How To Shift A Mindset: Pessimism to Optimism

Greg Thorkelson, MD with Ryan Reagan, PhD(c), LPC

In the early 2000’s there was an influential shift within the field of Psychology.  This shift returned attention to growth-oriented concepts like optimism, hope, resilience, spirituality, and gratitude with the recognition that far too much of psychology was focused on “what people did wrong,” as opposed to what “people did right.” This area was soon referred to as Positive Psychology.  It is not to be confused with the "power of positive thinking” phenomenon.  It is positive in the sense that it focuses on the psychological variables and conditions associated with growth.

 

One of the early pioneers in Positive Psychology was Martin Seligman whose name would become synonymous with the study of optimism. His research suggests that the difference between optimism and pessimism involve how we interpret events.  The interpretations are based around how we explain the event, and to what we attribute the cause. This breaks along three dimensions referred to as the 3 P’s: personal, permanent, and pervasive.

If you think about a moment, you recently encountered pessimism you will probably see one of these three dimensions, and sometimes all three.  If a negative event occurs and it is interpreted as personal (this always and only happens to me), permanent (it cannot be corrected), and pervasive (it covers all aspects of my life), then you have a recipe for hopelessness. Our interpretation of an event occurs in milliseconds.  We actually do this hundreds of times a day without notice. Unfortunately, with a brain that is suffering from depression or anxiety there are more moments where we can get tangled.

 

Fortunately, there is an exercise that can be extremely helpful in correcting for our negativity bias. Now, the first thing we should stress about this exercise is that it is not a silver bullet. Sometimes an event happens, and it is awful, and this is simply not the tool of the moment. This is a tool that may be helpful in getting disentangled from negative thought patterns. Again, in the experience of a depression or anxiety it is easy to get lost in rumination, dwelling, and endless what ifs.  

 

So, think of it this way. When your brain is doing that, it is on autorepeat. It is essentially practicing that content, and what we know about repetitive behavior is that we get better at it. Think of it this way: I am using my mind to push my brain into a healthier space and I am going to keep returning it there because having it marinate in a positive state is better than a pool of negativity. Rinse. Repeat.

 

The exercise:

 

From M. E. P. Seligman (2006) Learned Optimism. Credited to Albert Ellis’ A,B,C,D,E model for altering explanatory style.

 

Adversity:  (the challenge, obstacle, barrier)

Belief:    (the conclusion you may be drawing, assumptions, I know statements)

Consequence: (feeling states)

Disputation: (possible alternatives to B)

Energization: (a response that is more balanced and proactive)

 

When confronted with a feeling of pessimism, it can be helpful to try to identify the logic chain driving the thought pattern.  It is sometimes helpful to start with C, and work back to A.  This is because we often notice the feeling state first.  That is we notice that we are stuck, or we notice that we are in rut, or a negative spiral. If we trace the steps back sometimes it helps us to see where we derailed and then we can self-correct.  Let’s consider a few hypothetical examples and work through them.

 

Your manager recently departed, and the unit is hiring. You are considering applying and you are highly qualified, but you have doubts that the timing is right. You have been called into a meeting where the temporary manager covering the unit is addressing the team.

 

Adversity:

Belief:

Consequence: This feels hopeless, feeling of despair, disappointment, etc.

Disputation:

Energization:

Notice that the feeling states have been filled in. We will now work backward to identify the adversity that is driving this.

 

Adversity: Uncertainty over direction of the department and place within it

Belief:

Consequence: This feels hopeless, feeling of despair, disappointment, etc.

Disputation:

Energization:

 

Now that we have the adversity box filled in, we can see the link between feeling state and the event. The next step is to zero in on what the belief might be.

 

Adversity: Uncertainty over the direction of the department and place within it

Belief: I don’t like the direction this is going and I have no shot at the supervisor position

Consequence: This feels hopeless, feeling of despair, disappointment, etc.

Disputation:

Energization:

 

There is a saying CBT therapists encourage us to use: “be a better scientist.” What this means is that we should test the logic that we have built in the above example. One of our human weaknesses is our tendency to believe things without ever placing what we think under scrutiny. We prefer certainty. For the disputation section we want to propose alternative explanations or facts that might run contrary to the belief. An example of what the inner dialogue might look like:

 

Well, is it true that you even know what direction this is going? Could it be that you are uncomfortable because things are changing? Is it true that you are not qualified for the position? Have you even thought about your reasons for wanting it, and why?

 

Adversity: Uncertainty over the direction of the department and place within it

Belief: I don’t like the direction this is going and I have no shot at the supervisor position

Consequence: This feels hopeless, feeling of despair, disappointment, etc.

Disputation: I might actually be anxious about change, I am qualified for the position

Energization:

 

Energization involves taking action in response to the adversity.  Think proactively: how might I get ahead of this? Since change is happening regardless, how might I shape the change? How can achieve more clarity on where I stand?

In the example you might look for ways to reduce anxiety by exploring what the change might mean, developing a pro/con list over what change would look like if you stayed put versus took the position. You might consider reaching out to fellow teammates to see their perspective. You might even consider reaching out the supervisor to see how you can be supportive at a time of change.

 

Adversity: Uncertainty over the direction of the department and place within it

Belief: I don’t like the direction this is going and I have no shot at the supervisor position

Consequence: This feels hopeless, feeling of despair, disappointment, etc.

Disputation: I might actually be anxious about change, I am qualified for the position

Energization : Pro/con list, offer support, retool the resume and apply if it feels right

 

Let’s try another example that will probably resonate with everyone:

 

Adversity:

Belief:

Consequence: Well, that was uncomfortable…

Disputation:

Energization:

 

 

Adversity: First date, didn’t go great

Belief:

Consequence: Well, that was uncomfortable…

Disputation:

Energization:

 

Adversity: First date, didn’t go great

Belief: I’m awful at this, I have nothing to say, they probably thought I was boring

Consequence: Well, that was uncomfortable

Disputation:

Energization:

 

 

Adversity: First date, didn’t go great

Belief: I’m awful at this, I have nothing to say, they probably thought I was boring

Consequence: Well, that was uncomfortable

Disputation: “Is it true that I’m awful at this, or just haven’t practiced in a while? Is it possible we just weren’t a good match? Do I have any evidence they thought I was boring? Maybe they’re the boring one.”

Energization : I will decide if it’s worth going out again, maybe I will practice getting more conversation going before rushing to go out, maybe I will try planning something more active that is closer to my own interests

 

All right, your turn:

 

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