My family has always been made up of practical, hard realists. From a young age, I was taught to focus on the facts and act from a place that made the most sense. It’s a good way of thinking about certain things in life, like paying bills and job searching. It’s considered beneficial to be a realistic thinker, but it’s not a good state of being when it gets out of hand.
When your realistic mindset latches on to a negative thought pattern, you better hold on for the ride. It’s parallel to fighting off addiction because negativity is hungry and demands to be fed with more negativity. It’s taken a few years for me to be more optimistic.
The truth is that I’m a recovering realist, but I’m also a blooming optimist.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Winston S. Churchill
These are the steps I took to recover from realism, and nourish my inner optimist.
How to Be an Optimist
Step One: Recognizing the Problem
Is your default thought worst-case scenario? Recognizing the worst-case scenario before it happens enables you to put measures into action to prevent it. However, when you start making a habit of recognizing the worst case, you become a bit of a jerk to yourself and others. By focusing on a specific negative outcome, you begin to create the reality around it. Negative thoughts can become addicting. Know that you have the power to change negative thoughts by claiming positive thoughts as your own.
Have you ever felt satisfaction from calling a situation and its result from the start? Have you felt satisfied from saying “I told you this would happen?” You collect any relevant facts as evidence to support your theory, which is based on realism after all.
How many times do you catch yourself saying, “I’m just being realistic?” This phrase becomes an excuse to prevent anyone challenging and taking away the cold, hard facts you’ve worked so hard to collect. Some of that evidence is likely about yourself and your capabilities:
- “I’m just being realistic, because last time I failed.”
- “I’m just being realistic, because there’s no way I can do this.”
- “I’m just being realistic, because others will let me down.”
You may have a measurable pattern of experience to support such statements, but there are likely positive facts you are downplaying or ignoring all together. Do you see how such thoughts can become a pattern and eventually a negative habit? You have to recognize the problem of persistent negative thought patterns in order to change them and deter their influence in your life.
Step Two: Desire to Change
Conquering such negative thought patterns, based on realism residing in the dark, takes root in the desire to change. Focusing on your desire to flip the equation places willpower and consciousness of choice back into your corner. It gives you space to truly consider a situation, how you feel about it, and your place within the scenario.
Negative realistic thinking, in action, stops you from taking action. It stops you from even trying. Don’t get caught up in all or nothing thinking, only to lose heart.
The desire to change is very powerful. There are many emotions you will face, and it’s important to honor each of those emotions. Use what you feel as fuel to empower change.
You may feel guilty, sad or angry when you recognize the power negative thinking has had over your mind and life. The key to fighting negative realism is through emotional awareness. Now that you’ve recognized the problem, you have to want the change badly enough and fight to gain space for clear thinking. So, how do you fight to regain that ground in your mind?
Step Three: Application
Guess what: Being an optimist doesn’t mean you have to give up being a realist. It’s about achieving balance in your thinking. Consider being a realist as one’s capacity to hold a spectrum of objective, practical possibilities that are colored with both optimism and pessimism.
Sometimes you color outside of the lines of realism on one side of the spectrum more than the other. The pessimistic side of that may create negative effects that echo into other areas of life, outside of your mind. However, you are capable of recognizing and deconstructing the negative thought patterns of de-motiving realism. Remember the following pointers.
1. Quit Over-Generalizing
It’s time to ask yourself if you over-generalize when casting a situation in a negative light. This goes back to going straight for the all-or-nothing type of thinking. Instead of applying it to a spectrum of experience, pinpoint your thoughts to this one place in time.
2. Don’t Downplay the Positive
You’re not a fluffy bunny for thinking positively, for daring to dream. Don’t minimize your past accomplishments and positive personality traits.
Looking at setbacks with a magnifying glass disempowers you by taking your focus away from the positive. Even a silver lining in a dark cloud may alter your entire perspective.
3. Avoid Being a Mind Reader
Maybe you should start touring and making money off of that. Unfortunately, negative realism would get in the way. Instead of waiting for the facts, your pattern of negative thinking has advanced to assigning a certain meaning to a situation right off the bat.
Try this exercise to put things into perspective. List five objective options when you’re tempted to think the worst. Perhaps your friend hasn’t answered her phone or the texts you sent her. Instead of jumping to conclusions, consider the options:
- Her battery is dead.
- She’s misplaced her phone.
- She’s at work or in class.
- She’s having “me time.”
- She is waiting to reply because you deserve her full attention, or she needs to think more about her own thoughts and feelings.
When you consider five objective alternatives, it makes it harder to stick with the all-or-nothing thinking. Don’t assume anything except objective possibility.
4. Don’t Get Stuck in the Downward Spiral
It may start with over-generalizing a situation or downplaying a success, but your thoughts become increasingly negative as you get sucked into the whirlpool. It’s important to check in with yourself when you notice your thoughts obsessively swirling around one negative construct in your mind.
Ask why you are nourishing it? Why is it so important to maintain this thought as true or possible? Offer up an opposing viewpoint, and then drop it. Distract yourself with another activity.
