Rose Coloured Lenses? Yes..and so much more!

Rose coloured lenses do make a difference

Rose coloured lenses do make a difference

When something good happens to you, do you routinely say: “I was just lucky”, or quickly see who else you can give credit to for that good thing?  When something bad happens to you, do you usually chastise yourself about it and then think about how often this kind of thing happens to you? If so, read on – this post is going to be helpful for you because it looks like you could be thinking more optimistically.    Yes, pessimism is necessary some of the time, but too much pessimistic thinking can lead to depression.  And if you are in a profession such as the legal profession in which pessimistic thinking is required and encouraged for critical analysis, then it’s even more important to be aware of how you could be thinking more optimistically more often.  This is not just a cheery rose coloured lenses approach;  positive psychology research is showing that people who think optimistically perform better at work (including in high stress environments), are happier and are more resilient.  Martin Seligman, a foremost expert on the subject, and self-confessed former grouch, says, teaching children  (and the same applies to adults)  to be more optimistic:

“…is more, I realized, than just correcting pessimism, more than going form a minus 5 towards zero [on a well-being scale].  It is the creation of a positive strength, a sunny but solid future-mindedness that can be deployed throughout life – not only to fight depression and to come back from failure, but to be the foundation of success and vitality. It’s going from a plus 2 toward a 10.”

p. 301, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience (Learned Optimism by the same author is also excellent but not as easy a read.  Learned Optimism was the text that founded positive psychology).

Before exploring these ideas in more detail, let’s tie this in to Lean In since so many of us have been reading this book and talking about it.  In Chapter 2, “Sit at the Table”,  Sheryl Sandberg writes about women consistently underestimating and undermining themselves.

“Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills.  Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because “she worked really hard”, or “got lucky” or “had help from others”.  Men and women also differ when it comes to explaining failure.  When  a man fails, he points to factors like “didn’t study enough” or “not interested in the subject matter”.  When a woman fails, she is more likely to believe it is due to an inherent lack of ability.  And in situations where a man and a woman each receive negative feedback, the woman’s self-confidence and self-esteem drop to a much greater degree.  The internalization of failure and the insecurity it breeds hurt future performance, so this pattern has serious long term consequences.”

When I read this paragraph, I immediately noted that it was primarily about optimism, pessimism and “explanatory style”.   An understanding of explanatory style could help you learn to have a different explanation for what happens to you in your life, if that’s what you choose to have at the time.  The key is to notice your thinking patterns: how you are explaining things to yourself that happen in your life.  And then you can decide whether you are choosing the explanation that is truly the most accurate.  So, first it’s about awareness and second it’s about choice.

Also there’s another layer to this I have noticed from working with my clients – most of them are not in the habit of admitting that they are proud of themselves.  They don’t want to be seen as bragging. That’s often why they are so quick to say “I was lucky” or it was someone else’s accomplishment.  They also want to give credit to all involved, but often at their own expense.  And that’s too bad because genuine pride (coupled with some humility and a growth/learner mindset) is a powerful positive emotion to take advantage of to boost your energy and grow from.   (I will write more about pride in a future blog post.)

Back to explanatory style – for it we need to know about the “Three Ps”: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.   Here’s another quote from Martin Seligman:

“…there are three critical elements of explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.  A pessimistic person believes that setbacks are unchangeable and will undermine many areas of her life.  She believes that she – not circumstances, not chance, not others – is the sole cause of these setbacks.  The most pessimistic people believe that they suffer from a characterological flaw that will doom them to a life of missed opportunities, failed relationships, mediocrity and loss.  And even when they recognize that a problem is not their own fault, they will see the situation as unchangeable and so do not struggle to change it.” (p. 52 of The Optimistic Child)

When something BAD happens to a pessimist, like some negative feedback at work for example, she thinks it’s personal – it’s all her fault. She thinks it’s permanent – it’s always going to be this way for her, and more negative feedback is around every corner. And she thinks it’s pervasive – its going to affect her whole life.   She might think: “This always happens to me.   Why can’t I ever do….? Why can’t I ever be…?  Why can’t they ever be….?”  After having this conversation with herself and explaining the bad event to herself in this way, this pessimist is feeling quite hopeless, negative and possibly even helpless.  She most certainly feels drained of energy.

