There is a natural tendency in all of us to want to be validated. Feeling connected to others is a key to physical and emotional well being. We all want to feel heard.
Have you had the experience of someone telling you how bad his or her life is? You might listen for a while and then try to point out the bright side, silver lining or what is going right in their life, which is then met with "See, you just don't get me." Not only do they want to tell you how bad it all is, they also want to convince you to see it their way. Now, of course, feelings are feelings and it can be very liberating to share your feelings with others. As friends, colleagues, spouses and parents it is key that we have effective active listening skills so that the other person feels heard. This can go a long way into building relationships. However, there are times when helping someone see a more positive perspective can be very helpful.
I often encounter people who don't just want to share with me how bad their lives are or the world might be. It is not enough that I listen and empathize. They want me to agree with them. They can almost be evangelical about their pessimism. Sometimes I have a strong urge to just say, "Stop trying to convert me!" I get that it hurts. I get that you are struggling. But the idea that everything in this world is horrible and I am a jerk because I don't agree, now that is a different story.
We all have a hypothesis for how we see the world and look for data to support it. This hypothesis is often developed when we are younger. If you believe that the world is a dangerous place than of course you can find a lot of examples of that. Watch the local news on any given night and you will see all kinds of violence. Actually, you will be more drawn to stories that strengthen your view rather than those that conflict with it. Even if something is painful it is more comfortable for us to find things that agree. If you think you are a piece of junk then it will be far easier to believe those who agree with you. If someone says something nice to you, it won't have any place to land in you and will more easily evaporate.
A client was recently listing all the reasons why her misery and hopelessness is realistic: "The world is filled with terrorists, people are selfish and don't care ... all men cheat." We spent some time confronting some of her beliefs. She got irritated with me and said, "you can't get it Dr. Sunshine, you are just a happy person."
People assume that those of us who are optimistic were somehow born this way. For me, this could not be further from the truth. I work very hard to recognize when my thoughts go towards negativity and hopelessness and then refocus on positivity and optimism. It has become more natural for me as I practice it more. I grew up in a home where the message was "prepare for the other shoe to drop" and "the other shoe will always drop."
We are each susceptible to the influences around us. Becoming aware of the nutritional value of the foods we eat is important to making healthy choices about what we consume. The same is true for thoughts. Just as you can be surrounded by junk food and choose not to eat it, you can do the same with negative attitudes. Prolonged exposure to junk food will make you more likely to eat it. The same is true for pessimism.
There are times when no amount of negativity from someone else will affect us. We can be detached and observe, and maybe extend compassion. At times of stress or transition we tend to be less able to filter those influences. It is important to recognize when you are stronger and take care of yourself when you are not.
So, how do you inoculate yourself from pessimism? How much of it do you spread to others?
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