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How Optimism is Your Key to Resilience

(How I think we're all feeling right now)

Remember January? The year had just started out, we were making our goals for the year, thinking about trips we might make, thinking to ourselves "this is my year!" That all changed pretty quickly, didn't it?

One thing I have been seeing a lot of recently on social media are messages of positivity. You know the type, posts with catchy phrases spewing the importance of "thinking positively" and "be your best today.".

Personally, I'm not a fan.

I mean, I get it. I think they are well intended and maybe you like them, maybe it helps you. If so, you do you! And honestly, we can all use an extra dose of positivity right now, so maybe I am just being a downer.

My problem with these types of posts is that while I believe they are trying to spread optimism (which is nice!) they misrepresent what optimism really is. In reality, these types of posts can often have the reverse effect.

It can cause people to actually feel more distressed, more anxious, more depressed. Seeing posts saying, “just think positive!” can make you overly critical about your own thoughts, or make you feel like you always have to be happy and positive. As I wrote about in a previous blog, you can't really fool yourself into thinking things are going great when they aren't. It's not sunshine and rainbows all the time, and that's okay.

"a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Winston Churchill

Thus, optimism is not about being overly positive. It is not just thinking positively. Optimism is a belief system and an ability to see the situation in a different light. It is about facing your challenges head on with the belief that you can overcome it. Optimism is the key to overcoming adversity and becoming resilient.

Optimism as the Key to Resilience

When something happens to us – good or bad – our brain automatically starts trying to answer the question “why did that happen?” Overtime we start to develop habits in how we answer this question, which leads to what positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman calls our “explanatory style.” Our explanatory style – or how we explain [to ourselves] why things went the way they did has a profound effect on our optimism, and in turn, our resilience.

Dr. Seligman has found that our explanatory style is the result of three dimensions. Three aspects of how we answer this question, “why did that happen?”

1. Internal vs. External (It was all my fault vs it was not all my fault)

  • Am I the sole cause of what just happened or was it someone/something else that caused it to happen?

2. Stable vs. Unstable (I can't change it vs I can change it)

  • Do I have the ability to change what happened or not? Can I identify what is within my control and act on it?

3. Global vs. Specific (This always happens vs this is an isolated incident)

  • Does this always happen or is it an isolated incident? Does this reflect my larger abilities, or is this specific just to this skill?

Dr. Seligman’s research found that optimistic people interpret the events around them in a similar way. They interpret an event as:

External (It’s not all my fault)

unstable (I can change it)

and specific (this is an isolated incident and does not speak to my larger abilities).

Pessimists, on the other hand, see the same event a bit differently. They see it as:

Internal (It’s all my fault)

stable (I can't change it)

and global (this always happens and speaks to my larger abilities.)

Let’s take a look at an example to better illustrate our explanatory styles.

Situation: You’re a baseball player and in a slump. You strike out, again, and are walking back to the dugout. Let’s look at how a pessimist might interpret it:

The Pessimist: "Man, I’m awful, I can’t hit anything! I’m never going to get out of this slump…I’m just a bad baseball player."

The Optimist: "Ugh! Frustrating! That pitcher is really good, though. I could have had a better approach, I let myself get down 0-2. I can have a better approach next at-bat and make sure I don’t get behind in the count. I’ll make up for it by playing defense."

The pessimist saw his strikeout as all his fault (internal), that he can’t change it (stable), and that it speaks to his larger general baseball abilities (global).

The optimist, on the other hand saw that it wasn’t all his fault (pitcher was really good), he does have the power to change it (can have a better approach next at-bat), and it was an isolated incident (he can still play well on defense).

You can see from this example how crucial optimism is for resilience. The way we interpret what is going on around us and the corresponding thoughts we have will dictate our levels of confidence, the effort we put forth, and how focused we are.

Think back to a meaningful event that occurred in your life recently. Try to approach it as objectively as possible and without judgement – how did you honestly respond in that situation?

  • Did you blame yourself completely or did you see that there were other factors at play?

  • Did you recognize what you could control about the situation and that you could affect change or did you feel helpless?

  • Did you let see the situation for what it was or did you personalize it to make it reflect who you are as a human being?

Being realistic is optimism, just with the underlying belief that you have the ability to enact positive change

People often say they are a "realist, not a pessimist". Well, being realistic is optimism, just with the underlying belief that you have the ability to enact positive change. Optimism is not just "thinking positively". It is about taking ownership, coming from an objective perspective, and taking active steps towards the problem-- not away from it.

The consequences of our explanatory style, and our levels of optimism, are massive. It impacts performance in our ability to recover from mistakes and our ability to 'grind it out' when you just don't have it that day.

However, and maybe more importantly right now, it also impacts things like our levels of happiness, well-being, our immune system, our cardiovascular health, and our relationships.

Most often this process happens without us realizing it. These questions pingpong through our head just outside of our conscious awareness, which can make it difficult to change them. Working with a Certified Mental Performance Consultant ® (hi, right here!) can help expedite the process by helping you turn up the volume on your thought processes and provide individualized strategies to help change them. As a result, you will play at a higher level more consistently because setbacks and adversity won't impact you in the same way.

Sport psychology and mental skills can help us through this difficult time. We can also use this as a practice field to start developing better mental habits. Just like any other skill, it takes practice and it takes reps.

The work isn't always easy, but if you are ready to put in the work I've got your back. Give me a shout for a free consultation.

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