Stephanie Livingston–Psychologist

Archive for March, 2013

Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

by on Mar.23, 2013, under Articles

Glass Half Empty or Half Full?
Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? Joan is a pessimist she sees the glass as half empty. If she is not dwelling on the past, she lives her life like “chicken little”—always feeling like the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” When she got a “did not meet expectations” on her performance review at work, she was sure that this meant that she was going to get fired, that her career was over, that she will probably perform poorly in other aspects of her life, and that it must be because she was stupid and undeserving. This is an example of the mindset of a pessimist. Once this type of thinking is set into motion, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and only reinforces what the pessimist thinks to begin with—that they are no good.
Learning to be pessimistic can start in childhood and become more engrained over time. Studies show that people who are pessimistic as children are much more likely to become depressed later in life. Pessimism is not just seeing life in a negative way, but also has to do with how you explain events in your life. If you attribute the good things in your life to luck or chance but the things you perceive as bad, to your own personal qualities (e.g., stupidity, unworthiness), you are likely a pessimist. Pessimism, like depression usually results from some type of loss such as divorce, death of a loved one, illness. When these events happen during childhood, the child may learn to become distraught, but not necessarily hopeless. He/she then carries this mindset throughout life. Although, a pessimist learned to see the glass as half full, it does not have to persist.
According to Martin Seligman, the expert on learned helplessness (i.e., a perception that you have no control over the things that happen to you) as it relates to depression, says that pessimism can also be a precursor to depression. Your attributional style (i.e. how you explain why good and bad things happen in your life) can determine whether you learn to become an optimist or a pessimistic. The three P’s, permanent, pervasive, and personal causes of bad events can determine in which category you might fall. This behavior has been shown empirically to be learned, usually from messages that the mother, transmits to her children, more so than the father and is not genetic. If you see the event as permanent, you probably cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel and fail to see the situation as temporary. If you see the event as pervasive, you may think that this one bad thing generalizes to all other aspects of your life. And finally, if the event is personal, you believe that there is something inherently wrong with you.
To illustrate Seligman’s approach as outlined in his book Learned Optimism, in contrast to Joan’s outlook, Susan also got a “did not meet expectations” performance review at the same company. However Susan’s outlook on life is very different from her friends’. Susan’s response to her review was that this is just one review and that she will work to do better in the next six months–Permanence. She decided to write a rebuttal to be put in her file for the things she disagreed with and set goals to accomplish the rest. She then wrote in her journal about the other accomplishments in her life, to remind herself of her other good qualities so that she did not let her disappointment about this review, spread to other aspects of her life–Pervasiveness. And finally, she did not beat herself up by making self-denigrating statements. Instead she said, “I am a capable person and am good at what I do, I just need to make some adjustments–Personal.
You can see how the thinking of a pessimist can go downhill pretty quickly. Since explanatory style, optimism or pessimism, can begin in childhood, by the time you become an adult, you have had years of looking at the world in a certain way. Though not always easy, learning to become an optimistic is within your reach and usually in your best interest. Although there are some advantages to pessimism, such as being more reality based and tempering idealism, in general you need a lot of optimism with a dash of pessimism. More often than not optimism has more benefits than pessimism. Studies have shown the following:
*Pessimism promotes depression
*Pessimism produces inertia rather than activity in the face of setbacks
*Pessimism is self-fulfilling. Pessimists don’t persist in the face of challenges, and therefore fail more frequently—even when success is attainable.
*Pessimism is associated with poor physical health.
*Pessimists are defeated when they try for high office
*Even when pessimists are right and things turn out badly, they still feel worse. Their explanatory style now converts the predicted setback into a disaster, a disaster into a catastrophe.
Taken from Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Seligman, Martin, 2006)
Now that you know why becoming an optimistic is a good thing, you may ask the question, how does one go about changing such an ingrained thinking and behavior pattern? Fortunately, there are self-help books, like the one mentioned above as well as others that are based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that focuses on changing distorted or irrational thinking patterns. You might also seek treatment with a psychotherapist for the same. In the meantime, you can start today by asking yourself how you explain bad events in your life. Catch yourself, before you go down that pessimistic path and try to redirect yourself. Ask yourself the following questions, “Is this going to last forever–Permanence, Does it affect all other areas of my life–Pervasiveness, and Did it happen because I am inadequate or unworthy–Personal?” The answer is probably no in each case. But if you answered yes, you have some work to do. Find the silver lining in the bad event, learn from the situation, and move on. You will have many other opportunities to learn from your mistakes.

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