“An optimist is one who sees an opportunity in every difficulty. A pessimist is one who sees a difficulty in every opportunity.”
The good, the bad and the ugly.
This quote is variously attributed to different people, including Winston Churchill and Helen Keller – but whoever said it was definitely onto something. What makes a difficulty a difficulty? What makes an opportunity an opportunity? Are things by their very nature good, or bad, positive or negative? Or do they take on these qualities because of how we perceive and think about them?
As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, I’m of the view that our brains have a big role to play in the framing of experiences and events in a favourable or gloomy way. The objective fact of an event or experience is just the description of the event itself – “I didn’t get the promotion”, “My friend cancelled our lunch date”, “Our lives have changed because of a global pandemic” . These statements are not imbued with any values or qualities, they exist as factual, neutral entities.
The problem is that our brains often stop us from perceiving things as neutral, objective facts. Humans are the most successful species because we are brilliant problem-solvers and learners. Our brains are designed to take on information and use that information to help keep ourselves safe and to inform our future actions. Our brains are so good at these tasks however – that they often overdo them. We can sometimes fall into patterns of overthinking or what I like to call ‘thought drama’. (You can check out my recent blog on the subject here). This is where when we are looking for certainty or solutions to problems, our thoughts spiral out of control, often in negative circular patterns of rumination and worrying. This can lead us to ascribe negative values to neutral events. “I didn’t get the promotion because I’m not good enough at my job”, My friend cancelled our lunch date so she must be upset with me”, “Our lives have been ruined by a global pandemic”.
What you make things mean.
These statements are no longer factual. You have no hard evidence to support them other than your negative thoughts and feelings. You have made them mean something detrimental to yourself. And this detrimental thinking will negatively affect your future thoughts and actions (or inaction). “I’m not good enough at my job, therefore I won’t try for any more promotions”, “I’m angry at my friend so I won’t contact her this month”, “There’s no point in doing anything constructive during the pandemic crisis because our lives have been ruined”. In this way, perceiving everything negatively makes negative scenarios more likely. This sort of thinking doesn’t serve you in any way.
You have the power.
But you have power. If you take a step back and examine your thinking you can see that you actually have a choice in assigning negativity or positivity to neutral circumstances. If you have tended towards the negative in the past, recognise that fact and make a point of catching yourself in the act of doing it. Ask yourself, what is the objective fact about this event or experience? What do I have evidence for? What am I making it mean? You may automatically feel negatively about events you have no control over (global pandemics for example!), but actually, how you feel and think about these events is totally within your control. You can decide to interpret circumstances in a way that is more useful to you. If not getting a promotion becomes a neutral fact – you can use it to help you progress in the future. “I didn’t get the promotion, I should use the next 6 months to get constructive feedback and hone my interview skills”. My friend cancelled our lunch date, she must be really busy right now. I’ll invite her out next week”. “Our lives have changed because of a global pandemic. I’ll try and use this time to learn something new and work on my relationships with my family”.
Practice makes perfect.
This is not necessarily easy if you’ve been in a pattern of negative thinking for a long time. But you can train yourself into making positive interpretations, and keep practising until your brain becomes rewired, and positive thinking becomes habitual. Remember, keep asking yourself, “What am I making this mean?” when you think about different circumstances and events. Seek out the objective fact – and then put a positive spin on it to help you progress. Be the optimist who starts to see opportunity in every difficulty, not the pessimist who sees difficulty in every opportunity – and your journey to success will be a much smoother and happier one.
For more of my thoughts on positive thinking, tune into this week’s podcast, episode #61. I can help you tackle negative thought patterns in my Having it all coaching programme. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.