Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: How can I be optimistic when I feel negative?

Dear Honest:

Let us say first that we hope you’re getting lots of support with your post-partum depression (PPD), which is a significant issue faced by many new mothers, one that shouldn’t be ignored. Although it’s often difficult to talk about depression, doing so can be valuable and empowering for you, and sharing your experiences may benefit others who are grappling with similar challenges. It’s estimated that roughly one in five people are dealing with depression and/or anxiety, so there is a good chance that some of the people you talk to are experiencing feelings not unlike your own.

At first, being candid about negative feelings may seem at odds with fostering optimism, which is what these columns are all about. But optimism does not require ignoring the negatives in life. In fact, if you focus only on the positive things in the world, you risk missing important warning signs in the present that can be used to plan for the future. Optimism is fundamentally future-focused, and making the future better than the present requires being honest about the difficulties you see in the world around you.

Some cases of persistent negative feelings, including PPD, may extend beyond the helping potential of family and friends, and may require the assistance of a capable professional. We are still at a point in the U.S. where seeking assistance for issues of mental health often carries an unfortunate and unwarranted stigma, one that may discourage people from seeking the help they need. If persistent problems begin to seem intractable, seeking professional care is most certainly an important, affirming, and positive step in the right direction.

The value of being honest about about difficulties is that you can start to plan for a more positive future. This is quite different from mere complaining.

But there are many types of challenges and levels of distress that are amenable to being overcome by personal shifts in thinking and behavior. In her wonderful book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen makes two interesting observations. The first is that dissatisfaction is energizing. When you focus on problems in the present that can be fixed (or desirable things you do not yet have), you create energy to address those problems.

Second, when you create a plan to turn your desired future into a reality, you have to be explicit about everything that can go wrong. Oettingen talks about Peter Gollwitzer’s work (which is not surprising, because they are married) on implementation intentions. A good implementation intention is a plan for achieving a difficult goal that is specific and takes into account what might derail the plan. Plans that don’t consider what might go wrong are more likely to fail.

That means there is nothing inherently bad about being realistic about what sucks. The value of being honest about the aspects of your life that are less than ideal is that you can use them as a starting place to plan for a more positive future. This is quite different from mere complaining. Instead, the acknowledgement of difficulties helps in planning a tangible, productive course of future action.

Much of our verbal behavior is influenced by the people around us, and it’s often the case that caring friends and loved ones, when they hear about what we’re going through, offer comfort by listening and empathizing. So far, so good. This becomes a problem when our unhappy experiences become the primary topics of conversation, and relationships become focused on them almost exclusively.

You seem to already be sensitized to this possibility, given that you “don’t want to be a downer.” One thing to consider is to make a conscious decision about when and with whom you will discuss the negative feelings you’re experiencing. This deliberate scheduling of time to focus on problems has the potential to limit the amount of time that you’re focused on the negative aspects of your current life circumstance.

As we said, it’s very important and often productive to discuss your feelings openly. But, it’s actually counterproductive to discuss your feelings openly with lots of people nearly all the time. If you decide up front when that will happen and with whom, it promotes an increased sense of personal agency. Rather than reacting to negative feelings that arise unbidden and take over your thoughts, it’s helpful to keep several positive things (positive to you) in mind that you can choose to think about when the negative feelings pop into your head outside the time you’ve scheduled for them.

When you are in a difficult situation, it is easy to convince yourself that you alone are responsible for fixing your problems. Indeed, an important symptom of depression is a feeling of isolation. If you never talk about your struggles, it may be impossible for other people to know what you are going through. By talking to others, you engage them and give them opportunities to help you, which we’re confident those closest to you would very much like to do.

We wish you and your wonderful family the very best.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

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