I’ve made a terrible miscalculation. Have you ever been so sure you knew someone inside and out, and then you discover something about them that completely contradicts everything you thought you knew? Denial can make you blind to it, especially if you’ve really been counting on that particular person to fill a certain role in your life. Well, that happened to me last week.
The great majority of you only know me through what I write, but that’s probably given you a pretty revealing view of my outlook on life. By now you know what I think about humanity and the potential of individuals. I get gushing emails and comments from all sorts of people thanking me for showing them a positive perspective or helping them out of a bad mood.
Raptitude has always been about empowerment and happiness. My interest is finding more skillful ways to cultivate joy and appreciate life. I write about gratitude and wisdom and all things positive. But you knew that.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the person I was mistaken about was me. Recently I learned something about myself that I never suspected, and it was a bit of a shock.
The last four months has been a remarkably pleasant and easy period of my life. It’s hard not to have a good time when you’ve got no job and virtually no responsibilities, plenty of beaches to wander and a second consecutive summer to do it in.
In the last few weeks, my moods started to go rotten on me, and I knew exactly why. The “honeymoon” is over, for now. I’ve reached the part of my trip where I need to earn some money to continue. After four months of wandering foreign shores eating ice cream and photographing ferns, I have to find a job.
Job searching has always been a sore spot for me. I associate “pounding the pavement” with one of the worst periods in my life, so it seemed natural to be a bit antsy about this upcoming campaign. But my moods took such a dark, wicked turn (much to the dismay of my visiting mother) that I started to wonder why I couldn’t see anything good about taking a break to find some income.
When I originally conceived of this trip, that was the whole idea: to live and work in another country. That was actually the appeal: the cultural adventure of making a life for myself in another country for a while. Getting a temporary job was always central to the whole thing.
But after several months of rather painless backpacking, the prospect of confronting this ordinary task hit me like an evil cyclone. My outlook went positively black, as if I was marching off to the gallows. I’ve met dozens of travelers who were happily looking for jobs, because to them it only meant more traveling and adventure.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I am almost always concerned primarily with the potential costs of new endeavors, so much so that in my mind they overshadow the rewards. When I think about job searching, I think of interviews gone awry, dwindling cash reserves, obsessing over the layout of my resumé, and patronizing receptionists telling me, “Sorry we have nothing right now but I’ll keep this on file.” I never seem to rouse within myself any excitement about the upsides: making money, meeting new people, and funding further travels.
It’s always been like that. I’ve always felt like these kinds of ordinary undertakings caused me so much more grief than they seemed to cause others.
That’s when I finally realized something that shocked me, though in hindsight it seems so clear:
I am a pessimist.
Despite my ever-positive aspirations, I have an insidious tendency to view emerging events and people in terms of the trouble they may cause me, rather than the opportunities they might offer me. In other words, though I haven’t known it, I’ve been enduring a lifelong preoccupation with pain and difficulty.
This means reaching my goals has been needlessly difficult my entire life, because they appear to me as bundles of obstacles rather than bundles of rewards.
If desire and fear are the two forces that push and pull us about in life, my fears have had a considerable edge over my desires for as long as I can remember. Usually, aversion pushes more strongly than attraction pulls. I have always resonated with caution, self-preservation and ease much more strongly than courage, risk and challenge.
There are people who thrive on challenge and adversity. It brings out the best in them. I have always hated challenge, because my mind reads it as a promise of pain and suffering, not glory and opportunity. Glass half empty!
A positive pessimist?
When I’m in a reasonably comfortable setting, with steady income, a place to live and no looming dilemmas, I find life quite enjoyable. I have a great time doing even the simplest things, like pier-walking, bench-sitting or people-watching, and gratitude is my state of mind.
But when something I fear enters the picture, my desire and gratitude flee the scene, and it becomes a game of survival. My thinking goes nuts. I become preoccupied with escaping and controlling. I retreat, surrender, or pout. I completely forget that there is anything to be gained from the situation at all, even if that’s why I’m there in the first place.
Unlike true optimists, in the face of adversity I so easily overlook the upsides: that this is a chance to strengthen myself, to get a monkey off my back, to bask in the high of victory, to put a fear to bed for good, or simply to get what I want! I often forget all that stuff, and interpret the challenge as a steaming heap of precisely what I don’t want: difficulty, pain, defeat, and shame. And of course, I tend to get what I expect.
The most devastating manifestation of my pessimism happens when I look at my to-do list. This list only exists because I know there are great things on the other side of certain actions. I write them down because I think they’re worth doing, but once they’re in written form they become problems and annoyances. An optimist would see it as a list of glittering prizes to be won. I tend to see it as a list of crap I have to deal with.
Don’t get me wrong. My life is full of positivity, and I’ve made great progress in improving my capacity to love and enjoy life. I am not calling myself a negative person, and if you met me I don’t think you would either. I am happy almost all of the time.
But when it comes to the particular realm of challenges and adversity — which seem to be the gateways to self-improvement and dreams come true — for all my efforts I’ve been remarkably ineffective.
I can no longer deny that my typical reflex is to look at downsides first, and give them more weight than the upsides. It seems obvious in hindsight, but two weeks ago I had no idea it was happening.
How didn’t I realize this?
