Learning to Be An Optimist

You may naturally be pessimistic, but with practice, you can learn to be more optimistic.

Optimism is an attitude based on the belief that an outcome will be good. The word comes from the Latin word, Optimist and pessimist and optimismoptimum, which means best. An optimist expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Pessimism is the general belief that an outcome will be bad. The pessimist tends to expect the worst outcome in any situation. Its Latin root is pessim, which means bad. We’ve all known optimists and pessimists, and optimists are definitely more pleasant to be around.

There are many advantages to being optimistic. Optimists respond better to stress. Research shows that optimists have lower levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone), and are better able to regulate that hormone when faced with stressful events. Other research has shown that optimists have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. Optimists even seem to recover more quickly from surgery.

Of course, it just makes sense that optimists will tend to be happier and more contented. They see any situation as more hopeful, thus improving motivation and effort. Other factors being equal, optimists tend to be more successful.

There are three key differences between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. They are:

Permanence: Optimistic people tend to see bad events as temporary, and good events as more permanent. They expect that they will bounce back more quickly after a failure. Optimists attribute negative events to specific, temporary causes, while viewing positive events as due to more permanent causes.

Pervasiveness: Pessimistic people see failure in one area of life as a failure in life as a whole. They overgeneralize the negative aspects of their lives, while perceiving positive events as exceptions to the rule or flukes. On the other hand, optimistic people see the negative events of life as the exception to the rule.

Personalization: Optimists blame outside causes for negative events, while perceiving positive events as the result of their hard work or abilities. Pessimists blame themselves for any negative events they experience, and discount their contributions to positive outcomes.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, Ph.D. argued that we can become more optimistic by changing our thinking. His method involves (a) understanding our pessimistic reactions and interpretations to negative events, (b) generating counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or interpretations, (c) catching and stopping our pessimistic thoughts, and (d) reminding ourselves of the benefits of positive expectations. These steps have to be practiced repeatedly over time to be successful.

A complete change from pessimism to optimism would be pretty difficult. But, with deliberate effort, you might be able to improve your thinking enough to make a difference. Try to expect a positive outcome. You just might get it.

The Impact of Shame

Guilt can help us grow, but shame tends to beat us down.

Most everyone experiences shame at times. The only people who never experience shame are psychopaths. Butthe impact of shame that’s because they can’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. The rest of us know the feeling of shame.

First, we need to look at the difference between shame and guilt. Both are considered moral emotions, in that they arise as a result of us doing something we perceive as wrong. Both emotions are painful, and can change our future behaviors.

Guilt is a negative appraisal of a specific behavior. “I did something that I shouldn’t have done (or that hurt someone) and I feel remorse that I did it.” Guilt is a healthy emotion. It motivates us to alter our behaviors and avoid the hurtful actions in the future.

Shame is a negative appraisal of one’s self. The emphasis is not on a specific behavior, but rather, on the core sense of identity. With guilt we think, “I did something bad,” but with shame we think, “I am bad.” We may feel unworthy or defective. When we experience shame, we tend to shut down. Shame doesn’t motivate us to improve our behaviors. Instead, it makes us feel powerless and inadequate. We assume that we are inherently bad, and feel the need to withdraw from others.

While both cause emotional pain, shame creates a deeper hurt, as it attacks our core sense of self. Shame is usually associated with a feeling of shrinking or being small. We feel less than and exposed. Even when no one saw our actions, we imagine how they would react if they did. We imagine an intense social disapproval. We have an urge to hide.

A sensitivity to shame may develop in the early years. While a single event can lead to shame, it usually results from more pervasive negative experiences. Children tend to experience shame when they receive global criticism as a person, rather than feedback that is focused on a specific behavior. Global criticism speaks to the child’s identity or character. Examples include, “You are so clumsy. You do that all the time. and You’re stupid.” The child learns to believe he is defective and inferior as a person. This belief can follow him throughout life.

