Coming To Terms With Pessimism; or Making The Glass Half Full

Is the glass half full or half empty?  By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Is the glass half full or half empty?
By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have always been a pessimist. I was optimistic in hoping that this wasn’t true, but completing the Optimism Test by Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” has confirmed it. According to my results, I have a pattern of believing that bad events are pervasive and universal, and good events are due to specific reasons. Basically, if something bad happens, it’s all my fault and I feel terrible about it (I’m a stupid person/forgetful/uncaring etc). If something good happens, it was a fluke, I was very lucky, someone was willing to give me a chance. Apparently I also score fairly low on “hope” which made me feel, well, hopeless for a while. But now it’s out there I want to know what to do about it.

I didn’t know I had Impostor Syndrome until I realised I was catastrophising excessively (is there such a thing?) I realised this some years ago when I received a phone call from the College of GPs. Someone rang and left a message for me to call them back. Immediately I thought of all the things that might have gone wrong. I had forgotten something. Maybe I had forgotten to pay my annual subscription. Maybe I pissed someone off. Maybe someone made a complaint about me. Maybe they were going to take away my Fellowship! With a trembling hand, I dialled the number on the message and waited to hear my fate.

The lady who answered sounded chirpy. Would I be free on such and such a date? They were organising an awards ceremony. I had received a coveted research award, to the value of $20,000. I almost fell off my chair.

I can’t say that that realisation had changed my outlook much though. Over the years, I have continued to think the worst whenever faced with a similar situation. Letters in the mail are catastrophised to mean I had forgotten to pay a bill. Emails mean I have done something wrong. Messages from the clinic are about patient complaints (they rarely are, but I still I have the fear). This is despite muddling through a Masters degree, getting an enormous grant for my research, and a prestigious scholarship from the NHMRC. Despite all this, I can be reduced to feeling stupid, unprofessional, sloppy, lazy, hopeless and worthless if something goes wrong, or even if nothing goes wrong. Any little (or big) successes I’ve had can be wiped out in my mind by the smallest of errors. I rarely excuse myself to say I’m tired, haven’t had enough sleep, have too much on my plate, etc. It’s not part of my psyche to do this – I feel as though I am excusing my innate “badness”, as though I’m trying to talk my way out of it. It feels false and wrong. Even if someone praises me in public, I get embarrassed and talk down my achievements.

And of course, this becomes even more florid as a parent. Each little bump along the journey of raising children is interpreted as my fault. Kids sick again? It’s not daycare, or the normal winter bugs. It’s because there is something I’m doing wrong, obviously – I’m feeding them too much processed food, not exposing them to enough sunshine; in other words it’s because I’m a bad mother. A very pervasive, universal thought.

Being a pessimist has its advantages. It drives me to check everything, work extremely hard, never assume I’ve done a good enough job. But usually this is done with its fair share of nervousness. I’ve made a commitment to change though. Not so much for myself, as I’ve managed quite well for the past four decades despite my hopeless outlook. But I want my children to learn to be optimistic. I can’t bear the thought of them going through what I do. Not that I don’t want them to take responsibility for themselves, but I want them to believe strongly in their successes and move on from adversity and mistakes. I want my children to grow up believing that good things happen for pervasive and universal reasons, and bad things happen for specific and changeable reasons. If I can teach myself a little of this, I can then teach them. And that is my hope. :)

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