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April 14, 2020

Handling Pessimism – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie

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"Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won't expect it back."

Oscar Wilde, Irish author

Some people see the glass as half full. Others see it as half empty. And then there are people who don't worry about half full or half empty – they're worried about dropping the glass.

I wonder if all families and offices have a pessimist in their midst? Our family has Maureen. She's our resident "bundle of joy," who manages to see the negative in everything.

Pessimism in Person

For example, if someone comes up with an idea for a family get-together, Maureen can immediately produce a detailed list of reasons why it won't work. Plus a detailed analysis of what could go wrong. What's worse, according to her, it will go wrong, because it always does.

She's also a weather prophet and routinely predicts bad weather for the day of the function, even if it's months away. If it's in November, it's going to be a "disaster" because she's never attended a function with good weather in November. Or in August. Or in April, for that matter. Maureen's life seems to be lived in relentless bad weather.

Maureen is also a relationship psychic. Well, sort of. Only for the bad stuff. She just knows that "it's never going to work" between whoever is in a new relationship, got engaged, or – heaven forbid – got married.

She sees lawsuits, break-ups, messy divorces, and even the occasional murder on the family's horizon. Maybe that's why she isn't interested in a relationship herself: she just knows it's going to have a catastrophic end.

Pessimism: Always Right... and Self-Righteous

When we all do eventually make it to the family event safely, Maureen will definitely grace us with her dark presence. For it will be the death of her if something bad goes down at the event and she isn't there to witness it – or at least to say in person, "I told you so!"

And, if she's not there, she won't be able to diagnose family members with the most terrible diseases imaginable, if she hears the faintest of coughs or sniffles.

What's more, Maureen is also a conspiracy theorist of note. Everything is suspect – from 5G to a sitcom that first aired 20 years ago. One will kill you, the other is designed to brainwash.

"I know you can't see it," she says, "but one day you'll see that I was right." Yeah, OK Maureen, we get it. Everyone and everything in the world is out to get us.

The Office Version

In an upbeat, fun meeting, when someone suggests a great idea to improve workflow, the pessimist is the person who tells them that it's never going to work.

The pessimist also knows that it has never been done that way because it will never work, and swiftly manages to drain the energy from the room.

They're also the person who doesn't volunteer to help with the local charity project because "the people won't appreciate it." And they know that the company is definitely going to go under in no time at all because sales were slow during the previous month.

The office pessimist knows of any bad news that happens anywhere in the world. They thrive on negative conversations, too. And if you don't watch out, their negativity can rub off on you and make you feel tired and thoroughly unmotivated.

According to Dr Martin Seligman, often referred to as the father of Positive Psychology, we are hardwired for pessimism. He thinks that, in ancient times, it stood us in good stead as a species to be pessimistic about the next day. It helped us to think about the future differently – because it helped us to survive.

You Find What You're Looking For

However, we know today that being overly pessimistic isn't good for our well-being, due to its negative effect on our physical and mental health. Being optimistic doesn't mean floating around on a pink "mind cloud" all day long. It simply means that you're able to reframe negative thoughts to represent the truth of a situation more realistically.

It's also about understanding what is within your power to control in any situation, instead of being stuck in a state of learned or assumed helplessness. An example would be when a colleague doesn't greet you in a friendly manner in the morning – and you feel as though your day's ruined, because "people are so unfriendly" (a pessimistic thought).

If, instead, you reframe your thinking to see your colleague as one person who's in a bad mood, you'll no longer see "people" as unfriendly. It's a more hopeful and optimistic perspective, and one that will likely influence your attitude toward others.

In the examples I've given above, I've described extreme pessimists. Most people are actually on a continuum of pessimism and optimism. Of course, it's not productive to be extremely pessimistic. Yet it's also no good being blindly optimistic – and to refuse to see warning signs in a precarious situation for what they are.

Handling Pessimism

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about handling your own and others' pessimism. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:

Q1. What tends to make you pessimistic? Why?

In our Twitter poll last week many people said that negative conversations tend to make them feel pessimistic. Some of the reasons shared during the chat included the following:

@carriemaslen We can become pessimistic when we don't see a path to joy, productivity, satisfaction, or anything positive.

@SizweMoyo News. I often can't believe that people are still as ignorant, violent and idiotic as they can sometimes be on the news and around the world. And people who just don't want to understand others, that really makes me feel pessimistic.

Q2. What's the difference between pessimism and realism?

@realDocHecht Pessimism can be crippling, leading you to not act at all. It highlights the negative aspects of a situation. Realism allows you to adjust your actions and sees the information as it is rather than highlighting the negative.