Parenting that conveys the message that the child is good and worthwhile, but made a mistake, helps insulate that child from shame. The child realizes the wrong behavior, and feels guilty, without the more general conclusion that he is a bad person. The child can correct his behaviors, while maintaining a healthy self-esteem.

So, we need to pay attention to the way we treat others and ourselves. Recognize that mistakes and wrong behaviors do happen with everyone. When addressing them, be specific to the behavior. We need to avoid global critical statements about the person, whether talking to our children, or to ourselves.

On Who We Can Be

Difficult times have a way of making us forget our differences.

As I write this, the people of Houston, and much of south Texas, are beginning a difficult recovery from hurricaneHurricane Harvey helped us forget our differences Harvey. The rest of the country watched as Harvey hit the coast with 132 mph winds and over 50 inches of rain. So far, we know that at least 39 people died, and over one million people were forced to leave their homes. We still don’t know the full impact from this disaster.

In the midst of the tragedy, however, we have also seen the best of humanity. We have seen the many volunteers who left their safe, dry homes to help total strangers. Many people used their personal boats to rescue those stranded by the flood waters. One man had no boat, so he bought one, just so he could help. Others waded on foot through the waist-deep waters to carry people and pets to safety. Many others volunteered at shelters to provide a dry bed and warm food to the rescued.

There was the incident where volunteers formed a human chain to rescue a woman in labor and her husband from rising waters. Another human chain was used to rescue an elderly man from his car. A furniture store owner turned his stores into shelters for the homeless. One woman died to save her baby from the waters. A news station tweeted, “Harvey has taken a lot, but it will NEVER take away our humanity.”

Of course, Harvey isn’t the only example of people demonstrating their best selves in the midst of tragedy. We have seen it many times in America and around the world. Such times tend to bring out the best in us. We forget our differences. There are no Democrats or Republicans, no whites, blacks or Hispanics. No one asks whether the victim is an immigrant or a native. No one questions her religious beliefs. In these times, we just see caring humans reaching out to hurting humans.

This unification of spirit was especially poignant this week, given the current divisions in our country. I can’t recall a time where our people have been so polarized; liberals versus conservatives, alt-right versus alt-left, pro-Trump versus anti-Trump. We see politics dividing neighbors, even family members.

So, as tragic as Harvey was, a small silver lining appeared behind those ominous hurricane clouds. We saw an example of what we can be. We saw evidence that our similarities far outweigh our differences. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could remember this without the pain of a disaster?

The Power of Vulnerability

In our most important relationships, the ability to be vulnerable can make a world of difference.

We usually work very hard to hide it. We present the image that we have it all together, that we are in control. Wesocial media want to appear strong. We are afraid of vulnerability.

Of course, this makes sense. Being vulnerable means that we take off our emotional armor, that we let down our defenses and that we can be more easily hurt. Sometimes, this is wise. There are hurtful people out there. There are some people we shouldn’t trust.

The problem is that we also tend to avoid vulnerability in our most important personal relationships. When our loved ones hurt us, we become defensive and try to protect ourselves. We don’t consciously decide to do this. It’s a knee-jerk response.

There are two ways that we avoid vulnerability. We become angry or we withdraw. When we’re angry, we are not vulnerable. We are protecting ourselves or defending our position. Our words, facial expressions and body language tells the other person to back off.

The second way to avoid vulnerability is to withdraw. We can withdraw physically by staying away from the other person altogether, spending time away from home or just going into a different room. We can also withdraw emotionally, where we remain physically present, but emotionally disconnect. We can just not talk, or say as little as possible. Either way, we avoid being vulnerable.

Unfortunately, our attempts to avoid vulnerability wounds the relationship. When we are angry, the other person feels attacked, judged or disapproved of. When we withdraw, the other person feels that we don’t care. They respond to their hurt by withdrawing or acting angry, thus forming a negative vicious cycle. Over time, the relationship can be destroyed.

So, what happens when we deliberately make ourselves vulnerable to the loved one? When we express hurt, rather than anger or withdrawal, we get a totally different response. Think about it. When your loved one shares that you hurt them, without anger or withdrawal, your automatic response is to reach out to them and make them feel better. You want to make it right. This would most likely be their response to your hurt as well.

