4 Ways to Overcome an Addiction to Pessimism

Here are four signs that you may be addicted to pessimism, along with four ways you can break free of its grip.

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How you see the world--whether you have a generally optimistic or pessimistic view--will have a big impact on what you see as possible. And what you see as possible will determine what you’re willing to even try. And what you are willing to try (or not) determines what you have the potential to achieve.

Some people are naturally optimistic. Some people lean toward a pessimistic view. And some people take pessimism to a whole new level. I think of them as addicted to pessimism. They take great delight in diving into doom in gloom, like a dog that has found something good and stinky to roll in.

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Here are four signs that you may be addicted to pessimism, along with four ways you can break free of its grip so you can get the most out of life.

Red flag: You default to "why it won't work." Sometimes one of my roles in my coaching work is to save pessimists from themselves. When an idea comes up that a pessimistic client immediately shoots down because it won’t work, or it’s not practical, or feasible, I typically challenge them on that. “Do you know that for certain?” I’ll ask. “Can you guarantee that it won’t work? Is it possible that it could work?”

It doesn't often happen that they can make a good defensible argument for why it absolutely will not work. And at that point, I’m not really concerned with whether or not the idea will or won’t work. They might actually be right in their negative assessment. But when they are saying a knee-jerk “no” prematurely, without the information or thinking needed to really be certain that it’s not possible, they inevitably throw some good ideas out with the bad ones.

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Antidote: When you catch yourself saying, “This won’t work,” stop and challenge yourself to let the idea exist. Tell yourself that, if it really is a bad idea, it will still be a bad idea after you have explored it more thoroughly, and you can get rid of it then. Pretend that you have to make it work. How could you do that? Brainstorm ideas. Get creative. Ask other people. If you determine that it really is unworkable, great. Give it the heave-ho. But if you discover that it really is possible, you’ll thank yourself for not saying no right away.

Red flag: You default to “what could go wrong." Another sign that you might be addicted to pessimism is that you meet new ideas with a stream of observations of what could go wrong. Then, having effectively killed the idea, you walk away.

You might be absolutely right as far as what could go wrong. Those things might really be potential mishaps. The mistake here isn’t so much identifying the problem points as it is treating them as the end of the road. Some of them might in fact be deal killers, but in my experience a far greater number can be navigated around.

Antidote: Let yourself focus on what could go wrong to your heart’s content, and then treat each of the things you identify as a starting point for problem solving. Don’t treat it as identifying the landscape that stops you from moving forward. Think of it as identifying the landscape through which you need to navigate. Knowing the potential obstacles and landmines is extremely helpful when you’re trying to get from point A to point B. The key is to remember to focus on the path as well, not just the obstacles.

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Red flag: You give the negative disproportionately more weight. When people are deep into pessimism, they don’t tend to acknowledge the positive potential. And if they do acknowledge it, it’s only with a fleeting nod before turning their attention back to the negative picture. So what they see is guaranteed to be bleak. It automatically creates a worst-case scenario perspective. They give the negative exponentially more weight than the positive.

If you think of the total possible outcome as a pie, in the pessimism addict’s view the slice of potential negative results takes up the majority of it, leaving only a tiny sliver of pie for the remaining positive potential. So even if the ways it could go right outnumber the ways it could go wrong 2 to 1, the major-league pessimist will focus almost exclusively on how it could all blow up.

Antidote: In addition to your automatic inventory of the negative, stop for a minute and make an inventory of the positive aspects of whatever you’re looking at. What are the potential upsides? What are the reasons to be optimistic? (Just because you default to the negative view doesn’t mean the potential reasons for optimism aren’t there--challenge yourself to find them.)

Once you do that, make a pie chart. I know it sounds a little silly, but try it. Look at the things you have listed, step back and ask objectively, “If, instead of being naturally pessimistic, I were naturally neutral, how much space in this pie would the positive and negative aspects each take?” Practice getting a more realistic view of the situation.

Red flag: You rain on other people’s parades. Pessimism addicts aren’t content with casting a storm cloud over just their own lives. They also soak other people’s ideas at the drop of a hat. Do you ever find yourself responding to other people’s ideas with a litany of reasons why it won’t work, or why it’s impractical, or all the things that could go wrong? If you do, stop!

If you really must rain on your own parade consistently, fine. But don’t do it to others! You may even think you’re doing it with their best interests at heart, but what you’re really doing is sucking the life out of idea after idea, dream after dream. It’s like walking around at a birthday party with a pin, popping the balloons.

Antidote: The most effective antidote is just to resist saying anything. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you really do have some valid criticisms. Instead of blasting them out there and walking away, try something like this. “That’s an interesting idea. I would love to see you do that. I see some potential stumbling blocks you might run into. Would you like me to share the obstacles I see so you can figure out ways around them?” Now you’ve turned yourself from a party pooper into a valuable asset. Suddenly, your Eeyore energy is focused on helping them succeed.

Now, I want to note that I do think pessimism has its place. I don’t happen to subscribe to the idea that we need to be blindly happy and smiling all the time. Pessimism can keep you from making mistakes. It can give you a fuller picture of a situation than just looking at the glowing pictures. But its role is one of support, not one of leadership. If you let it call the shots, it will say no to everything. Guaranteed. And what can be more limiting than that?

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.

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