@Ganesh_Sabari Pessimism: A general disposition to look on the dark side and to expect the worst in all things. Realism: The attribute of accepting the facts, favouring practicality and literal truth.

Q3. Are some people born pessimistic or do we learn pessimism?

Opinions were divided about this and most participants believe that we learn to be pessimistic.

@harrisonia No, people aren't born pessimistic. Optimism and pessimism are the result of the environment in which we are raised. We have the ability to change our perception, acceptance, and environment.

@llake While I personally think our upbringing is a factor, I also believe from Epigenetics that heritage is stamped on our genes. So the possibilities are there, depending on externalities.

Q4. Is pessimism contagious? How can you protect yourself or others against catching it?

@Yolande_MT Treat pessimistic conversations like a virus: practice social distancing from negative people, wear a "mask" against it (your attitude, words and thoughts) and disinfect yourself (find something positive to listen to or read if you were exposed to pessimism).

@MResetRadio Misery loves company! It definitely does! I just try to focus on me – as my therapist says, "stay on my own yoga mat." They can be negative, but I focus on not letting it in. I walk away from the conversation if I have to.

Q5. How can pessimism serve us?

Some people believe that pessimism only feeds into fear and negativity, but it can actually have a positive purpose:

@JusChas It can definitely serve us in a planning aspect of unfamiliarity. It can add a little caution, and when used flipped around, milk something good from it.

@PmTwee Sometimes pessimism allows us to think of plan B, which is necessary when you are in unknown situations.

Q6. How do you gauge whether a person is being far-sighted or pessimistic?

@MarkC_Avgi By gaining knowledge of why they are being pessimistic. It's like getting a failing math grade for providing only the right answer without providing the details of getting to that answer. Let's try to understand the "why" before judging the pessimism.

@SayItForwardNow Someone who is far-sighted is a visionary who can identify potential challenges and plan for them. A pessimist rarely believes in positive possibilities!

Q7. If pessimism is just a bad habit like any other, how should we approach it?

@Limha75 It could be someone’s blind spot and they genuinely have no idea. Saying, "I'm not sure if you realise this but people can experience what you say as pessimistic" might be a revelation to them. Or it might earn you a poke in the eye.

@GodaraAR Practice hopefulness, keep good company, get away from distractions.

@MicheleDD_MT Find out what is behind the pessimism. Where does it come from? What is causing it and why? If we know the "why", we can begin to change the thinking pattern.

Q8. What strategies do you use with a friend (or colleague) who is constantly/repeatedly pessimistic?

@miladechant 1. Have a genuine dialogue with them. Pessimism often has granular layers or if they have encountered discrimination in some form or way. 2. Walk the journey with them as opposed to throwing them into the sea to swim alone.

@TheCraigKaye By using open questions, affirmations, reflections and summaries.

Q9. As a manager, how can you minimize a pessimist's effect on team morale?

@JKatzaman Pessimists have a role in teams. They keep people from getting too hot just as optimists keep the group from getting too cold. Great leaders guide the group to keeping them just right.

@kkopacz1 Provide opportunities for people to make decisions about and to control and influence their job. The single most frequent cause of workplace negativity is traceable to not allowing them input.

Q10. How can you rekindle hope in dark times?

@Midgie_MT By staying in the moment, keeping things simple and trusting that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Having gratitude also!

@LeadershipBEST We can invite them to participate in something, get involved, serve others, which helps them forget their own problems. It will give them a small burst of endorphins which will remind them that they, too, are valuable and can be of service in both good and bad times.

@sumeetjindalin To get back to light from dark, you need to practice it. Just like stamina can't be built instantly, your strength to stay positive also needs practice. Meditation can help a lot.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.

Coming Up in Our Next #MTtalk

While some people descend into pessimism during tough times, others step up to lead even when they're not in charge. In your opinion, what's the most noticeable characteristic of people who are willing to lead when they're not in charge? Is it their courage to act or because they feel they have a purpose? For all options and to cast your vote click here.

Useful Resources

In the meantime, here are some resources relating to the topic we discussed:

Managing Pessimists

Optimism: The Hidden Asset

Snyders' Hope Theory

Surviving a Downturn

The PERMA Model

The ABC Technique

Waldroop and Butler's Six Problem Behaviors

The Hogan Development Survey

Positive Thinking, Thought Awareness, and Rational Thinking

Building a Positive Team

Are You a Positive or a Negative Thinker?

Managing Team Negativity

Cognitive Restructuring

Rest, Relaxation and Sleep

Meditation for Stress Management

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