In my last post, I talked about the power and importance of optimistic thinking. I’d mentioned not to mistake realism with pessimism. I wanted to build upon that idea in this post.
Does this type of thought sound familiar? “I’m not going to get too excited about getting a raise because if I don’t get it I won’t be disappointed.” In my work with clients, I see this all the time. I’ve certainly had those thoughts myself. We tell ourselves we’re just being realistic, when in fact we are only considering the negative outcome.
The problem is, these thoughts aren’t actually realistic. Realistic thinking considers multiple possible outcomes, including ones we would prefer. Only considering the least desirable result isn’t realistic, it’s just negative. Don’t confuse realistic thinking with negative thinking.
Realistic thinking is based in the likelihood that something could happen – positive, negative, or neutral. Focusing exclusively on negative consequences is only partially realistic. Considering only overly positive outcomes is not realistic thinking either. Being realistic is about considering both types of results.
Negative thinking often leads to:
When we’re only thinking about how something could end badly, we feel more stress and less hopefulness. Long-time patterns of this can have more severe consequences like difficulty sleeping, irritability, less motivation, and even feelings of depression.
LOWER LEVELS OF SATISFACTION AND INCREASED FEELINGS OF INSECURITY
When we only tend to consider poor outcomes, we’re more likely to feel powerless and use negative coping skills like withdrawal, anger, even substance abuse.
DAMAGING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHERS
We tend to expect the worst from people. That is especially problematic in our close relationships. At best, others will grow impatient with us when we’re less likely to be consolable. At worst, when we have negative expectations of others, they will feel untrusted and rejected.
Withholding hope or positive thoughts doesn’t actually help us avoid disappointment. Think about a time you were expecting bad news. Were you telling yourself it was coming? When you got the news did you feel good about it or did you still feel disappointed? Expecting bad news doesn’t lead us to feel less disappointed when we receive it, nor does withholding positive thoughts lead us to feel more thankful when we receive good news.
How about this – imagine telling a friend they should think negatively about a challenging situation. Suggest they abandon any hope. Offer discouragement instead so they can avoid too much disappointment. Would you do that? Probably not. You might even feel frustrated by their negative attitude! Instead, you would probably try to encourage them in some way. If you heard them thinking pessimistically, you’re likely to help them find hope in their situation. Why not treat yourself the same way? If it’s an effective and helpful approach for someone you care about, why isn’t it good for you too?
The alternative is to think optimistically. Optimistic thinking is not “positive thinking,” it’s accurate thinking. It considers all possible outcomes. It takes just as much energy to think optimistically as it does pessimistically, but without the accompanying stress and unnecessary negativity.
Thinking optimistically helps us think more creatively and we’re more likely to find solutions to problems. When we’re not limited to thinking about the worst-case scenario, we feel more hopeful. Having hope is not unrealistic. It is also not a guarantee that only good things will happen. Research has shown that true realistic thinking (read optimism) not only increases hopefulness, but also decreases negative coping skills, depression, and even suicidal thinking.
So next time you’re telling yourself “I’m just being realistic,” ask yourself – are you? Or are you only considering the negative outcomes, thinking you’ll save yourself disappointment? If that is the case, you are actually being unrealistic. Optimistic thinking doesn’t guarantee good things will happen. Thoughts don’t have that kind of power. It does however, help decrease stress, increase feelings of security, communicates trust in others, and increases your sense of empowerment. Remember to think realistically by thinking accurately, not negatively.