The Optimist and The Pessimist

Gioia-Serenity Prayer

Gioia and Rebecca have a running joke about being diametrically opposed in both mood and also our general levels of optimism versus pessimism. Those of you who know them personally can probably easily identify that Gioia is the buoyant optimist and I am the darker pessimist.

The classic example they use to illustrate this inherent difference comes from a consistent mishap they both encounter in their lives–losing our keys. They do this frequently (they are both a bit prone to misplacing things!) but they respond quite differently.

Gioia recounts losing her keys one day while she was home with her daughter, Annie (you could say the keys weren’t technically lost but they certainly weren’t found). After searching diligently but fruitlessly for the keys, Gioia realized that, better or worse, she and Annie were stuck at home. After contacting the school to let them know Annie wouldn’t be there, Gioia decided that she would take advantage of and, even better, celebrate her unexpected good fortune-she got to hang out with Annie and play “let’s pretend preschool” at home!

When Rebecca loses her keys, she curses under my breath, call herself a slew of derogatory terms–“I’m such a loser, I can’t believe I lost my #!% keys yet again.” She anxiously fret sover the fallout that she imagines will occur from this inopportune disruption. And she regularly laments to others about being a hopeless airhead.

Rebecca’s reaction is a classic example of the pessimists’ response–they tend to see bad situations as pervasive, permanent, and personal. “This always happens to me, it’s my fault, I brought this on!” And Gioia beautifully illustrates the optimists’ response–they see adverse events as specific to the situation, temporary and impersonal. “It’s an isolated event, it could have happened to anyone, it probably won’t happen again”, (even though, we all know it will!)

Interestingly, optimists do the opposite for positive events. They own their contribution to positive events-they take appropriate credit for their part and they expect things to turn out generally well. Pessimists tend to be cynical and minimize their role in positive events.

So how do pessimists such as Rebecca change this less-than-helpful tendency and adopt a more optimistic approach? First they identify and dispute self-defeating thoughts that recur when they encounter adversity.  They try to identify what they can and cannot change in their lives and focus their efforts on where we can make a difference.

For example, for Rebecca instead of saying to herself, “I’m such a dingbat,” she can recognize the intensity of her negative self-talk and challenge the sweeping generalizations she makes about herself.  She can observe that she has been able to keep track of her keys most of the time, but just got so busy that this one time, they got away from her. And she can focus on what she can do to manage and make the best of the situation now that her keys have temporarily disappeared.

Positively yours, Rebecca and Gioia

Art Directive:
Fold a large index card in half. The outside will have the lines, the inside will be blank. On the left of the blank side, make an image that represents something that you feel proud or good about having changed in your life, and on the right side, a challenge you are facing, something that you’re not going to be able to change. On the back of the positive image, write about your contribution to that positive event. Then look at the challenge image and see if you can find something in the drawing that surprises you or that is pleasing to your eye. Write about that, on the back.