Pessimistic thinking is almost always a mistake. Not only is it a mistake because it makes you less capable, but the thoughts themselves are usually in error. When a thought-mistake makes you feel disheartened, discouraged, or helpless, it can stop you from taking action. If your mind's naturally-occurring thought-mistakes fool you into believing you can do nothing about a difficulty you have, you will do nothing.
So one of the most important things you can do to make your life better starts right in your own mind: Cure yourself of demoralizing thought-mistakes (like overgeneralizing, for example).
We're not talking about positive thinking. This is anti-defeatist or anti-discouragement thinking. We're aiming at making fewer mistakes in our thinking. It is more fundamental than positive thinking, and also more effective.
Cognitive researchers (scientists who study the effect of thoughts on feelings and behavior) have discovered that thoughts of hopelessness or helplessness can lead to anxiety and depression. These kinds of negative thoughts were once considered symptoms of anxiety and depression. But Abraham Low, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis discovered that certain kinds of thought-mistakes actually cause anxiety and depression and when a person's thinking is changed, the depression or anxiety lifts.
You change your thinking by arguing with the demoralizing thoughts as they arise in your mind.
There are two problems with trying to argue with your negative thoughts. First of all, negative feelings often seem to arise on their own without anything causing them, when in fact those feelings were preceded by a thought such as, "I will never feel happy again." A mental image of oneself in the future, looking terribly unhappy flashes in one's mind. The thought zips through the mind so quickly and so automatically, the person didn't notice she thought anything. All she noticed was the effect: The resulting feelings. She would have a difficult time arguing with a thought that she doesn't even know she's thinking.
The second problem occurs even when the person knows he is thinking a demoralizing thought. He knows what he's thinking, but he believes his thoughts are true. For example, if he thought, "Nobody loves me because I'm unlovable," he would take no action. He is defeated before he starts. He may even be aware of thinking the pessimistic, defeatist thought, but if he assumes he's correct, he'll make no attempt to argue with his thinking.
Rooting out defeatist thoughts can eliminate the defeated feeling. Arguing against those demoralizing thoughts will undemoralize you. When negative thoughts are making you feel anxious, arguing with the negative thoughts can bring back feelings of calm and determination.
I cannot emphasize enough that we're not talking about "looking on the bright side" or trying to cover ugly reality with pretty thoughts. The fundamental premise of cognitive science is that if you think the situation is hopeless and you believe you can do nothing about it, you should look carefully at that assumption because it is usually wrong. If your brain happens to be in the habit of thinking that way about certain kinds of circumstances, it is time to notice it and change it. This idea is powerful and effective. Read a true-life example. Read another.
In his book, Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure, Admiral Byrd described his brush with death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Byrd was stationed at a remote base deep in the interior of Antarctica in 1934, about as removed from any civilization as a man can get on this planet. He was utterly alone and without hope of rescue. At one point in his ordeal, he gave up. He was going to die, he admitted to himself. This is how it would end. He wrote a note to the people who would find his body the following spring and then snuffed out the candles.
He lay in the dark for some time, sad at this horrible turn of fate. But then he remembered a scene from his past. He had been in a wrestling match, trying to win the championship at the Naval Academy. Near the end of the match, exhausted and in great pain, he decided he had no chance of winning. But his mother was watching and he wanted her to be proud of him, so he used this anti-demoralizing technique, and it worked. He stumbled onto the secret of determination. His strength revived and he fought to the finish. He didn't give up.
It worked then, he thought, so it might work here in the Antarctic even though his situation was now incomparably worse. The single thought that revived him in the wrestling match was the realization that "although I seemed absolutely washed up, there was a chance I was mistaken."
That's an important key to becoming immune to demoralization: Admit to yourself that you might be mistaken about a pessimistic conclusion. Introduce some doubt.
The doubt is legitimate. Most of us are far more confident in our negative assumptions than is justified by the facts. As Norman Cousins said, "Nobody knows enough to be a pessimist."
IT IS HIGHLY EFFECTIVE
Disputing defeatist assumptions has been shown in many scientific studies to be extremely effective at permanently immunizing people against anxiety, worry, disheartenment and depression. For example, a team of researchers took thirty-three people with panic disorder who averaged five panic attacks per week per person.
Sixteen of them had weekly sessions with a therapist who provided emotional support. Seventeen of them had weekly sessions with a cognitive therapist who taught them to rethink their usual overreactions. For instance, when a man felt chest pain, he was coached to come up with more likely causes than the first thought that came to mind (it's a heart attack). It was more likely to be heartburn, for example. And he was coached to remind himself that when these feelings occurred in the past, they had never amounted to anything.
In other words, he learned to doubt his automatic, habitual negative assumptions. He learned to recognize the mistakes in his thinking.
At the end of two months, twelve of the cognitive-therapy people were totally free of attacks. Only four of the emotional-support people were totally free of attacks.
Among those who still had panic attacks, the cognitive-therapy people averaged one attack a week. The emotional-support people averaged three per week.
The researchers did a one-year follow-up. The success rate had not diminished in that time. Arguing with their own negative, pessimistic thoughts dramatically changed their lives.
The thoughts you think are very powerful and worthy of your attention.
Similar effects to cognitive therapy can be achieved on your own using paper and pen. As a matter of fact, that's often one of the most effective techniques cognitive therapists assign as "homework." Read how.
In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman has a very good list of what to look for in your arguments when you're arguing against a negative thought.
FIND MISTAKES IN YOUR THINKING
In David Burns' book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated, he has a list of what he calls "cognitive distortions." These are common thought-mistakes we tend to make that demoralize us unnecessarily. He has ten cognitive distortions on his list, and the list is complete. For example, one of his cognitive distortions is called all or nothing thinking.
Any mistake you are likely to find in your thinking is on his list because the brain makes imperfect judgments in a limited number of ways.
Our brains also process visual information imperfectly, which is why we have such things as optical illusions. When you look at the two lines below, one looks longer than the other. But they are the same length. No matter how carefully you look at it, the two lines definitely look different lengths. Even when you measure it and are completely convinced they are the same length, they still look like different lengths.
You are witnessing a flaw in the way the human brain processes visual input. Optical illusions demonstrate that our visual processing isn't perfect in certain specific ways.
In precisely the same way, our thinking (our logical processing) isn't perfect either, and there are particular mistakes we are prone to make simply because we are human.
David Burns' list of ten cognitive distortions is a list of the thought-mistakes the human brain is prone to make. The brain's tendency to make mistakes combines with the brain's natural negative bias and it makes demoralizing thinking much more likely.
So one way to argue with your negative thoughts is to memorize Burns' ten distortions. Then write out a demoralizing thought you have about a setback of yours, and see how many cognitive distortions you can find in your statement. When you memorize the list first (before they are attached to a particular thought of yours) you can clearly see why they are mistakes because you don't have the problem of overcoming your own naturally-occurring defensiveness when you're analyzing your statements. Having the list memorized ahead of time makes it easier to find mistakes and straighten out your thinking.
Questioning and disputing your demoralizing thoughts is the best and most effective way to crush the pessimism lurking in your own mind. And one of the best ways to do that is to write down your negative thoughts and then argue with them.
Now you have a powerful weapon against feeling demoralized, disheartened, or depressed. Master the know-how on this page. Practice several times a week. Make yourself sit down and do it for a half-hour at a time. It will make you stronger and healthier and more successful.
Get the practical instructions, the nuts-and-bolts low-down about how to undemoralize yourself here. Begin at the beginning: Crush Pessimism.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.