For most of us the answer is a bit of hybrid – we can move between both, which is quite natural because science teaches us that where traditionally, we have seen them as being two ends of a linear scale, the reality is that they are two independent states that can operate independently of each other.
Optimism tends to be seen as the favoured state since it helps put us in a positive frame of mind which is helpful when solving problems, allowing us to look for a positive spin. It also has health benefits, at both a physical and emotional level.
However, it’s not without its downsides. Whilst we always want to aim for a positive outcome – this is not always possible and blind optimism can hide the potential consequences of a decision if it goes wrong. It also allows us to overestimate the upside of events, and overlook the true costs, allowing us to make inappropriate decisions. On balance the jury is still firmly in favour of optimise as a desired state and hence developing optimistic traits, tempered with some realism is a good thing.
Pessimism brings worst case scenarios to our attention, which can lead to a deafest mindset. Why try when we are likely to fail anyway? This can lead to giving in too soon and focusing on the problem rather than looking for a way around it. It also can create a tendency to wallow in a negative outcome, rather than looking for the good that may be hidden within – something that an optimist might spot.
On the other hand, it can help you to make sure you are properly prepared for the setbacks and challenges you can face when working towards an outcome – encouraging you to put in the hard work rather than relying on a lucky chance outcome to help you out. In can also help you to emotionally cope with setbacks, since if something goes wrong you don’t have as far to fall in terms of your expectations.
So there are pros and cons on both sides, and understanding this helps us to think about steps we can take to offset some of the negatives and make the most of our typical style, whilst moving us in the direction of a positive realistic state.
Before we consider the steps, let’s do a quick test to see which is your dominant style.
Answer each of the following questions honestly, with a simple YES or NO answer.
- When things go wrong do you blame yourself first?
- Would you describe yourself as having an “all or nothing” mindset?
- When problems occur do you have a tendency to look for the worst that could happen and use catastrophic language?
- Would you describe yourself as a bit of a perfectionist?
- When someone compliments you do you find it difficult to accept it as genuine or accurate?
- Before taking action, do you seek the opinion of others or look for reviews to back up your choices?
- When confronting issues do you have a tendency to over-generalize?
- Do you sweat the small stuff?
- Do you overlook your successes as just being normal behaviours?
- When unexpected, good events happen do you look for the catch?
- Are you the sort of person who rarely wins when luck is a factor?
- If you believe success is unlikely do you believe there is no point taking part?
If you answered “yes” to seven or more of these questions you have a more pessimistic leaning. If you answered yes to less than 5, you are more optimistic. If you answered yes to 5 or 6 you are balanced.
Acting on your results
If your dominant style is that of an optimist, this is generally seen as a good thing, however there are some things to consider, to help negate some of the potential downsides of a too optimistic style
Optimists tend to believe they are less likely to experience negative events or bad luck than those around them ‘this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me’. This can lead to them not assessing risks properly or putting in place contingency plans for the unexpected and
unwelcome. If this then results in significant adversity this can knock an optimist into more pessimistic thinking, making it harder to pull out of the adverse situation, since they have fallen a long way.
Optimists also tend to believe they have more control over the outcomes than they really have, leading to a feeling of deflation when things don’t turn out as expected, due to unforeseen circumstances. It can lead to poor planning where steps or details are missed.
Optimists can also suffer from a feeling of superiority to those around them – which can lead to them not putting in the effort required to achieve the results they want. It can also lead to them making unrealistic plans, rather than using a building block approach to achieving goals and outcomes. There is no substitute for hard work and following a well structured approach to goal attainment that allows progress to build in incremental steps.
Optimists can also lack empathy with others who are experiencing hard times. Because their focus is on possibilities and positives, they can fail to acknowledge others around them who are doing it tough.
Pessimists, because they can foresee the downsides to a situation, they can give up before putting in the required effort. Sometimes in order to get a result you have to fully commit and go all in. Yes, if it fails it will hurt, but if you don’t fully commit, the chance of failure is also higher. Pessimists can give in earlier because they are less likely than optimists to believe in their own capability. When you go all in, you will often surprise yourself with just how capable you really are.
Pessimists tend to focus on the problem rather than the solution. They focus on what is not working in a situation and justify it. The solution doesn’t lie with what is not working, hence they need to shift their mindset and reframe the situation, turning their focus to what is working so that they can try to replicate and enhance this. If we focus on an obstacle or problem, we will naturally gravitate towards it. Instead we must focus on the gap – this is what we need to aim for to get round the issue.
Pessimists often miss the silver lining in a situation. Success often doesn’t come on a plate, well presented and easily visible. A diamond in the rough looks like any other rough stone. Because pessimists can use more black and white or catastrophic language, they can create an image of the problem that is much bigger than it really is. It’s hard to do at first but when we are faced with adversity, use the emotion this generates to drive a search for what good can come of it – what is hidden in the adversity that could be turned into a positive. If we challenge the language we use and tone down the catastrophising, or black and white nature, we can help create a more realistic and empowering view of the situation at hand. Life is littered with initial failures which have been turned into much greater successes.
All of these potential downsides, along with the solutions we have discussed are covered in my new book Ten Minute Tactics©, which will be launching soon. Register your interest here and we will keep you informed of the launch schedule and keep you up to date on further developments, and no SPAM – that’s a promise!
Don’t stress about the category you find yourself in – this is part of who you are and the settings you have chosen to adopt. These settings are adjustable by you, allowing you to turn up your strengths and turn down the weaknesses.