We tend to associate vulnerability with weakness. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes strength to take off your armor, and allow the other person to see your heart. It goes against our instincts. But, it’s the only way we can truly heal relationship wounds and establish emotional intimacy.

So, when your spouse or loved one hurts you, you have a choice. You can react with anger or withdrawal or you can make a deliberate effort to express your hurt. I think you will find that your partner’s reactions are quite different when you do so.

Small But Significant Gestures

You never know the difference that a small gesture may make.

You never know the impact that you may have on another person. An action that seems inconsequential to you maysmall gestures can make a difference have great meaning for another. Years ago, a retired college professor shared this story with me.

The professor said that she was working her office on the day before spring graduation. A young African-American student knocked on the door and asked to come in. She said that she was graduating the next day and just want to thank the professor. The teacher was a bit confused, then admitted to the student that she couldn’t remember having her in any of her classes. The student said she hadn’t taken any of her classes. The professor admitted that now she was really confused, and asked her why she wanted to thank her.

Now, this was a time soon after desegregation. The student explained that four years earlier, she was one of the first African-American students to enroll in that university. She said that she received many verbal and unspoken messages that she was not welcomed there. The feelings of rejection built until she could take no more. She finally made the decision to resign from the university the next day and go home.

On her last day of classes, she passed this professor in the hall, and the professor smiled. The student noticed the smile and recalled that she had seen that smile every time she passed this professor. She realized that this was one person who did want her at this university.

She didn’t quit the next day. She began to look for those who seemed to want her there, rather than focusing on those who didn’t. Over time, she realized that there were many who were welcoming, but the negative ones just stood out.

She finished her story by pointing out that she didn’t quit, and that she was graduating the next day. She just wanted to thank the professor for a small, but significant gesture.

Most of the time, people don’t make the effort to acknowledge a meaningful gesture, as this student did. We may never know the impact we have had on another person. Never underestimate the power of a kind gesture.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 4)

It's easier to be cruel when you're hiding behind a computer screen.

This is the fourth and final article on the potential negative effects of social media. In this series, we have discussed cyberbullyinghow too much dependence on social media can impair a child’s ability to read face-to-face social cues, how electronic communication can lead to hurtful miscommunication, and how we can be impacted by the Facebook delusion. Today, we will explore social media bullying.

Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses social media in an aggressive, demeaning or harassing manner. The bullying can include critical comments, spreading rumors or threatening statements. Like other forms of bullying, it can create depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, social isolation and even suicide. Cyberbullying Hotline reports that 42% of teenagers with social media access report experiencing cyberbullying over the past year. They reported that 20% of cyberbullied kids have considered suicide because of the bullying, and 1 in 10 attempted it.

Unfortunately, bullying has always been a common experience of childhood and adolescence. The negative impact of bullying has always been tremendous. Social media, however, has added another element to the problem.

The fact that social media communication occurs without face-to-face contact makes bullying easier. The Cyberbullying Hotline survey indicated that 81% of teenagers say that bullying online is easier to get away with. Kids and adults will often say things online that they would never say face-to-face.

Throughout history, aggressors have dehumanized their victims, ignoring their individualization or common humanity. They conditioned themselves, or were taught, to perceive their enemy as less than human, making it easier to take away their basic human rights, including life itself. One example of this was the dehumanization of the Jews by the Nazis.

Social media accomplishes the same thing by eliminating face-to-face contact. You don’t have to look at the face of your victim when you bully them. You don’t have to see the hurt in their eyes. It’s a little like putting a hood on your victim before you execute them. You feel less restraint, guilt or remorse.

Cyberbullying can be quite vicious and devastating to its victims. There are sites where a teenager can upload her photo for feedback. The comments are more often critical and cruel than complementary or supportive. There are also many examples of teenagers actually urging another teen to commit suicide, saying the world would be better off without them. Unfortunately, they sometimes listen to the advice.

