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Addressing the 3 P’s of Pessimism

Get unstuck from negative factors of pessimism for a more positive perspective.

Key points

  • Pessimistic thinking often involves personalization, assumption of persistence, and pervasive negativity.
  • Shifting out of pessimism does not mean suppressing negative feelings or experiences.
  • Metaphors with sponges, anchors, and camera lenses provide potential perspective shifting.

Feeling pessimistic, disheartened, or hopeless can plague all of us in certain situations or times in our lives, but some individuals have an omnipresent pessimism that keeps them more consistently sad and stuck. There are various factors that can cause someone to take on a “glass half-empty” perspective more habitually, but the pattern generally involves the presence of the 3 P’s of negativity: personalization, persistence, and pervasiveness.

Seeking to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset (concepts coined by psychologist Carol Dweck) and using more grit to combat life problems (concepts coined by psychologist Angela Duckworth) are excellent resources to pursue. One technique that can help is using metaphors to improve your point of view. Shifting a mindset or long-standing belief is not a simple process, but it is possible with time and effort.

Addressing pessimism does not mean lapsing into extreme toxic positivity, a notion that has become popularized in recent years. Combatting a negative feeling or experience with automatic positivity suppresses it rather than supporting healing. We need our feelings to allow more understanding of what is going on with us internally, though feelings can heavily influence and be influenced by our thoughts. Exploring the three primary types of pessimistic thoughts can assist in shifting our mood.

Artem Makarov/Unsplash
Source: Artem Makarov/Unsplash

Personalization: Shrink the sponge

Individuals who continually personalize statements or occurrences of events are ones who might often assume, “They did that because they don’t like me,” or “That happened because I am a bad person.” Some people struggle to see any other possible causal factor aside from themselves, wearing negativity blinders that actually can defy rational thought. While we naturally need to take responsibility for things that are clearly our fault or need repair by us, those who are more broadly pessimistic tend to personalize more broadly despite there being no evidence and no logical connection.

Rather than soaking up all negative events like an enormous, overbearing sponge, shrinking the sponge to more of a handheld size can allow us to take care of messes as needed but not sop up all self-degrading assumptions. Sometimes, this approach of personalizing is related to past interpersonal trauma, people-pleasing response patterns, or other learned habits; however, shifting to a more moderate approach allows a much more balanced and satisfying way to approach our very complex, nuanced world.

Grant Durr/Unsplash
Source: Grant Durr/Unsplash

Persistence: Pull up the anchor

People who have a gloomier way of approaching the world often have the notion that negative events or disappointments will always be current and true. Individuals with this mindset may regularly respond to a disappointment with “This will never change” or “I won’t ever be able to get over this.” I sometimes refer to this as the “Eeyore mindset” (from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories).

It is true that our ability to imagine that things could be better is limited when we are in the midst of a tough time; however, it is also true that the only constant is change. Situations, people, and perspectives can and do change.

Just as a boat may indeed be anchored in a certain spot for a period of time, we humans may be anchored for a period of time in grief, dysfunctional patterns, or loneliness. But anchors aren’t designed to be in place indefinitely; we can pull up that anchor in order to move forward. For the purpose of being less stuck in place, we generally do need a more positive type of persistent effort and tenacious new habit practice. This, in turn, shifts our mindset away from the persistence of pessimism and towards the persistence of possibility.

Source: ShareGrid/Unsplash
Source: ShareGrid/Unsplash

Pervasiveness: Zoom out

When someone is experiencing the pervasiveness factor of pessimism, thoughts might include such sentiments like, “This bad thing always happens to me” or “If he can’t understand that, no one is ever going to be able to understand what I am saying.” Rather than being able to focus on the adverse event or situation at hand more specifically, individuals with more entrenched pessimism often experience all-encompassing negativity that is assumed to apply to all situations. While there are times we need to zoom in our camera lens in order to see things in more detail, this is not an effective way to live permanently; we also need to periodically zoom out to see the bigger picture and have a broader perspective of the situation.

It makes sense that a magnified version of the negative event will indeed appear huge and unrelenting, like zooming in on a spider in a forest might lead us to believe this creature would be large enough to block our hiking path or zooming in on an injured limb on one tree might lead us to think the whole forest is diseased. We can’t have a broad perspective when we are too singularly focused. Having the flexibility to zoom out now and then helps us make a more accurate appraisal of our overall status.

Self-reflection questions

  • Do you tend to over-personalize comments or events despite not having evidence for this conclusion? How can you shrink your sponge?
  • Have you anchored into a certain spot of thinking that might be limiting and destructive? Can you pull up the anchor to consider some movement?
  • Are you so zoomed in on a particular negative event or comment that it’s difficult to see a broader perspective of other experiences that might be more balanced or even more positive? What would happen if you switched your lens?
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