Is it partly cloudy or partly sunny? Are you a pessimist or an optimist? If you are a pessimist you can become an optimist. Why would you want to change?
Our perceptions can be changed by us. This is not something that I made up. I took a fascinating course in college called Perception and Cognition. I discovered in this course that our perceptions are quite individualistic and we can change them with effort.
Personally, I found the idea of changing my perceptions interesting because many of the family attitudes I had absorbed were negative. In some ways I was a pessimist and I didn’t like it. I felt like the character in an old comic who always had a dark cloud hanging over his head.
We believe that our perceptions are “the truth.” Actually, if you interviewed a group of individuals who witnessed a crime, you would find as many truths as individuals. Not only would the perceptions of the witnesses differ, but a witness’s perception might vary on a different day.
So, with the idea in mind that perceptions are individualistic and can be changed, why would I want to be an optimist? In tests, pessimists and optimists subjected to the same experiences, perceive them as differently as their labels would suggest.
Using an old joke to describe this, basically, the optimist and the pessimist might end up in the same place, but the optimist enjoys the trip. So, if the optimist goes through life with a more uplifting and joyful outlook, is this in truth a benefit?
I would say that the optimist’s positive outlook has a positive effect on her life because she is healthier because she enjoys things. Also, viewing life in a positive manner alters one’s choices. If a person sees a situation as better, then perhaps she will take a chance that will better her situation.
Having established that I believe that optimism is preferable to pessimism, how do I change myself? First, I identify the ways in which I look at the world that are negative and I examine them carefully. Then, I evaluate what self-messages I wish to change.
Some of the people who were powerful influences in my life had a hard time. Therefore, they tended to expect the worst to happen in a situation. I am not against being prepared. However, a drop of rain does not a deluge make.
So, I looked at situations in my life with a new eye. Yes, my parents died young; however, their lifestyles were not conducive to health. My conclusion was that if I have a healthy lifestyle, I don’t have to die young.
Most of us have conclusions in our life that we have drawn that need to be re-evaluated. So, you don’t dance like Barishnikov? This doesn’t mean you can’t learn to dance well enough to have fun going out and dancing occasionally.
Having identified some of the negative beliefs in my life I set out to change them. I practiced not viewing things in black and white. Usually things in our life are somewhat good and somewhat bad.
Most experiences are a mixed bag. It is the conclusions we draw that causes us to judge them. So, being late to work might start the day out badly, but it doesn’t ruin the day unless I accept that it does.
I am a musician. In a performance, I might sing or play thousands of notes. If a miss ten of these notes, does this make me a terrible musician? No, actually it makes me human and a pretty darned good musician.
Learning to catch these negative self-messages becomes easier with time. Now, if catch myself “awfulizing” or taking one event and making it into a tragedy, I stop.
Also, I try not to take things personally. Many times, someone is having a bad day and snaps at others. I have learned that it isn’t “all about me.” I assume that the event has little or nothing to do with me and the person is having a bad day.
Another trait I had to unlearn from my family was not drawing a conclusion from little or non-conclusive evidence. Sometimes a cold is just a cold. This does not mean the family member will then catch pneumonia and die.
I’m exaggerating and yet this is an attitude I had to unlearn. There is no point in assuming the worst in every situation. This is the problem with the “worst case scenario” way of thinking.
My grandmother was afraid of getting cancer and dying. I would imagine that most of us have had similar fears at one time or another. However, my grandmother paid for her cancer insurance for fifty years. I cancelled her cancer insurance when she was 100 years old and dying from old age and heart failure.
This is not a funny example and yet I think it is indicative of the ruts our mind can fall into. Yes, be prepared. However, don’t spend all your time agonizing over something that may never happen.
I have adopted some of the attitudes of Alcoholics Anonymous that I really like and I think are quite positive. One motto is “one day at a time.” Sounds easy, but is it? Who hasn’t worried away a beautiful day wondering if she was going to have enough money to retire?
Act, be prepared, but don’t waste the present. At the time of my grandmother’s declining health and all the attendant complications, I realized that “one day at a time” was all I could cope with. It got me through. Thinking about the “what ifs” just gave me heartburn.
Another attitude of Alcoholics Anonymous that I like is that you can start your day over anytime. I think that this is a wonderful concept.
So, it’s morning, I’m running late to work, I had to change shoes cause I stepped in something unpleasant and I have the rest of the day to look forward to. I’m driving along a scenic highway and I say “I’m starting today over from now.”
I can do it—it’s a matter of attitude and perception and that is in my control. I say a prayer, take some deep breaths, think about something beautiful. It is not a bad day because some “bad” things happened.