You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can choose how to react to — and how you’ll feel about — your circumstances. Here’s how to use the magic of optimism to create a positive future for yourself.
This article is about being optimistic about your own life with regard to those issues that are within your control, namely your attitudes about circumstances, your choices, and your behaviors. That’s a lot!
Being blindly optimistic about circumstances that are beyond your control will certainly create conditions for experiencing disappointments. But for those many conditions that are within your control, you’ll find that optimism works very well for you.
Optimism Is Learned
Optimism is magic because it pays off and feeds on itself, begetting more optimism. An example of this circularity is: you feel good about life because you feel good about yourself, and you feel good about yourself because you feel good about life. It is like a two-cycle reciprocating engine, and choosing positive attitudes is your fuel. For example, believing that life is good and that you have many opportunities sets up the condition for taking responsibility to create desirable outcomes that result from your positive action. Your view of the world is validated because you look for good everywhere, are open to it, willing to work to make it happen, and find delight in it each time you prove yourself right.
We learn our life-explanatory style according to what pays the greatest dividends. When you were growing up, if you were rewarded with lots of admiration and praise and received status from your family and your friends when you behaved in a cynical or skeptical manner, your behavior and your attitudes were shaped by those reinforcing payoffs. Likewise if you were given lots of admiration, praise, and status when you were positive and hopeful, these optimistic behaviors and attitudes are probably still with you today.
Belief Systems Are Self-Generating
Belief systems are like the four seasons, where each season prepares the ground and conditions for the next. There’s a built-in interdependency to the cycle.
If your family and friendship support network has reinforced your skepticism or negativism, you’ll have to work hard to build faith and confidence in yourself and in your world. If you find yourself with a lot of negative self-talk, you’ll need to counter your negativity with affirmations in order to change your belief system. For example:
If you have been discouraged rather than encouraged, how do you regain faith and build confidence? How do you rebuild that hope inside that has been crushed and buried, covered over with doubt and cynicism? Most adults have experienced some disappointments and failures along the way. We’re told that these are good lessons for dealing with the realities of the world.
To be optimistic and idealistic is often considered to be naive by adults who are jaded by their own disappointments. These are people who have long since given up their own sense of hope, and they don’t like to see it in others. Many men in particular have surrounded themselves with armor to protect themselves from anyone who would put them down for their optimism and idealism. But it’s important to consider the source of such criticism, and to realize that those who judge you are really saying more about themselves than they are about you. If you empower them by believing them, you’re at anchor in their harbor of limitations.
Ten Steps to Harness Optimism
The following ten steps will be a guide for you to build your optimism and to restore your faith and confidence in yourself and in your world of experience.
Examine Your Belief System
Tunnel vision, or rigid and absolute thinking, will close out your options and increase your chances for “psycho-sclerosis” or “hardening of the categories.”
Change will require you to entertain new ideas and divergent thinking. It will require you to be experimental as you weigh and try out your options. It will require you to look within. Change is never easy. Patterns of behavior are difficult to repattern, but change is possible if you’re willing to believe it and willing to try it.
The sidebar, “Polarized Viewpoints,” (below) provides you with an opportunity to see yourself on a variety of levels. We all fall somewhere between the poles of these perspectives of our world as we experience it. Where you are on these optimism vs. pessimism issues will affect your attitudes about recovery and well-being. A pessimistic person will expect the outcome to be negative in order to fulfill his or her prediction that things will turn out badly. The optimist, on the other hand, doesn’t expect any outcome that isn’t to his or her advantage.
You wouldn’t be reading this article and trying to recover from your loss if you had not already decided that you want to take advantage of your optimism and faith in yourself, even if that hope is just a glimmer at this point. Admit that you do hope that your life will work out for you very well indeed. Admitting it will help make it happen.
Take Responsibility to Choose
While I was single, I knew that I wanted to be in a committed, intimate, and spiritually bonded relationship. I knew that I’d look for that and be open to it. I also knew that while luck might enter in, a large part of what I get in my life experience is what I plan and take responsibility for creating.
Making clear these judgments of what I really wanted put them in focus for me. The following is a journal entry four months after my partner, Sally, left me. “When I wake up in the morning, I have choices. Ultimately I am free to choose to be happy or to be sad. Happiness feels better! My goal is happiness, which is to get what I want, or can imagine I want, without interfering with the rights of others.”
Looking back on this journal entry, I see how holding that positive sense of freedom of choice helped me to get on with my life. Every morning, you have considerable influence on how that day will go for you by the way you choose to view your circumstances and your options. You must be willing to own and claim those value judgments that define life the way you’d like it to be.
Believe What You Want is Possible
Following the recovery path may require you to change your belief system. Before you can know what you really want, you must examine what you believe is possible. You need to believe that you’re going to be well and happy; that you’ll be fine. Own this feeling and honor the belief that it’s possible.
