Are you a pessimist? How’s that working for you?

We’ve all heard the expression “he’s a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of man” to describe a pessimist. When is an empty glass not an empty glass?

I read recently about some children doing an experiment with a bowl of water and a seemingly empty glass. They turned the glass upside down, pushed it straight down into the bowl but the glass didn’t fill with water. Why not? Because it was full of air.

Pessimists will tell you that it’s much better to be a pessimist because then you won’t be disappointed when things go wrong. They see their pessimism as a kind of safety blanket or some kind of lucky charm. In a coaching session recently, my client said to me, ‘if I try to imagine the worst thing that could happen in this situation, what actually happens can’t possibly be as bad.’

‘So if that’s working for you, how come you put it on today’s agenda?’ I asked.

‘Because it isn’t working. I’ve realised that I spend all my time worrying about various futures which might not even happen and not enjoying the present. My family is fed up with seeing me being so negative: my little girl asked me why I always looked sad the other day! I realised I don’t want her to grow up remembering a miserable dad,’ answered Phil (not his real name).

Together we worked through some ideas around how he could be more optimistic. By the end of the session, we had a lot of sticky notes stuck to the walls and a long list of action points. Here are some of the ideas we developed:

Find one positive thing

Just as the glass in that science experiment seemed to be empty but in fact was full of air, many situations will have something good in them, however tiny. Phil has enlisted his children to help with this one – they’re treating it like a game. When their freezer stopped working a couple of weeks ago, his daughter announced ‘well, the good thing is this: now we can have ice lollies for tea!’

Surround yourself with positive people

If you’re trying to give up smoking, hanging around outside the pub with the smokers isn’t going to help you. If you’re trying to move from pessimism to optimism, move away from the pessimists and towards the optimists. Phil named a couple of his friends who have an optimistic outlook and agreed to meet up with them more regularly.

Remember, these don’t even have to be people you know: Twitter is full of such inspiring optimists. I follow @EngagingEmma and @tgcm whose posts brighten up my Twitter feed every day.

Don’t be a victim

I’m a big believer that we shape our own lives by the actions we take and the decisions we make. Phil decided that he would take responsibility to control what he could and influence what he could and try to leave the rest to sort itself out.

Brighten someone else’s day

When you go out of your way to do something good for someone else, there are two positive results: a) you stop worrying about yourself for a bit and b) you make someone else’s day. Phil came up with several simple ways in which he could do this: I’m looking forward to hearing how they worked out.

Remember the good stuff

I recently did the 100happydays challenge. Other people count their blessings. Phil’s decided to add a note on his smartphone each night to remember what went well that day.

Do something fun

Paint your nails different colours. Play frisbee in the park. Sign up to walk dogs for your local dog home. Watch ‘Despicable Me’. Walk barefoot in the grass. Bake a cake. Play your saxophone. Phil drafted his own list: why not draft yours? If you feel down in the dumps one day and don’t know what to do, choose something from your list.

Those are just a few of the ideas we generated in our session: I’m sure you have lots more.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: if you’re a pessimist and would rather be an optimist, what one thing will you do this week to move towards optimism?

What do you think?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, why not email me to see how we could work together?

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