Stop negativity in its tracks
Positivity is going through a bit of a rocky patch. For years it was the state of mind we all aspired to. From slogans on mugs to assertions on t-shirts, it was cool to be positive. But then we began to question this positive state of mind. Is it appropriate to respond to events with an eternally positive spin? We began to ask, when is optimism a harmful delusion?
In this article, we will look at when optimism is (and isn’t) helpful and how to cultivate a positive approach to events. I will detail a five-step plan to help you break free from negative thought responses that are ultimately distracting, harmful and debilitating, and instead allow you to find positive reactions and make forward-facing plans of action.
Is optimism always the best policy?
Sometimes pessimistic responses are helpful. They make us cautious in a way that enables us to be critically analytical before investing our life savings, for example. They also make us flexible and responsive, ready to back out of a situation if the risks start outweighing the benefits.
Pessimistic responses can galvanise us to recognise the pitfalls of our current experience and make an active plan to change it. Similarly, optimistic responses to situations are sometimes less than desirable. It’s unhelpful for a gambler to think happily, "Just one more hand and I’m bound to win". Likewise, in parenting optimism does not always guard us against potential dangers. Yes, it is nice to assume that every dog is friendly and it is certainly an optimistic approach, but it may not be worth the risk to try the theory out with your toddler.
So when is an optimistic response helpful?
If you identify that your current response to a situation or event is unhelpful, untrue or exaggerated, then that is a good time to switch to a more optimistic reaction. For example, you perform badly in a work appraisal. Your response is to question yourself and wonder why you are even bothering to go to work. This response is only useful if it galvanises you to action. But more often than not, this type of response actually hinders positive planning. We tend to slip into self-recriminations and unhappy passivity.
Secondly, the evidence might actually be that you only did badly in some areas of work, and perhaps there were extenuating circumstances. But often, we can fail to focus on the good stuff, and instead, our minds make our responses exaggerated and generalised.
The perils of pessimism
How many times have you thought, "This always happens to me"? Or maybe, "This is typical". Or perhaps, "I’m a failure; I’m useless; I’m a loser". Maybe you take one incident and leap from it to a catastrophic assumption, "That’s it, I’m leaving right now."
Our thoughts and responses can take us from 2+2 all the way to 794 without taking a breath. And then we get into a spiral of thought – feeling – response. “I am crap at my job. I always end up getting sacked. It is going to happen again. Typical. God, I feel useless. I’m scared I’ll never find a job I am good at. They clearly don’t value me and I am only going to get fired again. I’m leaving.”
You can see how quickly your thoughts can turn to feelings which then stimulate more negative thoughts and ultimately a knee-jerk decision. It’s a spiral that sabotages clarity of thought and rational decision-making.
But what can we do instead? Do we just take a few deep breaths and repeat some nice, happy mantra? I mean, you can! But more helpful is the ABCDE response. This was formulated by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and is designed to help us challenge our pessimistic outcomes and instead cultivate a more positive response.
The ABCDE approach
This approach turns your knee-jerk negative thought process into something that is rooted in the reality of the situation. As Seligman says,
Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non negative’ thinking.
This response is about challenging our negative assumptions, not about blithely ignoring reality and repeating positive assertions that bear no resemblance to how you feel or what is happening. It is firmly rooted in reality. It works by recognising the adversity, identifying the associated thoughts or beliefs, naming the consequences or feelings that come with this belief, disputing these beliefs and then recognising how much more energised this alternative belief response leaves you.
Adversity – Describe what is actually happening, not an evaluative judgement of it.
“My boyfriend said he wants some space from our relationship.”
Beliefs – How are you interpreting this event? Focus on your thoughts about it, not your feelings, which come later.
“He is going to split up with me. He is sick of me. I have messed up yet another relationship. It’s going wrong again. I always push people away. I am just going to end it right now.”
Consequences – What are your feelings about the event?
“I feel lonely, sad, depressed, scared, frustrated, resentful.”
And now for the fun bit, because the 'D' part of the acronym is where we get to put our optimism into the event.
1. What is the evidence for this response I am having? Is it accurate that he wants to split up with me? Is there evidence that I always mess up my relationships?
“No it is not accurate that he wants to split up. Surely if he wanted to split up, he would have said that.
“Is there evidence I always mess up my relationships? It’s true that many of my relationships fail but there have been reasons for this which are often not my fault.”
2. What are the alternative explanations for what’s happening? Is there anything else happening that might explain his need for space other than it being my fault?
“Actually he’s under a lot of pressure at work right now. Maybe he’s overwhelmed. Plus, I have been seeing a lot of him lately.”
3. Are my assumptions about this correct? Are my implications about this event realistic?
“Does this really imply that I’m useless at all relationships? I have had the same best friend since I was 7 and have many happy and close friendships. I clearly don’t mess up those relationships.
“Am I actually catastrophising here? Yes, I don’t need to split up with him. Let’s wait to see how things go.”
4. Is my response useful? Does it help to have this response or is it destructive and harmful to myself?
“It doesn’t feel helpful to assume I’m bad at all relationships. That idea probably isn’t true and makes me feel rubbish. It also makes me want to walk away right now and that isn’t helpful. I don’t need to act or make a big decision right now.”
Let’s look at the two different possible reactions to the event:
- He is going to split up with me. He is sick of me. I have messed up yet another relationship. It’s going wrong again. I always push people away. I am just going to end the relationship right now.
- Actually there’s no evidence I am bad at relationships. I have many friends. Yes, I could work harder on my romantic relationships. This is something to work on. But it’s just as possible he is under pressure from work and we both need some space from each other. There’s no need to rush into a big decision here. Let’s see how things go.
Energisation – How do you think you would feel in the second scenario compared to the first? In the first, you felt lonely, sad, depressed, scared, frustrated and resentful. In the second scenario, you might instead feel calm, empowered, positive and hopeful. And you may also find yourself much more likely to make sensible plans for the future.
In scenario two, you have noticed your romantic relationships do not go as well as your friendships. This positive response can lead you to make a plan. Perhaps you spend too much time focusing on your friendships. Now you’re free to make a plan to improve this.
Responding optimistically and realistically allows you to avoid the passivity that comes from the catastrophe cycle. It enables you to look at what is actually happening and take from it the evidence you need to respond positively and make a plan for the future. Cataclysmic, catastrophic thinking tends to immobilise; optimistic, evidence-driven thinking tends to mobilise thoughts and plans.
So next time you encounter adversity in any form, ask yourself: "Is it true?", "Am I catastrophising?", "Is it helpful to respond like this?" And remember, between every event and reaction there is a tiny moment of pause. Take this pause and create a new response, one which leaves you feeling empowered, energised and optimistic.