Have you heard of the term “Pollyanna?” This term is based on a 1913 children’s book written by Eleanor Porter. Pollyanna was an orphan girl who saw the bright side of every negative situation. Her sunny disposition becomes contagious and she helps the townsfolk to think more positively.
Her persistent optimism was so pronounced that the term Pollyanna is used as a negative term for someone who is unrealistically optimistic.
Optimism doesn’t have to be unrealistic or over the top. It can simply be the ability to be hopeful about any given situation, even a negative one.
Let’s look at characteristics of optimistic people:
Flexibility – Flexible people are open to new ideas and change.
They realistically evaluate new information for use now or in the future. They are also not threatened by others’ ideas.
Resourcefulness – Optimistic people are resourceful. They have faced and thought through situations and know where to turn for support and how to find help when they need it.
Willingness to Risk – The optimist doesn’t have to play it safe when it looks like a risk will pay off.
Perspective – Optimists are realists who can screen their input to see what is important and what is not. They work on the significant issues and ignore the inconsequential ones.
Acceptance of Personal Responsibility – Optimists have a realistic assessment of themselves. They learn from their mistakes by acknowledging their contribution. They are also able to accept their responsibility without it causing them to feel defeated and broken.
Proactive Attitude – Optimists meet challenges with action. They plan for challenges rather than waiting to react to them. They don’t allow themselves to be paralyzed by the unknown.
Do these characteristics sound like you? If not, there can be several obstacles that can erode your optimism.
Obstacles to Optimism
Blame and Criticism
Blame and criticism can come in all stages of life. If you had a critical parent, you can become conditioned to expect less of yourself or look at the negative side of things.
School is another environment that is rife with opportunities to feel judged or compared to others. Whether it be grades, competitions or cliques, at some point these experiences can erode your confidence.
The workplace is another area where we receive criticism. It can be severe, depending on the manager and the culture of the company.
The result of this blame and criticism can be that
You think everything is your fault
You become defensive when criticized
You don’t take risks because you fear failure
Mindset shift – carefully consider how much weight you give to the criticism. What your parents say mean everything, but now that you are an adult, criticism is just someone’s opinion. That opinion doesn’t define you. It’s only as important as you let it be.
As you develop, you can learn that there is safety in numbers and it’s much easier to blend in with the crowd. Who wants to stand out and be different?
Consider this scenario – when you speak up and are wrong, you get ridiculed. If you are right too often, you become a know-it-all. The path of least resistance is to go with the crowd.
This is a common developmental experience and if you cope with these pressures by conforming, the result can be:
You don’t take opportunities when they come along
You become a people pleaser
You live based on what you “should” do instead of what you really want to do
Mindset shift – If you take a risk, think about the worst case scenario if you fail. How dire is this consequence? How satisfied are you with the status quo? If your situation could be improved if your risk pays off, wouldn’t it be worth the risk if the negative consequence of failing is not dire?
School is an environment where we are all in competition for grades, at sports, at music, etc. If you continually try your best and are not rewarded for it, you become accustomed to disappointment and may start to believe that you will never be “enough.” This can lead to:
Doubting your ability
Comparing yourself with others
Putting yourself under extra stress to succeed
Mindset shift – recognize that losing is a process. Everyone loses before you win. Look at losing like iron being sharpened. What skill are you acquiring or how are you growing in your attempt to win?
Disappointments are inevitable. If you expect anything and your expectations are not met, you will be disappointed. With enough disappointment, you can begin to distrust yourself and others. You can even become cynical and not believe in anything. The result can be
You expect things to go wrong, so you don’t try
You feel you’re not good enough, so nothing good happens for you
Mindset shift -Start a gratitude journal. Write down all the things you are grateful for. Specifically, think about your disappointments. Find something in the disappointing situation that is a blessing for you.
You can’t enjoy good times because you are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Perfectionism usually begins in childhood. It can be a part of your inborn temperament or it can be the result of parents who hold you to very high standards.
Perfectionism can result in an overemphasis on what you do rather than who you are. Other byproducts of this kind of thinking are:
You criticize yourself for not being perfect
You fear disapproval
You won’t let others see your mistakes
Mindset shift – be willing to accept less than you want for a given situation because chances are, what you want is not realistic.
All of the above influences are challenges to an optimistic, positive attitude. The first step to overcome these obstacles is to recognize which ones are a part of your current mindset. The next step is to confront your thinking head by shifting your mindset to overcome the obstacle.
Optimism is empowering and motivating. If you are realistically optimistic your opportunities are within your reach and you can respond appropriately to challenges.
Challenge – Identify one of your obstacles to optimism and confront your thinking with a mindset shift.