I don’t know where to begin this post exactly, as I don’t know when exactly I became a pessimist. But I can’t remember a time when my glass wasn’t ‘half-empty.’ I used to find the metaphor immensely offensive, as I didn’t understand how anyone’s glass could be ‘half-full’. And what, pray tell, was so exactly wrong with my point of view? *Snark snark snark* So, I spent a vast majority of my 22 first years of life as a pessimist. When things weren’t going my way, it was really easy to talk myself into giving up, thinking things were my fault somehow, and thinking that things wouldn’t get better for me. Being a pessimist is really emotionally exhausting. And really discouraging. Imagine being hard on yourself for every awkward encounter, mistake, bad grade, and missed opportunity.
Optimists used to annoy me. What were they so happy about, anyway? How could they be so chipper; so resilient? How did they just bounce back from failure; rejection?
Things started to click into the summer of 2012. I started the academic advising master’s program with Kansas State and started to realize that if I was going to be a successful advisor I was going to need a major attitude adjustment. How on earth could I help someone else persist, set goals, and stay positive when I didn’t really believe in myself? Once I initially had the hunch that turning my attitude around would help me professionally, I left the thought to marinate in my brain.
In May 2013, I checked out a library book entitled Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman. The book’s description boasts the following:
Known as the father of the new science of positive psychology, Martin E.P. Seligman draws on more than twenty years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism enhances the quality of life, and how anyone can learn to practice it. Offering many simple techniques, Dr. Seligman explains how to break an “I—give-up” habit, develop a more constructive explanatory style for interpreting your behavior, and experience the benefits of a more positive interior dialogue. These skills can help break up depression, boost your immune system, better develop your potential, and make you happier.. With generous additional advice on how to encourage optimistic behavior at school, at work and in children, Learned Optimism is both profound and practical–and valuable for every phase of life.
I was sold after reading the book jacket. Something everyone may not know about me: I spent the first year of college with crippling anxiety and depression. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was. It was avoiding social interactions, avoiding raising my hand in class, avoiding drawing any attention to myself, sleeping a lot, going home almost every weekend, and not really enjoying myself, or anything for that matter. I finally started seeing a therapist on campus the next year and learned to manage my anxiety, which helped with the depression. Mastering my anxiety taught me how to be introspective, and to be open minded about myself and my problems. So reading Learned Optimism was like therapy 2.0 minus the therapist. The book contained helpful inventories that helped me better understand my explanatory style, which is fancy psych language for pessimistic or optimistic. Seligman breaks down explanatory style into multiple parts, rather than just “one or the other” and it was fascinating, because it was all so spot on for me.
After I finished reading the book in May 2013 I was determined to work on thinking less pessimistic-ly. It’s challenging to change 20+ years of thinking one way, but it is possible. I’ve learned to counter my pessimistic thoughts with more realistic thoughts, and I’ve learned to stop being so hard on myself for things I felt weren’t going well. As cliche as it sounds, becoming optimistic has changed my life.