Of all the dangers of social media, cyberbullying is the worst. Parents need to monitor social media use of their children and adolescents, as best they can. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if they have been bullied online, and how it impacted them. Try to establish an open line of communication, where they will be more likely to talk to you about abuse. Don’t underestimate the dangers of social media.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 3)

Social media can help us connect with friends and loved ones, but beware of the Facebook Delusion.

This is the third article in a series on the dangers of social media. In the first two articles, we looked at how a dependence on electronic communications can impair out ability to read social cues and how it can createsocial media miscommunication. Today, I want to address what I call the Facebook delusion.

Human beings have always tended to compare themselves with other human beings. Whether we like it or not, we measure ourselves by those around us. We compare our possessions, our relationships and our life circumstances with others. Unfortunately, these comparisons often impact our moods and our perceptions of life.

The problem with this is that many Facebook users have exceptional, extraordinary, wonderful lives. At least it seems that way. People post photos of their amazing vacations, exceptionally loving spouses and general good fortune. And of course, all their children are well above average.

Far too many people read these posts and conclude that their lives are sadly deficient. Their reactions may be jealousy, anger, depression or lowered self-esteem. They wonder why their circumstances can’t be so good. They question what they have done wrong.

In the days prior to social media, a similar phenomenon occurred at Christmas. People would drive by houses decorated for Christmas, and imagine that Perry Como was roasting chestnuts in their fireplace. This was one of many factors that increased the incidence of holiday depression. holidays.

The perception wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Such comparisons are false. We all have lives filled with good and bad. It rains on everyone’s parade at times. Your friends on Facebook are just celebrating their good times. It doesn’t mean they don’t have hardships just like you.

Of course, there are also many positive aspects of social media. Facebook allows us to connect with family and friends. Other social media like Skype and Google Hangouts give us video calls so we can see loved ones while talking with them. Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram provide instant connection. We can share life events with those we love. We can feel a bit closer to those who live far away.

So, when you are tempted to compare your life to the posts on social media, remember the Facebook delusion. Remind yourself that your friends experience good and bad times just like you. Congratulate your friends on their good times, support them in their bad times, and enjoy the ability to connect.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 2)

The lack of non-verbal cues in text conversations can lead to miscommunications.

Last week, I wrote about the concern that too much electronic communication can impair the development of normal social skills. When children primarily connect via social media, they have fewer opportunities to read non-verbalsocial media miscommunications behaviors. Today, we’ll look at another danger of a too much electronic communication.

In my psychotherapy practice, I have seen many relationship difficulties created by social media miscommunication. Some have experienced unnecessary texting conflicts. Others have suffered the worsening of an existing conflict, or a relationship ending entirely.

Texting conversations lack the non-verbal cues that clarify communications. Even in face-to-face conversations, we tend to assume other’s thoughts or intentions. We all do mind-reading, where we assume how others feel or think. This tendency is compounded when our only information is the written word.

Facial expressions, tone of voice or vocal inflection can totally change the meaning or a message. For example, take the phrase, “I don’t understand what you mean.” These words could be a simple request for clarification or a confrontation. Non-verbal communications can clarify the difference. When texting, you are forced to imagine the tone or the facial expression of the person typing the words.

So, let’s imagine how this could go badly. You are texting a friend about an emotionally sensitive issue. They make a statement that is unclear to you. You want clarification, so you text, “I don’t understand what you mean.” The other person imagines that you are disapproving of, or challenging their opinion. They become defensive and respond, “I think I have a right to my opinion.” Now, you become defensive and either respond with a critical statement or don’t respond at all. The interchange ends with both people feeling irritated with the other. It didn’t have to end that way.

If the same conversation had occurred face-to-face, your softer facial expression and tone of voice would have likely clarified that you were simply uncertain about what they meant. They would have elaborated and the relationship may have been strengthened.