There may be unexplored negative feelings you have about your self-worth. If there is a destructive voice within you that says: “You don’t deserve to be happy in a love relationship,” you need to examine where this voice is coming from. Ultimately, you’ll have to counter that negative message with a positive rebuttal: “Yes, I can have happiness in a love relationship, and I deserve it.”
Our belief systems are shaped by our family and cultural architects who draw our boundaries. They make us feel safe and tell us who we are. When we challenge our beliefs, we threaten the very fundamental view we hold of ourselves: where we stand, how we are known, and how we define ourselves in the world. Challenging your long-held belief systems will not be easy.
There’s an internal sense that says we should be true to ourselves and all the beliefs we hold. Anything less than fidelity to ourselves is seen as a very fundamental betrayal.
At the same time, there’s an intuitive voice in you that says: “The old ways are not working.” A new emerging voice is saying: “I need to change some things about myself. I can alter my attitudes and my behavior if I choose to.” Then there’s a forceful voice in you that says: “I can grow — not just survive.” You’ll need to be disciplined in practicing these affirmations because any protective armor you carry will fend off the threat of change. For men, this armor may be quite thick for defending against feelings.
Get an Image of What You Want
We all have the ability to visualize ourselves in time and space. For example, you can easily get a picture of yourself having breakfast this morning. You can also look ahead and see yourself in an activity next summer.
These images, which sometimes flow as daydreams, are the stuff from which our psychic energy goes forward. We begin to get pictures of what we would like. Here is another journal entry. “I must first imagine that much is possible. As I get a picture of what I want, I begin to see the steps it will take to get me there.”
As we daydream, we get ideas and gather images; we begin to form goals and build a coherent and believable picture of the way we want our lives to be.
The images we hold will tend to be fulfilled unconsciously because we will intuitively behave in ways to act out what we see on our unconscious screen. If we see blaming and anger, we will project these onto all our experiences, and tend to dwell on them. If we project light, love, power, and joy, then this is what we’ll plant and what we’ll reap. Those who won’t let themselves imagine or believe there can be a better way probably won’t see opportunity when it presents itself.
Chase Out Fear and Doubt
To adopt a pessimistic view of your world is to limit the range of your possibilities. If you’re full of skepticism, you’re essentially telling yourself: “It will never work! Stop exploring and trying. Don’t dream of anything better.”
Our culture gives us clichés to let ourselves off the hook. For example, we learn to say: “I’m doing the best I can,” and “Nothing can be done,” or “What will be, will be.” We don’t have to try: we can choose to remain helpless and to suffer the disappointment that we expect. Consider the examples of how you put yourself down listed in the box “Some Ways We Program Negativity”, and write your own unique self-put-downs in your journal.
Noticing these negative or cynical attitudes in yourself will help you begin to screen out that which is self-defeating. If you predict failure, you build a prophecy that is self-fulfilled. Here are some examples of how you can chase out negative self talk.
When we give value to a particular belief, we’re in effect programming our minds, just as surely as we can program computers. If I tell my brain computer that “I’m okay,” then my behavior (print out) will be okay. This is the same reason that placebos work: we believe they’ll work, and our body cooperates with our belief. Belief is a powerful program we write for ourselves, and sometimes these beliefs are distorted.
Ultimately, your negative voices will feed any depressing thoughts you may have. The positive voices, on the other hand, will instill hope and help you to create images that focus on what you can do to make good things happen.
All put-downs are destructive and full of distortion. If you’re saying negative things to yourself, you must work diligently to create rebuttals — writing out a new script expressing just the opposite of any negative programming. For example: “I am good! I am worthy! I am competent!” and so on. Even if you don’t yet believe it, write it out and put your name on it.
“I, _________________________ (place your name here), am a good person.”
If we don’t offer rebuttals to pull us away from our negative self-statements, we’ll remain locked into our depression and low self-esteem.
Expect Positive Outcomes
We tend to get what we expect. We filter all our experiences through our belief system, holding onto that which supports our beliefs. If I believe the world is not abundant, then I won’t expect to find much. If I expect the worst in life, I’ll likely find it because I’ll be looking for it at every crossing. For example, if you believe that people can’t be trusted, you’ll find evidence to prove yourself right. We like to be right, because:
Expectations play a huge part in the direction our lives take. People tend to perform and behave very much as they believe they’re capable of doing. If you believe that you’re not very capable, or entitled, it’s likely that this is how you’ll behave. The opposite is also true: if you believe that the best outcomes will occur, you’ll likely find them because you’ll be looking for them and trying to create them.
If you expect good things as you face new experiences, you’ll put out positive energy that attracts other people, and you’ll increase your chances for getting what you want. This is not to say that every success factor is within our total control (there are clearly outside circumstances), but in long-range matters of our own choosing, in which we define how we would like to be, our expectations play a significant role.