When the same bad event happens to an optimist, she thinks that there is some other external explanation for the event, she sees the situation as temporary and sees the situation as limited to this one scenario.   Essentially she puts it in a box so it’s contained and has much less of an impact for her, rather than letting it bleed into many parts of her life.

When something GOOD happens to a pessimist, she thinks there is some reason other than her involvement that caused the good event, she thinks it’s temporary and she sees it as being limited to the situation at hand.  She basically scrunches it up into a little ball and buries it in her purse where no one will see it and she will forget about it and focus on all the other things she didn’t get done or that didn’t go well.  She may still be able to function fairly well or even extremely well in some areas, but after a while, this explanatory style will start to take it’s toll on her, perhaps even to the point of experiencing depression.

When the same good thing happens to an optimist, she thinks it’s personal – she can definitely take credit in some way, she thinks it’s permanent and she sees how it will spill over into other parts of her life.  She  is not necessarily going to shout about it from the rooftops (though maybe that is warranted) but she is going to use it to help her build on her successes.

So, you may be thinking that the optimist is out to lunch about her own weaknesses and is looking to blame others for her failures.  You may think she likes to toot her own horn a little too much.   Maybe….but how about thinking about it this way?  Call it “realistic optimism”.  Pretend you are the one getting the negative feedback.  What if you were to look at the situation as non-judgementally as possible?   Try to just observe it.  Be curious.   Maybe you notice that yes, you could have done a couple of things differently that might have had a better result.  (So you do have at least a partial “personal” explanation for it.)  Or maybe even if you are completely honest, you had done all you could to prevent it from happening.  There were things that were out of your control.  (This is hard for many of us to admit, I know.)  If you did find something you could have done differently, then you might tell yourself that you will learn from this experience and prevent it or something similar from happening next time.  With this approach, you are seeing the situation as temporary, not permanent.   Finally, for the pervasive piece, you notice that yes, this was a negative experience at work, but soon you will be going out for lunch with a dear friend, or perhaps you have a meeting later that day on a different project you are really excited about.  Or maybe you have plans with your family that night that will refuel you.   So you can tell yourself that this situation is not pervasive.  It is contained.  It is temporary and it is limited to a specific situation in your work life.  Essentially you have taken the time to reflect on it and put it in perspective.

And the same goes for a good event.   Observe it.   What credit can you give yourself for it, if you are truly honest with yourself?  (This is the personal piece.) You are allowed.  I hereby grant you permission to take some credit. 🙂    Why are you proud of this good thing?  What strengths did you bring to this situation?  What could you learn from it that will help you do it or something related well again?   (Then it has even more possibility of being permanent.)  How is this good thing going to affect other parts of your life?   Maybe you learned something in your work life that you can see would also apply to your personal life.  Maybe the good thing is a promotion with a raise and you can see how this success is going to mean that you can now take that trip you have been dreaming of taking.  Now we can some pervasiveness taking shape.  This is feeling pretty energizing now, isn’t it?

This more optimistic way of explaining events to yourself will help you be more resilient.  It will help you bounce back from the adversity, learn from it and move on more effectively than if you were to adopt a more pessimistic explanation. It will help you capitalize on good events rather than barely scratching the surface of those successes in your life.  You will also feel more hopeful (a positive emotion) and happier.   Yes, pessimism has it’s place – it is necessary at times and, as a trained lawyer, I know we do need to employ it.  But not all the time.  Not always in our personal lives.  It can wreak terrible havoc on us and even be a cause of depression.  So it’s really your choice, once you have the awareness about how this works.  It’s up to you to dispute your own thinking or do so with a trusted friend or coach, or in the case of the most serious situations, a cognitive behavioural therapist.  My clients have found this awareness to be critical to their ability to move out of frustration and a feeling of being stuck to feeling more peace and contentment and ultimately, achievements beyond what they would have ever imagined for themselves before the coaching began.

How often are you thinking pessimistically when you could be thinking more optimistically?  There’s a free Optimism questionnaire at www.authentichappiness.org to help you get a feel for where you are at.

PS  If you have children, and you have a pessimistic explanatory style much of the time, they are likely to learn this style from you.   I highly recommend you read and act on the suggestions in The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman and help your children and yourself be more optimistic more often.  These ideas are also discussed in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.

Photo credit: anoni_moose / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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