Over the years I’ve noticed that any time I get into really bad form, it’s because I’ve started believing the thoughts that are telling me that everything has gone to shit.
I’m lazy and useless. I’ve gained weight. I’m ugly. I’m alone. I’ll never amount to anything.
Recently, I observed that I was slipping into one of those moods. Rather than dwell on it, I switched on an interview with Dr. Joan Borysenko, psychologist and mind-body medicine expert.
I was half-listening as I got ready for bed when I heard Joan speaking about pessimistic thinking. Joan says that you can inherit a pessimistic world view. This type of thinking happens when you lose hope and can’t see a way out of things.
When something bad happens, Joan suggests looking at your explanatory style. How do you explain this negative occurrence to yourself? Martin Seligman put forward the Three Ps of Pessimism. They are as follows:
1. You take things Personally. You blame and even hate yourself. You can see from above how I was telling myself that I was lazy and useless.
2. Your thinking is Pervasive. Nothing in your life is good. Relationships, family, work, body-image: all crap.
3. Permanence. You’re in a mental rut and you can’t imagine that your life could be any different. You feel stuck. I was telling myself that I’d never amount to anything and that I’d always be alone.
This was a revelation to me. I was relieved to realise that I am not alone in this type of thinking. And once I become aware of it, and own it, it immediately loses its grip on me. I can choose the way I think.
Joan suggests disputing what you say to yourself. When you watch your mind and witness your thoughts, you can see that you’re telling yourself a story, one that isn’t true. This creates distance from the thoughts so you can observe and even learn from them.
Joan explains the science behind all of this, which I won’t go into in detail now. Basically, she states that you can change your brain circuitry. Brain plasticity allows for the rewiring of your nervous system. So you don’t have to be stuck with pessimism for the rest of your life.
Joan doesn’t suggest shifting from pessimism to optimism. Rather, she speaks about the benefits of stress-hardy or I-can-do-it thinking, which is more realistic.
Suzanne Kobasa introduced the Three Cs of Stress-Hardy Thinking. They are as follows:
1. The stress-hardy thinker will want to rise to the Challenge.
2. Commitment. The person will stick with the challenge and see it through.
3. Control. The stress-hardy thinker doesn’t try to control the uncontrollable. Instead, they focus on what they can control.
And if you can’t see yourself making the leap into stress-hardy thinking just yet, Joan suggests a few quick and simple tips to calm down your fear responses. Deep breathing, exercise and just a five-minute meditation can be enough to bring you back from your pessimistic thinking.
Do you recognise yourself in any of this? If you get caught in a spiral of pessimism every now and again, don’t beat yourself up. You’re human. But you do have choices. Change your thinking, change your life. Are you up for the challenge?