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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Defeating Pessimism

"A pessimist is one who builds dungeons in the air."  -- Walter Winchell

To defeat pessimism, people do not need a sense of false certainty or total "belief." The truth is, no one really knows if the world can become a less pessimistic place. But, it is a fight worth fighting. Most people who achieve believe the best possible outcomes will derive from optimism. These individuals often inspire others with their positive motivation.

"Looking on the bright side" or "The glass is half full" are just old, worn aphorisms. To truly change, pessimists need to identify and correct their pessimistic behavior. This change involves using logic and developing new and challenging thought processes. Changing bad habits and acknowledging weaknesses are tough, but these actions are essential to overcoming pessimism. This process actually involves cognitive restructuring of the brain to improve moods and discourage maladies. Bad moods seem common for many.

In fact, the brain seems to accept its negative bias naturally. Good news is no news, and scandalous, unfavorable stories blanket the headlines in the media. Like vultures waiting on a deadly collapse, reporters relish the final demise. Perverse gossip and tragedy sell while reports on good behavior lie unpublished. The public gobbles up the misery in daily doses.

Humans all tend to think in extremes, and when traumatic events happen, people think that way even more. The brain's tendency to make mistakes combines with the brain's natural negative bias, and this mixture makes demoralizing thinking much more likely. (David D. Burns, MD, The Feeling Good Handbook, 1989)

Author, columnist, and web site operator Adam Khan (Self-Help Stuff That Works, 3rd Ed. 1999) has a noble mission -- to crush pessimism. Khan realizes much of the demoralizing frustration he once felt in his life was a result of his own unnecessary negative emotion, or, as he calls it, his "thought mistakes."

Khan ( numbers 22 of these thought mistakes as typical behavior for pessimists. Here is the list of the pessimistic mistakes to avoid:

1. Exaggerating - To enlarge or increase something to an abnormal degree

2. Overgeneralizing - To take a single, rare event or fact and use it as basis for a negative opinion

3. Oversimplifying -  To simplify to the extent as to bring about a poor distortion or negative misunderstanding

4. Extremism - To advocate the actions of individuals or groups outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise to violate common moral standards 

5. Overcertainty - To misjudge something by believing it to be clearly established or assured

6. Negative Guessing - To realize a negative guess was just a guess which can increase bitterness

7. Self-defeating Conclusions - To  have pessimistic, self-fulfilling thoughts that aren't true or false but make themselves true by thinking them

8. False Implications - To imply something negative is true when it is actually false

9. Choosing the Worst Possible Explanation - To explain setbacks with the worst possible explanation instead of examining its false implications

10. False Helplessness - To decide that the cause of a setback is permanent and that any deliberate action does not have any effect on the outcome

11. False Hopelessness - To believe something contains too much certainty, and since nobody knows what will happen in the future, nothing can be done about such fate

12. Shoulds and Musts - To impose imperatives such as "things should not be this way" in situations that are merely preferences

13. Misplacing Responsibility - To take too much responsibility or too little responsibility for something that happens

14. Focusing Too Narrowly -  To focus on a negative detail and ignore other parts of a pertinent situation that might not be so bad

15. Harmful Judging - To yield to the habit of making judgments that actually increase suffering

16. Asking Unanswerable Questions - To ask and seek an answer for a question that doesn’t have an answer, such as an essentially meaningless question

17. Bias For Confirmation - To seek evidence to confirm rather than deny an already existing conclusion; a bias for certainty unjustified by good facts

18. Using Emotions As Evidence - To allow emotions to rule thinking instead of thought

19. Dismissing Facts - To dismiss positive facts by negative thinking -- "I got lucky that day"

20. Ignoring Alternatives - To ignore that many equally likely influencing factors could contribute to an outcome 

21. Assuming  - To take something for granted and accept it without proof

22. Negative Bias - To dwell on bad aspects because of biases: 1. The brain’s negative bias,        2. Reality’s negative bias, 3. Communication’s negative bias, and 4. The media’s negative bias

The fundamental premise of cognitive science is that if people think the situation is hopeless and they believe they can do nothing about it, they should look carefully at that assumption because it is usually wrong. (Adam Khan, Self-Help Stuff That Works, 3rd Ed. 1999)

Any successful coach can attest that rooting out defeatist thoughts can help eliminate a potentially defeated feeling. Arguing and rationalizing against those demoralizing thoughts will increase much needed morale. When a thought-mistake makes people  feel disheartened, discouraged, or helpless, it can stop them from taking appropriate positive action.

Abraham Low, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis (Aaron T. Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders, 1975) discovered that certain kinds of thought-mistakes actually cause anxiety and depression and when a person's thinking is changed, the depression or anxiety lifts. Arguing (or dismissing) with negative thoughts can increase feelings of calm and determination.

Now, a large body of empirical evidence supports the theory of cognitive behavior, which essentially says that the cause of dysfunctional behavior is dysfunctional thinking and that thinking processes are shaped by underlying beliefs. Situations are interpreted according to basic beliefs and acted on accordingly. "If beliefs do not change," Beck said, "there is no improvement. If beliefs change, symptoms change." (American Psychological Association, 108 Convention, August 2000)

Ellis reiterated his 3 basic tenets:

1. People don't just get disturbed by events, but by the perception. A+B.
2. No matter when you developed your belief, you still believe it.
3. There is no way but work and practice the rest of your damned life!

So, what happens to people who continually take negative hits? These are people who live with negativity and receive tremendous doses of disturbing events. Does willpower or sheer determination pull them through repeated painful occurrences? If they do, do these people know how to become determined when setbacks occur?
Remember the movie Rocky? The principle Rocky repeats in the movie is, "Nothing's over until it's over." Khan believes when people can find and reveal the flaw(s) in their own pessimistic thoughts about a setback, "that principle will become a belief, not by trying to believe it, but by finding out what pessimistic, defeatist ideas they believe that aren't true." (Self-Help Stuff That Works, 3rd Ed. 1999)

Rocky, the fighter in the movie, encounters each of these:

1. Media: News commentators make fun of him. They make it clear he can't possibly fight this fight. He risks death, and for sure he can't win.

2. Communication: The judges don't want to grant him his fighting license. His son and his best friend are against him at first and don't want him to fight. They think he's going to lose, and they tell him so.

3. His own brain: He knows he is "old." He has his doubts about his ability. But he really wants to fight in the ring again.

Reality: Because of the way reality is rigged, setbacks and weaknesses are more noticeable and memorable than victories and strengths. The memories of failure, heartache, and mistakes tempt Rocky to think pessimistically.

Can you identify pessimistic thought mistakes in the following?

1. I saw three people come out of the pill mill the other day. Everyone in the county is using these places.

2. Prescription drug abuse isn't the problem. The real problem is pharmacists.

3. They might as well let everybody buy drugs because no one can stop drug abuse anyway.

4. This prescription drug epidemic is certainly not my problem. I don't misuse drugs.

5. We need to build more jails and arrest more people to solve the problem of prescription drug abuse.

6. I know a crooked cop. And I know a crooked doctor. I know where the epidemic of prescription drug abuse is coming from.

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." --Winston Churchhill

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