Nearly always look on the Bright Side of Life
The Rocky Road from Pessimism to Optimism.
How to train your brain to go from unhelpful pessimism to balanced optimism. ‘Now, don’t get too excited…it may never happen’
That’s a quote I heard many a time from my wonderful Dad, said with love and protection but heard as a caution. He had a way about him that meant everything was up for ‘going awry’ Both Trevor and I vividly remember him coming over to our house in his later years, and when asked what he thought about a new patio we’d just had laid, promptly jumped up and down on it to see if it would hold…now there’s a pessimist for you.
The time I remember him using the phrase the clearest was when I shocked my entire family by getting through the first round of the Metropolitan Police selection process, packed off with my little overnight bag at the tender age of twenty-two…..from rural Suffolk to the big city. Boy was it exciting, but at that time the feeling of excitement was very definitely the same swirl in the tummy as fear gave me. Accompanying that was the internal nagging so many of us experience: “What was the point, it wasn’t going to go well?” “Why would they want me, what do I have to offer?”
I’d learnt that it was best not to get too excited, to watch out for the danger in a situation and you’d stay safe. Well the funny thing was it stood me in very good stead for the Police Service. I always doubted, always questioned everything and my environment gave me lots of confirmation for the negative side of life.
That is, until something great would happen. A scared, or even sometimes physically abused witness to a crime would go out of their way to make a statement in support of a victim they didn’t know. Someone would bring in a purse into the lost and found, stuffed full of cash and credit cards, so the owner might get it back. That’s where the confusion was. How, if we were always supposed to look out for the danger in the problem, did these positive things happen around me? Ah, of course, they weren’t connected to me…Oh no…they were just random and not something I’d created. It was always someone else’s luck.
Unless…..people wrote into the station to let my bosses know how much I’d helped them or I got posted to a job I really wanted and had worked hard to get.
It wasn’t until I began to look at little closer at myself and the way I thought that I realised I took a major part in the ‘seeing’ of these things, that they’d always been there and the part that I was actively playing in making them happen.
What helped my learning most was a move to Hendon Police Training College as a trainer. Working at the station level of policing tends to make you quite cynical because of the kinds of people you meet, and situations you face. Hendon was like an oasis of positivity by comparison. And I got a chance to do a lot of self-awareness training and learnt about some of the differences in people. And I met Trevor. He was deeply into the personal development field already, and we only started dating just before he left the police to become a hypnotherapist. Through him I began to see people in ways I’d never thought of before, and to see my natural pessimism as something I could have more choice over. And he is a big optimist. Huge. His family actually believe in a thing called ‘Silvester luck’ and having been with him for many years now, I believe in it too :-). And I realise a lot of it is just positive expectancy that things will turn out ok. As the saying went in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will turn out alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” And I do work hard at keeping hold of that belief, wrestle as I do with my tendency to worry and want everything to be ok for everyone, now. It’s one of the things about personal development, a lot of people come to it looking for a magical fix, but actually changing is hard work. Well, not quite true. With Cognitive Hypnotherapy changes can happen quite quickly, it is making them stick and become permanent that involves effort on the part of the client. Obviously listening to Wordweaving downloads help, and I have quite a large private collection that Trevor’s recorded for me over the years, and I listen to them at night regularly.
One of the big things with labels such as these is not to make them boxes. They’re not for people to be squeezed into. I can be optimistic in some situations, and even Trevor can be pessimistic when he’s in certain contexts – like having to put up a shelf – so it’s both a continuum and a contextual description. And pessimism has its uses too. People who are wildly optimistic can fail to spot the pitfalls of a goal or plan, they can fail to learn lessons that prevent failure the next time and they can take gambles that have little realistic chance of success. Pessimists don’t bother with the lottery. So nowadays, while accepting which end of the continuum I tend to live, I don’t treat it as destiny, but as something I can move on from, and several things help me with that.
The first is connecting with positive people, and in that I’m very lucky. Two years after Trevor left the police I followed, and we set up The Quest Institute, and the people who we attract as students – and from whom most of our friends are drawn – are incredibly positive people. They are whom I’m most in contact with. Most weekends is spent running courses and interviewing potential students, and I get to meet and hear so many stories that are so inspiring that I can’t help but see the world more brightly. People who have hope give you hope. I read somewhere – that’s a fib, Trevor probably told me – that we’re a composite of the five people we spend most time with, so make sure you hang out with people holding glasses that are half full.
The second is one of the unconscious rules our brain uses to predict things. It’s simply that ‘the more something happens the more it will”. We see this in action all the time – I think it’s the basis for why when you stub your toe getting out of bed, the day starts going downhill from there. The good news is that the rule doesn’t have an agenda, it’ll go both ways, so if you get out of bed, the sun is shining through the window, you can hear the birds singing, and the butler (read Trevor!) has brought you a cup of tea, it starts the day with an anticipation that it’s going to be a good one. So, guess what you spend time paying more attention to. It’s like brain-training. The more you notice the positive things in your day, the more you will. In Cognitive Hypnotherapy we talk about people living in a reality tunnel, and it’s our brain that projects the world onto the walls of it. If you’re a pessimist your brain paints the walls of your world in the colours of threat and danger. You notice the cracks in the pavement, not the loose change that’s been dropped, you notice the people with frowns more than you hear laughter. In positive psychology they suggest exercises like savouring, where you stop at a moment in your day that you’re enjoying, and really pay attention to what that moment is about, using all your senses. Slow down… and savour. The more you do that, guess what? The more moments to savour you’ll become aware of, the more optimistic you’ll be that you’re living a good life.
The third thing is, thinking things how you want them. I can be really good at catastrophising. I have an A level in it. I can find myself imagining all kinds of future problems, most of which will never happen. Nowadays I’m much better at catching myself, and imagining positive outcomes instead. Our bodies respond to our thoughts, it’s why we can wake from a nightmare with the sweats sometimes. So, if I put some kind of bad event into my future my body is going to get ready to respond to it, and I’ll start to feel nervous or anxious – and I’ll make the mistake of thinking “Oh I’m feeling scared of that thing tomorrow, it’s bound to go badly” without realising that I’m only feeling scared BECAUSE I imagined it going badly. Think it how you want it and your brain will release positive chemicals that will leave you feeling positive about what’s in your future. We’re just tricking the brain really. But it started it first!
We largely live in the world we expect to, and that becomes more true the older you get, so it’s important, now I’m in my fiftieth year, to keep my brain nudging toward painting my world happy – and continuing to be happy – so I don’t slip back into being, in that particular way, like my dad…. bless him.