Pessimism or Optimism: Is there another option?
Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 3:59PM
Heather Hardison

You often hear people advising to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts to change your circumstances. Well, that is good in theory; however, it doesn’t always work that easily. I think there is another option. What if we replace negative thoughts with realistic thoughts? For those of us who are more on the pessimistic side of things this seems more doable. Often in therapy sessions with clients, I see their reactions to positive psychology talk. Many people won’t even give it a chance because they assume it will not work for them because it is so far from their current way of thinking. I often propose that clients then consider substituting those negative/pessimistic thought patterns with ones that are more likely to happen (this would be the realistic viewpoint). They seem more open to this suggestion. I think it is often too much of a stretch to ask someone to change from one end of the spectrum to the other. I have learned that even with myself shooting for a balance in between the two is something that is more effective for me. Many people are put off by seemingly “magical” solutions to their problems. The clients I work with have suffered greatly and are still in the midst of many struggles. They can’t envision their life miraculously evolving into a fairytale by thought substitution. It is more realistic to choose goals that are actually attainable and ones that are more likely to happen. It is more effective for them to work towards something that feels comfortable. Not everyone wants to snap their fingers and be the opposite of who they started off as.

Experience has taught me that therapy isn’t about creating a perfect life for my clients. Let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen. Life is hard; life is challenging. My goal is to help make life a little better for them and to make each day more bearable than it is now. Most of my clients are relieved when this topic comes up in our sessions. Many of them don’t buy into the notion that “positive thinking creates positive outcomes.” Now, I am not saying that there isn’t truth to that theory. Certainly in some situations that works. But for my clients’ sake, I have to face the reality myself. If attaining perfection isn’t really realistic for them, then why would I help them create a goal that sets them up to fail? So instead of suggesting that they replace negative thoughts with positive ones, I simply suggest the realistic options. I try to help them figure out what is the most likely outcome instead of the most ideal outcome. Of course, I still believe in shooting for the stars and pushing yourself to exceed all expectations. This type of thinking doesn’t change any of that. You can still aim high while remaining grounded.


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