I Tried to Teach Myself to Be Less Pessimistic For A Week, It’s Hard

Kristopher Roller/Unsplash
Kristopher Roller/Unsplash

I’ve always been a pretty pessimistic person. Those close to me will know that I will always assume the worst of situations — it’s a terrible coping mechanism, but it’s how I’ve learnt to protect myself. I usually set the bar so low that if I happen to receive a positive outcome, it comes as a nice surprise, otherwise it’s another “I told you so” moment to myself.

By having this (terrible) mindset, it helps to ‘cushion’ the impact of disappointment if things don’t work out in the way I want them to. It also prevents me from spending hours ruminating about the possibilities and variations of how the events of my life will turn out.

Just in case you’re confused, here’s an example of how my mind works. I apply for a job, get selected for an interview, go for the interview — and always assume that the interview went horribly wrong (although it really probably didn’t), so that if I do get the job, it’s something worth celebrating, but if I don’t, then I am able to take comfort in the fact of ‘knowing’ that I messed up somehow.

Why am I like this?

While reflecting on exactly why I have a tendency to prepare myself for the worst possible outcomes in almost every aspect of my life, a few things did come to mind.

One of the biggest reasons could be the cumulative impact of all the disappointments I’ve faced as a child, a student, and now as a working adult, and that I’ve never really learnt how to deal with these negative thoughts in a mature, adult manner.

No shade to my parents, but research has shown that a pessimistic outlook could be inheritable, as genetic variation does influence how an individual perceives the world. I’ve always known my parents to be very wary people, who often told me that I had to be careful of who I trusted in the world. Perhaps these messages subconsciously also contributed to my worldview, where I have to constantly protect myself from harm.

My motto is, you can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect anything good at all.

It’s not a dead end

Even though our genes might cause us to have a cloudier perception of the world around us, that doesn’t mean that we have to live like Eeyore for the rest of our lives.

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Hope Circuit says, “Pessimism is one of the personality traits that’s highly heritable, but also modifiable by specific exercises.” This means that optimism is a trait that can be learned, with the right practice.

A commentary by CNA also suggests four methods for improving one’s outlook: visualising your best self, accepting the inevitability of disappointment, arguing against yourself, and putting things into perspective.

Sounds pretty interesting; I decided to try it out for a week.

The rules

Using the techniques mentioned by Dr Seligman, I would actively try to be more cognisant of my thought processes, and try my best to stop any negative trains of thought to prevent a spiral. I also applied some of the tips I learnt from a book that I read recently, Live More Think Less by Dr Pia Callesen, where she encourages readers to spend less time on rumination and self-analysis, which tend to be the triggers for depression and anxiety.

Every time I caught myself on the brink of a negative spiral, I would write my thoughts down, and try to apply one of the techniques to ‘train’ myself to think more positively.

How my week went

On Monday, I got stuck on an article that I was writing. No matter how much I tried to rearrange my points, or pen down what I wanted to write, nothing was coming together. With the deadline fast approaching, I felt a sense of hopelessness, mixed with a tinge of dread and panic.

“I’m terrible at my job.”
“I think I should just give up.”
“I must suck.”
“How is it that I can’t bring myself to write and finish such a simple article?”

Okay, pause. A spiral was definitely on its way, I knew that I had to make it stop.

In her book, Dr Callesen addresses one of the most common misconceptions about negative thought patterns, which is that many believe that they are unable to control their thoughts. To illustrate the contrary, she asks clients to visualise a scenario whereby they are at home, mulling over something upsetting, when their neighbour comes over to borrow milk. After inviting the neighbour in for some small talk, chances are, the individual’s mood has already been lifted slightly from the exchange.

“Without realising it, you jumped off the thought train when your neighbour rang the doorbell and you responded to her. The interruption put your ruminating on pause — or maybe even shut it down completely. What would you say about your self control? Who is controlling your ruminations? Was it the neighbour or you?”

Since I couldn’t orchestrate an interruption, I decided to jump off the train of thought by arguing against myself. Dr Seligman says that the trick is to first recognise the voice making those negative remarks, then argue with it as if it were “an external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable”.

This is what I said to my inner Negative Nancy: “I know that I am not inherently bad at what I do because I was hired for a reason. I do have the expertise. So no, it doesn’t make sense to give up at this point. A small hiccup does not mean I suck!”

Feeling slightly better, I decided to put things into perspective as well. “Look, it’s one article. You’ve written so many articles before. It’s not the end of the world. You can do it. You just need a mental reset.”

After some deep breathing, and taking a short walk, I managed to finish my article. Crisis averted.

I have to mention this though, it’s really not as easy as it seems. Even writing these reassurances and reminders to myself feels disconcerting because I’m so used to the rhetoric of beating myself down.

The week went by pretty smoothly until I had a disagreement with my boyfriend. Again, I heard the negative voices coming back.

“You’re a terrible partner; you’re not good enough.”
“He’s going to leave and never come back.”
“It’s all your fault, you’re not deserving of love.”

This spiral was particularly difficult to get out of because it concerned more emotions and had to do with my self-worth. First things first, I had to breathe. I had to calm myself down before I could rationalise these thoughts.

It took me a while, but eventually, I managed to summon the rational voice in me. It’s not like the argument was particularly bad, it most definitely was not a dealbreaker. He wasn’t going anywhere. We just had to talk things through, and we would be fine.

As much as I was used to non-confrontations, I knew that talking things out was the best way to go, in order to prevent myself from thinking the worst of the relationship, and of myself. And of course, we sorted things out, and we’re good.

Am I less of a Negative Nancy now?

The truth is, not really. It’s only been a week, and I’ve only managed to actively record two major incidents whereby I actively managed to catch myself before an emotional spiral. I’m pretty sure there were a few moments where I unintentionally let myself sink.

But, I will say this: I believe that catching yourself before you spiral, and being able to manage your thoughts in a healthy and productive manner is effective in helping to change one’s outlook on life.

Dr Seligman says, “These are things that have been tested with literally thousands of people.” Over time, he said these exercises can produce long-lasting results that “basically permanently change extreme pessimism into something much less pessimistic.”

I know I still have a long way to go. It takes 21 days to form a habit, and much longer to undo one’s negative thinking patterns that have been present in the mind for years. But that’s not stopping me from trying.


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