Be Open and Flexible
Being open and flexible means avoiding black-and-white, right-and-wrong thinking. Avoid words like “always” and “never” because they’re too rigid, particularly if they’re uttered publicly. Here are examples of moving toward more flexible self-talk. If you’re feeling betrayed, you might say:
One of the reasons men in particular often take dogmatic, absolute positions is that we’ve been conditioned to take a tough stand. We have learned that if we’re flexible, we’ll be seen as wishy-washy, having no convictions. Men feel that such a judgment will lower their status with their peers, their power, and in an evolutionary sense, their survival. Our consciousness is shifting, and our culture is moving away from this bravado that has been carried over from pre-historic times. The truth is that most of our friends won’t condemn us for being open and flexible.
Keep the Faith
Faith captures our most deeply-held human thoughts, feelings, and convictions. It encompasses hope and is founded in the belief that a) the world is good and can be trusted, and b) I am capable of creating and deserve to have that which I want. Holding these beliefs is an inner expression of my faith.
As you change your belief system toward being more optimistic, you may feel at times that your confidence is a thin mask and that your faith could be shaken. In these moments, affirming your intentions will help you project confidence and strengthen your belief in yourself. Others will pick up on the optimism you project, and will see your good fortune as no surprise. The opposite is also true: if you project doubt, others will believe you don’t really feel that you deserve positive things to happen.
Here’s an affirmation: “I’m entitled to choose — and get — that which is in my best interest.” As you affirm this, you’ll come to believe that you deserve what you choose.
Fear may be an unconscious way in which we sabotage ourselves. If I’m afraid to become intimate, this fear will be communicated to my partner as a lack of faith in myself and in her. I may be signaling this fear and self-doubt as a way of preventing me from loving again in order to protect myself. The same is true if I am afraid that my partner might leave me. I would be, to some extent, predicting it and expecting it. If I project fear, insecurity, and uncertainty about being in a relationship, I present myself as being unworthy of equal respect and mutuality in a relationship. Cast out fear!
Take Responsibility for Making it Happen
Loss can be a powerful and accelerated time for learning and growth. There is a void created where there was once a rich experience. This gradual emptying out and fading of memories connected to the past creates the conditions for rebirth.
We come to realize that if we are to survive and to carry on, we must do something. We must act! Our personal crisis requires us to somehow create a new experience.
“There are so many things to see, activities and avenues to pursue, people to meet that I wonder how I will find the time to do all that I would dream of doing. I can go for a walk on the beach or in the woods; go to church; read a book; call a friend; go to a movie, museum, or concert; pet my dog; water my plants; listen to music, and on and on…”
In the above journal entry, I focused on life’s possibilities to avoid feeling victimized. I realize that I, like others, am a complex person with edges of growth in being a better parent, in being a more effective professor and counselor, artist and musician, builder and whatever. All of these dimensions challenge me. Lots to do.
Claim this Affirmation
“There are unlimited possibilities of things to do and places to go. I am aware that I make choices about prioritizing and providing balance in my life. I realize that the decisions I make and the activities I choose are totally my responsibility.”
Getting Ready for the Next Step
It is to your advantage to assume an attitude of optimism about recovering from your loss. Since your brain is a lot like a computer, you program yourself with optimism or pessimism. The printout you get in life depends on the beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and decisions you put into your computer-like brain. The quality of your output is equal to the quality of your input.
Your attitude toward life has a lot to do with what you’ll get out of life. If you can get your mind set on an optimistic track, all the rest will be taken care of. With optimism, there is a much greater chance that you can experience more awe, wonder, reverence, and gratitude in your life.
Another Affirmation to Claim
“I believe it is a plentiful world for meeting my needs and wants. I will find ways to nurture myself. I am eager to be in the world, to explore and find satisfaction in each encounter and experience in my life.
As I open to my world of possibilities, I begin to let myself imagine my options. I am able to visualize choosing and finding my own best path.
I expect good things for myself as I prepare to make a plan to get where I want to be.”
Say to yourself the following affirmations:
Make a list of any negative beliefs you hold about yourself. Be willing to suspend these beliefs for one week, and keep extending it.
Catch yourself in self-discounting and refuse to put yourself down. Be open to listening to optimistic viewpoints that oppose your negative self-talk and make a list of rebuttals to counter your discounting. Look for negative self-talk and catch yourself doing it and immediately say: “Stop it…these things are not true.” Then counter with a positive statement that affirms you as a person. For example:
Picture yourself being successful in getting what you want.
This article has been edited and excerpted from 50 Ways to Love your Leaver: Getting on with your Life After the Breakup by Dr. Dwight Webb. A professor of counseling at the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Webb uses his personal journey from grief to joy to illustrate this guide for those seeking to survive the end of a relationship. With compassion and insight, he offers practical exercises, expert guidance, and encouragement to help you with your healing journey.