I have the British weather to thank for my first memory of disappointment. When I was at primary school a trip to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regents Park was organized. The children looked forward to it for weeks. However, the trip was not to be. In that ominous British way the clouds began forming several days before the event and the day dawned with torrential rain leading to a cancelled performance.
I still remember the pain of disappointment. A pain that was caused by my own happy anticipation and excitement about the event. Of course I was only a child and had yet to learn that suffering can be created by ourselves but I’m sure that one outcome of the experience was that I developed a pessimistic view that I was likely to be disappointed.
Pessimism affects people in a variety of ways. A belief system that thinks the worst will probably happen can lead to:
- a reluctance to take personal and professional risks such as at work or in relationships
- an expectation that we personally, and others, will fail and let us down
- hoarding of personal or financial resources due to fear of loss.
Due to something psychologists call “confirmation bias”, people with a pessimistic world view tend to have their opinions about life confirmed. They will look for the signs that they are right about life and ignore the signs that they might be wrong.
Unfortunately they will notice the times when they and other people fail them. They will be more aware of the resources they don’t have, rather than the resources they do. Their fear of loss may make them hyper sensitive in relationships. The anxiety they feel can cause controlling behaviour that may lead to relationship breakdown, thus confirming their expectation that nothing good ever happens to them.
Pessimistic people are often trapped by their fear. Therapy is a place where the origins of such fear can be unraveled and processed; and a place where the therapist can challenge the pessimistic world view and gently supports the client as they experiment with a different way of being.
In helping ourselves, the following steps may be useful:
- Notice when pessimistic thoughts are operating. The clue to this thought process are feelings. Typical feelings around pessimism include anger, fear, joylessness, pain, helplessness, impatience, envy.
- Think about the situation that is causing these thoughts and feelings. In what way are our expectations of others, ourselves or life responsible for causing negative reactions? Do we have high expectations that are disappointed? Or a pessimistic expectation that nothing good will happen?
- Change our personal response to the situation. This is not about changing others or the situation where this is out of our control. It is about the one area where we have control: ourselves.
The main area where we can change ourselves is by taking responsibility for our own feelings. This means recognising that we do have a choice in how we respond to what goes on around us. When faced with a challenge we can choose to react negatively to it, or we can look for how we can respond in a way that matches our value system.
It is an empowering experience to handle difficult situations well. It brings the realisation that, in the words of Winnie the Pooh:
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”.
I spoke about responding to challenges in my video this week. If you’re reading this by email you can view the video at www.thegoodenoughmum.com