Negativity: Why not let it go?

Ask a negative person to let go of their pessimism and you’ll hear a string of excuses. As a recovering pessimist, I’ve used them all.  See if you recognize any of these.

Denial — The “Who? Me!” response:  The average pessimist doesn’t consider themselves overly negative at all.  They prefer to label themselves as realistic, misunderstood, and honest. But, people living in close proximity with pessimists disagree.  An exasperated friend of a pessimist recently confessed, “Ninety-five percent of things are swell, but you’d never know that listening to him.  He focuses on the 5% that’s uncertain and blows it out of proportion.  You’d think his life was a terrible mess.”  Pessimists stuck in denial are largely unaware that they are guilty of deflating people around them.

Justification The “I’m too smart to get my hopes up”  response:  Pessimism provides the apparent advantage of greater control over life.  Pessimists expect bad outcomes so the worst thing can’t happen — being surprised by bad news.  The pessimist obtains a false sense of control by predicting every possible bad outcome.  Of course, they forget how often they are wrong.  So, when things don’t turn out as bad as predicted, they are blind to the joy they needlessly surrendered (and robbed from others).  It requires great effort for a pessimist to remember the times they predicted bad outcomes and got it wrong.  But their memory is water tight when they’ve gotten it right.  Selective memory deceives the pessimist into feeling they have more control, and wisdom, when in reality they merely have less joy.

Blame Shifting — The “Other people keep me down” response:  To be sure, it’s much harder to maintain a positive attitude when you are surrounded by rage-aholics and grumblers.  However, if you know any real optimists you’ll eventually see through this excuse.  Optimists have an invisible force field that shields them from other people’s negativity.  They refuse to surrender their joy without a fight.  Tell an optimist they should expect the worst and they will grow even more determined to prove you wrong.  Optimists take seriously their responsibility to maintain their joy.  They refuse to believe the worst prematurely.  But even when the worst happens, they rebound faster because they find hope and meaning in their suffering.

Resolved Indifference The “That’s just the way I am” response:  Some babies are born with a happy disposition as noticeable as their long eyelashes.  Others seem ill tempered from the cradle.  In Gross National Happiness Arthur Brooks summarizes decades of research and says that half of a person’s happiness is the product of nature.  He says the other half is a product of nurture.  How should you respond to such research?  Will you focus on the 50% that seemingly justifies a resolved indifference or will you focus on the 50% that encourages you to improve your happiness?  If people jump at investments that can increase their money by 20%, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to increase happiness by 50%?

Which excuses have you used?  Are you ready to admit they are bad excuses, and let them go? Here’s my advice:

Consider if you are in denial.  Has more than one person reflected that you seem overly focused on negative things in your life?  Consider the possibility that you’re behaving like a pessimist, not a realist.  Focus on things that are good, right and lovely. Memorize Philippians 4:8.

Identify ways you justify a negative attitude.  Do you regularly seek ways to buffer yourself from potential bad outcomes.  Such behavior may protect you from being surprised by bad news, but have you considered the cost — joy often needlessly surrendered?  Only God can provide refuge sufficient to protect you from what you fear.  Investigate Jesus who lived, died and rose again to ensure no tragedy long endures.

Stop blaming others and take responsibility. Don’t give others the privilege or the power to steal your hope.  Only you can choose joy.  You must take responsibility for your attitude.  When St. Paul wrote his famous words, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”, he was referring to God’s enabling power for contentment and joy despite tragic situations (Philippians 4: 11-13).

Be resolved to get help.  Make friends with an optimist.  Read several good books.  I recommend Streams in the Desert (Christian Devotional) and Learned Optimism (Secular Scientific). You may start out behind the pack, but you can catch up, and surpass the hopefulness of even natural born optimists.

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