5. Recognize Mistakes Are Opportunities
For a recovering realist, mistakes are often cast and stored away as permanent examples of failures to be avoided at all costs in the future. Mistakes are opportunities. Yes, it’s great to learn from your mistakes, but a mistake isn’t necessarily an end-all, be-all failure.
There is still time to right wrongs or at least own up to one’s part in a mistake without making it completely negative. On the other hand, you need to stop taking all of the responsibility for a mistake. Many factors contribute to “mistakes.”
Mistakes are often internalized, and you end up blaming yourself for negatives that have nothing to do with you. Many negatives are perceived or assumed through miscommunication and physical circumstances outside of your control. Look at how much control you really have in the situation. Let go a little.
Own up to the parts you are responsible for and give what positivity you can back to the situation.
Recognizing and challenging the negative constructs your mind engages in will help you become more of an optimist and balance the equation of being too much of a dreamer and too much of a pessimist. You can be both a realist and an optimist.
Step Four: Maintenance
It’s one thing to see how negative thought patterns affect your day-to-day life and relationships, but how do you maintain optimism once you’ve made progress?
You will slip back into patterns. It’s natural to catch yourself doing this as you break the cycle. You need to create rituals and tools to help you maintain your newfound balance by using these steps.
1. Create and Practice Your Own Personal Affirmations
Personal affirmations are wonderful tools to keep your mind focused on the positive. They are often used as tools in therapy and in meditation.
Affirmations can feel hollow, but it’s all about how you personalize them and tailor them to your situation. It’s important they meet your needs and empower your truth in the moment. Emphasize the power of choice with “I choose to be happy right now,” or claim your power by saying, “This isn’t within my control. I choose to be happy.” You may simply say to yourself every day, “I have all that I need for my own good.”
It’s best to place your affirmations in a location where you will see them daily. Pin stress-relieving affirmations by your desk to relieve work-related stress. Affirmations should be within eyesight in often-frequented spaces that are relevant to the statement. Reinforce your affirmations through actions that support the statements and help you to overcome a challenging negative thought.
2. Write It All Down
Affirmations are a great place to start to reminding yourself to channel positive perspectives. A journal is another effective tool to go more in-depth with tracking negative thought patterns and how they affect your daily life.
These pages give you space to objectively work through it all. Your journal is a place to list your affirmations, to analyze the downward spiral of a thought pattern, to vent and to describe how you did or how you would handle a challenging situation.
Write in your journal whenever you need to get your experience on paper. However, it’s ideal to develop a practice or routine of recording your thoughts to accurately log and track your thoughts and your experiences.
3. Engage in Activities That Expand Your Mind and Open Your Heart
Know there are certain events and circumstances you have no control over and will not be able to change. Yet there are influential factors you may choose not to engage with or limit to help transform negative thinking into positive thinking. Instead, choose to engage in activities that open your heart and mind to positive thought.
Limit your exposure to negative thinking triggers, particularly if you are very sensitive to them:
- Consider not checking social media accounts for a weekend or a month.
- If watching the evening news depresses you, skip it.
- Avoid television programs that make you feel angry or give you anxiety.
- Set boundaries with people who only seem to reinforce negativity.
Expose yourself to activities that make you feel good about yourself and life. The same goes for surrounding yourself with people who are authentic and give you positive reinforcement. Spend time in nature and go on hikes. Walk labyrinths to literally unwind your thoughts. Take a class in another language to learn how to transform your way of speaking, and expand your cultural horizons.
4. Think Positively, but Live in Reality
This statement goes back to the fact that you can be both an optimist and a realist. While you cannot control people or circumstances, you are able to transform your perspective. That’s what the power of positive thinking comes down to doing, by influencing your response to a person or situation.
Being optimistic helps you cope with stress and challenges. It allows you to remain calm and centered within yourself, without spiraling out into negative thought patterns.
5. Share the Abundance of Possibility With Others
Don’t become the person everyone wants to punch because your transportation is by rainbow and green tea is totally your Zen. Don’t put down others for not being completely positive. That’s just mean.
Remember, mistakes are possibilities in which one takes responsibility for their words and actions. Responsibility, in this case, means one has the ability to choose to respond to circumstances positively and authentically. This becomes an invitation for others to follow suit.
You also have the ability to help others see the joy and brightness in the world, through paying a compliment or doing something nice for someone on a rainy day. Such positive words and actions make your optimism stronger.
Maintaining a positive attitude when you’re so used to thinking of things in a certain light is challenging. There will be roadblocks, just as there are alternative routes. Having the right tools in your optimist toolbox will help you repair any kinks that come along on the road to negative realism recovery.
Step Five: Enjoying Your New Optimistic Life
Now it’s really about finding your balance. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Enrich and reward your life with positive influences and activities. You do deserve it.
Enjoy your new take on life. Let your muscles loosen. Take in the sounds of birds on a morning walk. Let your written affirmations become sketches. If you notice a coworker having a hard day, bring them coffee and an adult coloring book.
You’ll find rewards in the smallest of moments — a returned smile or a banished negative thought.
Over time you’ll develop your own techniques to overcome negative thinking and help inspire others to choose optimistic perspectives. So, grab a pen and write down what worries you. Now, write down why you’re going to be okay.