice for me” she agreed.
The fact is that pessimists are less satisfied with their lives than optimists, and more prone to depression and low moods. The good news is that you aren’t stuck with being a pessimist – you can learn to be optimistic. And once you’ve learned that skill you get the benefits of improved emotional and physical health.
Teaching Stacey to be more optimistic was partly a matter of helping her to recognise her pessimistic thoughts as unrealistic and unlikely. That helped her to take the emotional sting out of a lot of them.
At the same time she started to develop new, more optimistic thoughts about people and events. At first Stacey was worried that I’d try and get her to look at life through rose-tinted glasses. In fact being more optimistic is about being more realistic, not about thinking that everything will be wonderful.
At first Stacey found it felt mechanical and ‘false’, but this is always the way when we change our habits of mind – especially when we’re replacing ones that are so old we’ve forgotten when they felt new as well.
It took commitment and practice on her part, but Stacey changed not just her outlook but her overall mood as well. She’s confident too that her learned optimism is here to stay – and she never expected to feel optimistic about her optimism lasting.
* Stacey’s real identity has been protected, and she is happy to share her story.
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