Learning To Be An Optimistic Parent
I was touched by all the responses to my post on pessimism, and inspired to find a better way. I promised I would report back if I did. So I went and bought yet another e-book – “The Optimistic Child” by Martin Seligman. (Amazon’s coffers are overflowing from my purchases, I can tell you!) And, upon reading about how to teach children to think like an optimist, I have been teaching myself to do the same. Because I strongly believe that children learn primarily by example. How can I model a healthy outlook on life to my children? How can I teach them better ways to look at the world and approach the inevitable daily bumps of life?
The first thing I learned was that optimism isn’t what I thought it was. It actually means believing that bad events happen because of temporary, local causes and good events from permanent, global causes. Optimism does not mean letting yourself off the hook for a mistake you’ve made; it identifies the specific cause of the mistake. For example, this is the internal dialogue that usually happens after I yell at my children:
“I feel so awful for yelling. I’m such bad mother (believing in a global cause, not a temporary cause). Now my child will be traumatised forever and will be depressed and anxious as an adult (catastrophising). All because of me! Why can’t I ever control my temper? I’m an awful person and I’m so depressed. Did I mention I’m a really bad mother?”
The optimistic parent in me could say instead:
“I feel awful about yelling. I was tired and lost my temper. I shouldn’t have done that (Not shirking responsibility). I need to apologise to my child and explain that I shouldn’t have yelled at her (Making it right). It hurt her feelings and she’s upset now. It was probably very scary for a little child to be yelled at (Understanding the accurate consequence of my behaviour). What’s happening with me right now? Why did I yell? Oh yes. I’m tired right now, and hungry, and she was dawdling on the way out of daycare. I gave her a warning but I guess she is only four after all! I need to get us fed and we’ll all feel better after a warm shower and a cuddle. I should get more sleep tonight so this doesn’t happen again. I think I also need to go for a run because I’m been a bit irritable today”.
As you can see, responding to my pessimism extends to many different parts of my life. My clinical work. (“I’m a terrible GP”). My PhD. (“I’m a hopeless student”.) The house. (“I suck at this housekeeping stuff”.) Even being a friend (“I’m a terrible friend”). The pervasive, global words are never, always, I am. I have been aware of the voice in my head for some years now but have only just begun to pick my thoughts apart.
I have only read half the book so I’m afraid I’m giving you only half, or perhaps just a few pieces, of the puzzle. And I am no psychologist so forgive me if I get some of this wrong. But so far I’ve found those simple concepts really helpful in my day-to-day life. I’m learning to challenge my overwhelmingly negative thoughts. For example, my habit of repeating to myself “I’m so exhausted all the time”. I’m changing this to “I’m feeling exhausted today” or “Lately I’ve been feeling exhausted”. It’s a more accurate representation of what is going on in my life, because I am certainly NOT exhausted ALL the time and it’s unhelpful to repeat that to myself. On the other hand, I’m not telling myself “I feel really energetic!” when I don’t feel that is true. I’m also challenging those “I’m a bad mother” moments. I know these happen to lots of mums and it can be crippling. Instead of thinking I’m a terrible mother, I am localising the problem (“I yelled at my daughter today”) and countering my pervasive bad-motherness by remembering the ways I am actually NOT a bad mother. Sometimes just the act of acknowledging this changes my mood immediately.
I am also attempting optimism in the ways I think about other people. You know, the damaging ways I apply pervasiveness to the behaviours of others, forgetting the good, the sunny, the wonderful parts of their personality. “He always infuriates me!” “She is ALWAYS whining”. “He never gives me a break!” Those sorts of really unhelpful, toxic thoughts. I change them to “He is annoying me today!” or “Gosh she is being really whiney right now!” Again, I feel immediately better because these are accurate representations of what is going on and I’m not discounting how I am feeling at this present moment, but I’m able to move beyond this temporary behaviour.
A strange thing has happened – I am enjoying my children a lot more. I have to confess that for a while I wasn’t really enjoying their company very much. Perhaps I was too stuck in my ways of pessimistic thinking. Who knows. But since making these simple changes to my thoughts, I have really sincerely enjoyed being with them, just playing, laughing, cuddling, watching them run around. I feel like I’ve been given a really great gift – actually enjoying being a parent again.
I’m continuing to read the book, notice the way I think, and practise changing it. I still have anxiety when I think about the future and all the things that might go wrong. I’m working on it though. Right now I’m focussing on dealing with each day as it comes – each and every day with its loveliness, its warmth, and its hope. It’s like I’m ready to catch these fleeting seconds of joy as they bob past me like bubbles or float past like feathers in the breeze. Some days I’m really good at this. Other days or moments, not so. But if I can teach my children how to do this too, or how not to stop doing this as they become buffed and polished by the realities of life, I will lie on my deathbed a very very happy woman.