According to psychologist Leadership Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, pessimism is learned and it can be unlearned, and optimism, while it has many positive aspects, can also be modified by adding a dose of reality to subdue pie-in-the-sky expectations.
While we’ve been led to believe that optimism is a positive and pessimism a negative, we now discover that both attributes have their own roles to play. Nor are people strictly optimists or pessimists, but a mixture of both in most cases. The optimist is admired for his or her cheerfulness, positive outlook, and general pleasant attributes; the pessimist is perceived as a gloomy, defeated, depressed individual who sees no alternative to his/her negative views. Neither one is in and of itself good or bad; each has a complimentary role to play in the other. For example, the over-zealous optimist could dash headlong into a project without considering the possible pitfalls. A sprinkle of pessimism would bring out the drawbacks that could sabotage the optimists’ best efforts. On the other hand, the pessimist who sees only the hazards of a project and discourages him from undertaking it could benefit from the inspiration of the optimist’s can-do spirit.
Let’s get back to the learned trait and behaviors of both the positive and negative thinkers. What may appear to be genetic, the psychologists are saying, is actually programming by parents, teachers, other caregivers. We teach our children to listen to us, to trust us, to abide by our opinions, to accept our thinking. So it’s not hard to see how and why children accept and emulate their parent’s mindset. However, instead of them being cast the villains, let’s define the pessimist as a person who points out pitfalls and problems. It becomes a necessary and helpful trait when we remove the negative connotation. On the other hand, while the optimist radiates hope and self-confidence, . Where the pessimist lacks hope, the optimist demonstrates there is another view to consider.
If as children, we have been programmed with a narrow, unrealistic perception of ourselves, we can protest! We can argue! We can switch off the program and create a new, more comfortable, more meaningful way to see ourselves. We can find ways to employ both optimism and pessimism where they will benefit us. When faced with a difficult task, we can let the optimist within us see the possibility of success, and the internal pessimist proceed with caution.
Four-year-old Henry’s day is ruined. The downpour of rain dashed his hope of going to the zoo as he had expected to do. He was inconsolable. The pessimist in him sees only that the day is ruined. If we are to activate the optimist within, we need to help him find creative alternatives for the rest of the day. To prevent breaking promises, don’t make them when you can’t guarantee you can keep them. Let your child know there are contingencies, like the weather, that could change their plans. We paint ourselves into a corner when we make promises we may not be able to fulfill. The better part of wisdom would be to discuss alternative activities before the day arrives.
What is the best way to deal with a very optimistic, adventurous child who appears to have abundant confidence, but does not acknowledge any possible drawbacks? How do we caution them without discouraging them? Some children might take the caution as our lack of faith in their ability to handle the project. Here we want to encourage at the same time tame the impetuosity that goes hand-in-hand with enthusiasm.
Perhaps a gentle reminder that you are willing to help if he/she gets stuck somewhere along the line would reassure the child it is okay to ask for help.
A last word about optimists and pessimists; like any other label, I ask parents to look back at their own childhood to see whether they had labels assigned to them: lazy, stupid, smart, beautiful, bad, good, and what effect it had on their image of themselves.
If it was a negative label, were you able to rise above it and reject it. If it was a positive label, did you feel a pressure to live up to it? (Pessimist and optimist are also labels to avoid.) Or were you one of those kids fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents and teachers who were wise enough enough to encourage you to define yourself and enable you to remain true to yourself?