For better or worse, social media is here to stay. It has many benefits, but it also has dangers. While enjoying its benefits, we need to be aware of its deficits. Give yourself the opportunity to enjoy face-to-face communications. Your relationships will benefit from it.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 1)

We lose something when our communication becomes limited to social media.

This weekend, my wife and I were at a restaurant. A family of three were at a nearby table; a mom, dad and a cute little girl about age seven. Our attention was drawn to the fact that the parents were deeply engrossed in their social mediaindividual cell phones. Their eyes were glued to their phones, with their thumbs rapidly texting. The little girl sat silently staring into space.

After about ten minutes of this, the little girl began to talk to herself. Neither parent noticed. She then slid toward father and leaned on his shoulder to view his phone, obviously trying to get his attention. Thankfully, the parents did put their phones away when the food came, and seemed to engage with each other as they ate.

On another day, I saw a family that seemed to consist of a grandfather, two parents and two teenage daughters. Everyone except the grandfather was similarly engrossed in a cell phone. The grandfather sat silently and stared into space.

I don’t describe these scenes to criticize the families. I don’t know these people, and they may generally engage with each other quite well. I describe these events because they are all too common. I believe we have all seen similar scenes where people are physically present with each other, but give all their attention to their phones. It’s an all too common scene.

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect” notes that human beings are highly attuned to reading social cues, and that kids addicted to electronic communications are missing out on the opportunity to learn very critical social skills. Today, it seems that teenagers are learning to communicate by looking at a screen rather than another person. When children grow up with decreased opportunities to read social cues, they may suffer in their ability to do so.

Social media was touted as a mechanism for increased connection. In many ways, the opposite has occurred. With so much time being devoted to electronic material, we have little time for face-to-face conversations. We miss so much, and we don’t even realize it is happening.

Consider taking a break from social media, turning it off and unplugging. Sit down for a genuine, face-to-face conversation with a friend or family member. Look into their eyes as you talk to them. Really listen, as they speak. I think you’ll like it. True connection is hard to beat.

The Power of Setting Goals

You can get more done when you set and follow clear, written goals.

Most of us have things we would like to improve about our lives. We think about changes that could make us happier or more comfortable. Unfortunately, our wishes or dreams don’t seem to be enough to change our reality.Proper goal setting can bring success.

So, what can we do to turn those dreams into reality? How can we most effectively improve our lives? The answer is deceptively simple. We get more done, create positive change, and realize more of our dreams when we start with written, specific, and measurable goals.

In “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School,” Mark McCormack relates a study in 1979, where graduating students were asked whether they had set clear, written goals for their future, and made plans to accomplish them. Only 3% of the students had written goals and plans, 13% said they had goals, but not in writing, and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the 13%, who said they had unwritten goals, were making twice as much as the 84% who had no goals, while the 3% with written goals were making ten times as much. Other studies have shown that people who set specific, written goals accomplish much more than those who don’t.

But, it’s not quite so simple. Here are a few guidelines if you want to tap into the power of goal-setting to improve your life.

  1. Your goals need to be specific. A goal of “I want to lose weight” is too vague. A specific goal like, “I want to lose 25 lbs.” is much better. The subconscious mind seems to connect to a specific number or amount, in a way that charges our motivation and determination.
  2. You need a deadline. You will be much more motivated by a goal of “I will clean out the closet by 5:00 Saturday,” than you will the goal “I will clean out the closet.” Try to make it a reasonable deadline, but set one.
  3. Make the goal measurable. This may be accomplished by making the goal specific, but it may not. There needs to be no question whether you met the goal. Anyone should be able to tell whether you succeeded.
  4. Determine a strategy to meet the goal. Make a plan. How do you plan to accomplish the goal? What are the intermediate steps you will have to take?
  5. Post the goal where you will see it. To be successful, you will need to be reminded of the goal. This is the reason they invented refrigerator magnets.
  6. Tell a supportive, encouraging friend. Having an accountability partner can really help. They may be aggravating, but nonetheless helpful.

Give it a try. You have nothing to lose. See if goal-setting can work for you in changing your life for the better.