As I said, despite my doom-focused approach to adversity, I’m a rather positive person. I love people, I love life, I like to see people succeed. I don’t delight in misfortune or destruction. I see my life as having been far more good than bad, and I know the future will be even better.
I have made strides in my ability to appreciate the little things. I know how to enjoy a bad meal. I don’t mind waiting in line and I don’t sigh when gas prices go up. I even find considerable joy in simple actions like putting on socks or lighting a match. I’m not kidding.
I tune out naysayers. I tend not to respond to negative remarks, or if I do I’ll bring up a positive counterpoint. I don’t want to encourage criticism or negativity. I generally don’t engage in pointless criticism or other explicit negativity or a lot of other habits you might associate with a pessimistic outlook.
You can call these traits evidence of optimism, but I have had to work at all of this. As well, it’s so easy — not to mention reassuring — to make optimistic predictions when I’m at a comfortable distance from the challenge in question. Yet when it comes right down to confronting obstacles in real time, my troubles loom immense, and any thoughts of the triumph and glory that I might win shrink away like frightened turtles.
I guess what’s missing is faith in myself, and that’s no new revelation. I’ve long been told that I have a tendency to downplay my successes and overstate the difficulty of my dilemmas.
My struggle has always been comparing where I’m at now with what I believe is my potential, and of course perfection is an impossible benchmark to meet. But I’ve always felt that the gulf was far wider than I could account for, and now I’ve discovered the reason. I knew there had to be some hidden force at play.
I think I’ve been under the impression that I’m an optimist ever since the day I first learned the word. It was in grade three or four, and the teacher gave us the ubiquitous “glass half full/empty” analogy.
To me the choice was obvious. I always thought calling a glass “half empty” was kind of dumb. A glass, by definition, is just the glass part. It doesn’t become “half” anything until you add something to it. I wondered why anyone would want to call themselves a pessimist.
So maybe it was the inadequacy of the overused “glass analogy” that got me thinking I was always operating on the positive side of the line. That, and the fact that the idea of optimism appealed to me and pessimism didn’t. So I chose the label I wanted, but I suppose it was at least partly wishful thinking.
I’ve since met many people who relish the title of pessimist, and I certainly never identified with them. I remember one who said “I’m definitely a pessimist. Or actually, I’m a realist — there are only realists and optimists.” He was an unhappy, unhealthy man.
The common trait among them is that they find a particular joy in making their negative appraisals. There was never any delight in it for me, particularly because I didn’t realize I was doing it.
Where to go from here?
Well this discovery was a disturbing one, but aside from the initial shock it’s actually wonderful news.
Suddenly I see why everything has been so hard! I’ve been making it that way by giving more weight to the downsides than upsides. Yes, suddenly I’m very happy about all my problems, because the rewards have effectively gotten bigger, and the obstacles smaller.
I can safely trust that when things seem bad, they cannot be as bad as they seem. Even if I’m a little bent out of shape and can’t see through my negativity-goggles, I can have faith that the bad part is being overplayed, and the good part is being underplayed.
It means that the goals I’ve struggled with are actually far easier than I’ve made them out to be. Given the solid across-the-board improvements I’ve made in the last two years, I think I’m looking at a pretty sweet 2010 and 2011.
My biggest change is going to be how I view my to-do list. No longer will it be a gauntlet of annoyances and chores, it will be a map to the things I want. It’s such a simple change in thinking, but already I find I’m attracted to my list, not repulsed as I’ve always been.
All of it sounds so obvious. I’m sure many of you have been thinking this way all your lives. I’ve read and heard this same sentiment for years, from teachers, parents, inspirational posters and fortune cookies, but it didn’t click. I knew it, but it just wasn’t real to me until now.
Why am I telling you all this?
Once again I’ve rattled on about myself for thirty paragraphs like I sometimes do. I did promise a “shocking revelation” in last Monday’s post. But I also suspect some of you are in the same boat. I called myself an optimist because it sounded better than pessimist, and I stuck with it because I made that word a part of my identity that very day.
Your definitions of optimism and pessimism may differ from mine. If this article has given you a reason to think about it, you may want to ask yourself if you tend to overvalue the negative aspects of situations, even though you call yourself an optimist.
But it doesn’t stop there. This kind of misunderstanding could happen with any belief about yourself: your political stance, your assessment of your earning potential, your assessment of your intelligence, your economic class, your attitude about the humanity as a whole, your supposed calling in life, your supposed destiny.
I bet most of us are positively swimming in foregone conclusions about who we are and who we’re meant to be. Once you adopt a belief about your identity, a lifetime of hints to the contrary could pass before it even occurs to you that you’ve been wrong.
I misunderstood a fundamental aspect of my behavior my whole life, and now things suddenly make a lot more sense. I was attached to the idea that I’ve forever been an optimist, and because of that, I was blind to a problem I could have addressed long ago.
The label doesn’t really matter. I’m not hereby taking up the title of “pessimist” just because it’s a slightly better descriptor. But the title I did adopt all those years ago made it impossible for me to see a problem that’s been putting sugar in my gas tank every morning for twenty-some years.
Well that’s my story. I’m still figuring out what it means, so take what you can from it. Hopefully it’s something positive.
Photo by David Cain
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