Are you a naturally glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person? Are you, by inclination, an optimist or a pessimist? I say by inclination because many people who are pessimistic by nature can learn ways of coping and managing those thoughts.
Why do people learn to cope and manage? Because being a pessimist relates both to how you feel and react in the moment when under stress, as well as affecting how you live and enjoy life (or not). It is, overall, pretty miserable – for so many reasons:
- If its how you view the world, nothing will be good enough because there is always something that could go wrong;
- If its your natural world view, it sucks all the joy and delight out of life;
- In the moment, if pessimism is the place you go when under stress, it compounds the stress and makes everything worse – almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom;
- In that moment, pessimism stops your problem solving because things are broken and unfixable.
It also affects the people around you though. Persistent pessimists aren’t really fun to be around. It drags others down. But mostly, pessimism forces those around them into two positions: either they have to walk away because there’s nothing they can do to help, or, it forces them to try and make the situation better. The former makes those around you feel really guilty for walking away and creates stress. The latter causes enormous stress trying to save the situation but, because pessimism is involved, nothing can make it better, so the stress grows.
I am not talking here about situations that are, in and of themselves, dark. There are times when we are facing sickness, life changes and all manner of difficulties. I am talking here about our general demeanor of pessimism that colors everything we do and think. This is the kind of pessimism that responds to changing plans, or disappointments or short term stressful situations.
Pessimism, generally, is an inward looking demeanor. It focusses on the self. But of course that’s why its easy and more comfortable. To recognise our natural inclination and work to manage it in the moment is hard. It forces us to put away our negative thoughts and switch to hopeful thinking for the sake of those around us.
I’ll give you a small example. This morning, my 9-year old, exhausted by the culture shock of going back to school was having a bad morning. He has some anxiety that underlies his bigger emotions but he’s also a small person and exhausted and so generally was in a big flap-doodle. He felt like his shorts were too tight (even though he was wearing them yesterday) which is shorthand for “I’m tired and anxious and my emotions are just in a big fuzzle-whip” (yes, I have made up words to describe things that we can’t describe). In the tears and stress, I sat him down and talked to him, telling him everything was going to be fine.
“It’s not fine!” he shouted, “and its not going to be fine!”
So, in that moment, his brain was closed off to problem solving or compassion and comfort offered. It created stress for me because it had forced me to try and save the situation but because of his inflexible thinking, nothing would make it better so there was noting I could do. Of course I did do something, after compassion and comfort failed I just had to dry his tears and get him to clean his teeth. We then had a talk about optimism and pessimism in the car on the way to school so we could reflect and learn.
Now my little one is 9 years old. He is still learning how to process emotions. Clearly his natural inclination tends towards the pessimistic and so its my job as his mum to help guide his self-regulation with skills that won’t close off problem solving or the proffered comfort of those around him.
But imagine this attitude in a grown-up.
Imagine this attitude in a grown-up Christian.
As Christians we are to be other-person centred and so it really is important for us to manage pessimistic thoughts in the moment as far as we’re able – to acknowledge the feelings, to have a plan for how to deal with them. The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve (Luke 22:24) and we love God, and love our neighbor as the greatest of the commandments (Mark 12:30-31). Active and persistent pessimism might feel natural, but is an inclination of the heart that focusses on self and so we need, as Christians, to work on that focus.
I am not saying that we don’t get stressed, or feel hopeless or feel dark and pessimistic. It’s how we regulate ourselves after that initial knee-jerk emotional reaction that is key.
The other thing pessimism is, is emotionally and spiritually cancerous. It grows in the heart like a bitter root (Hebrews 12:15). Bitter roots are like weeds that crowd out the word of God and entangle and stifle our relationship with him. With prayer and self-reflection then, we need to dig out any bitter roots.
There is something worse though. Pessimism expresses hopelessness. And we are to be a people of hope. God did not necessarily give us every situation but he is with us in every situation and walking through it with us. He is still sovereign and if he allows us to have difficult times (or just irritating ones), there is a reason. Pessimism says to God that what he has given us is not good enough.
I take after my dad and generally have an optimistic approach to life. My dad (who acts like a 6-year old) is always on the lookout for merriment and mirth. He finds joy everywhere. He feels stress, but then self-regulates with problem solving, or an ability to brush off what really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
He is not a Christian and God’s faithful presence and his word gives me something that my dad (sadly) doesn’t have. It gives me a hope now and in the future. It helps me regulate my darker excesses. It rebukes me when I am going off course. It reminds me that Jesus gave himself for me that I might have abundant life now as well as my hope in the future. It helps me see the presence of God in so many tiny ways and so it helps me keep a spirit of gratitude.
Of course its easy to say “don’t be a pessimist” but what can we practically do when we are in the grown up version of a flap-doodle? It is possible, but it takes training (like any new skill) and it takes practice but it also takes a decision to try, for the sake of our neighbor, and in obedience to God.
As I said above, acknowledging the feelings and thoughts and having a plan with those closest to you is good. Even talk to our loved ones to say “This is where my brain goes under stress, so this is how you can help me in the moment.” It then gives them permission to gently say “You’re doing that thing” and help you get out of it.
Here’s also some areas that I’m working on with my little one:
- Daily gratitude trains the brain to see the good things in life which helps long term optimism;
- Praying for help to self-regulate in the moment;
- Talking about or meditating on, stories in the Bible that show hope where someone would be within their “rights” to feel completely pessimistic (eg Job or Joseph);
- Working together on a short list of what we believe (ie things are going to be terrible etc) but what we actually know to be true (eg we don’t know what is going to happen, we can’t control X, Y and Z, but here’s something we can control…etc);
- Praying for help to feel the joy of the abundant life we have been given and to see delight in the world.
We will feel stress. Our emotional knee-jerk reaction may well be to jump to a negative thought process. Sometimes there may be something underneath that response – fear, a feeling of helplessness and so on. Sometimes its just where we naturally go when under emotional pressure. This is normal and natural. But it is not healthy and so needs to be identified and worked on before it influences the whole heart.
Its not easy to manage ourselves from pessimism to optimism if that’s not your natural inclination, but as Christians, it is important – for those around us, as well as keeping a demeanor of humility and gratitude before God, who is with us in every situation and provides so many blessings to us.