How is it that two people can look at the same challenge and have two completely different perspectives — optimistic and pessimistic?
It’s because our interpretations of events are opinions we create based on our beliefs and past experiences. When we feel our view is true, we unconsciously continue to search for supportive evidence. In actuality, our interpretation represents only one perspective among many possibilities.
The stories we tell about trying events and consequently about ourselves matter because how we interpret events impacts how we think, feel and show up in the world. Over time, we develop fixed patterns for interpreting and explaining events to ourselves — a default explanatory mode — which can either be empowering and hopeful or disempowering and de-energizing.
Consider two women — Cindy and Karen — who are on the same work team. Neither were invited to an important strategic planning meeting.
Cindy, the pessimist, interprets the reason she didn’t get asked as personal (I don’t have the right skills), permanent (I’ll never get ahead) and pervasive (this ruins everything). With this explanatory style, Cindy is unlikely to approach her boss for clarification and risks giving up on herself.
Karen, an optimist, explains the cause as non-personal (the meeting was likely too big), temporary (I’m sure the boss will tell me what I need to know) and limited in scope (while it’s disappointing, it doesn’t define me).
Explaining events through a negative lens leads to frustration, defiance and a feeling of being trapped by circumstances. Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, has proven that optimism is a skill that can be learned. Here are four steps.
- Don’t Take it Personally When we interpret events, our first instinct is to personalize what happened. Our negativity bias is evolutionarily hardwired into the human brain as a self-protection mechanism. However the stress hormones automatically released when we sense personal danger obscures our vision, limits the options we see and triggers us into a default reaction.
- Identify the Current Story Step away from the situation, take a pause and expand awareness. Is the interpretation empowering or disempowering? Consider how your default mode might be obscuring the facts.
- Elevate Curiosity Widen the context to a bigger picture and consider another way to look at the picture. Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they inadvertently forgot, maybe they were looking out for my best interests. Expanding your awareness opens possibilities and more solutions appear.
- Reframe Your Story Try assuming positive intent, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Imagine how you might approach the conversation differently with a less emotionally charged and more optimistic view.
Breaking free from our default mode of thinking allows us to approach life from a broader perspective, opening more options. We begin to understand there are multiple interpretations to the same event and, more importantly, that we have the choice about how to respond.
TheReset readers can download a free guide that teaches you “How to Become More Optimistic” by clicking HERE.
Alison Deutsch and Wendy Van Besien are Certified Professional Coaches who have each experienced significant transitions, multiple times. Utilizing research-proven assessments, tools and practices, Wendy and Alison help women overcome the stress, fear and uncertainty that occur around making big changes.