Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

Pessimism: Is It Robbing You of Success?

I was sharing a slightly more squeaky than usual elevator ride from the 15th floor with a man who looked a bit worried. He said to no one in particular, “I’m not so sure about this elevator.”

I told him, “I’m sure it will be fine.” Then I tried to engage him in chit-chat to distract him from his concerns. When we got to the lobby floor, the elevator stopped.

“See, we made it!” I encouraged him.

Unimpressed, he said, “Yeah, but the door hasn’t opened yet.”

Glenn Van Ekeren tells the story of an optimist and a pessimist who combined their resources and went into business together. Sales were great! After the first three months, the optimist was elated. He said, “What a great beginning! Customers love our products, and we’re selling more every week.

“Sure,” replied the pessimist. “But if things keep going like this, we’ll have to order more inventory.

What about you? Do you have pessimistic thought habits? If so, they could be robbing you of success in multiple areas of your life. Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism”, documents research that solidly indicates that optimistic thought patterns create significantly greater success in work, education, relationships, sports, health, and even politics.

Pessimism is a particularly destructive form of negativity because of its ripple effect throughout your attitudes and actions. If you are habitually pessimistic, you put yourself in a no-win situation, whether your circumstances are negative or positive. Let me show you what I mean.

Permanance: Will This Situation Last?

There is a significant difference between optimistic and pessimistic people in terms of their predictions about both negative and positive events. These predictions affect what they will think, feel, and do in response to those events. They can make the difference between persistence and failure.

Suppose something bad happens at work. For example, let’s say that you have a setback on a project you are working on. What do you say to yourself?

“Just as I thought. One problem after another. We’ll never get this new system up and running.”


“Any time you’re doing something new, there will be some problems. Let’s figure out what caused this, get it fixed, and learn from it. There may be other glitches, but we’ll take them one at a time and keep going until the system is working.”

In the first statement, the prediction is, these problems are permanent. The reaction to that is a loss of hope and a tendency to give up.

By viewing the problem as situational and something to be addressed (in other words, temporary), you are likely to maintain or regain energy and persist.

Even positive events can be downers to pessimists. Imagine that things are going particularly well for you at work or home.

Do you feel good, thinking that things are smoothing out for you and are likely to continue in a positive direction, adding to your energy and motivation?


Are you waiting for the other shoe to fall, wondering why things are going so well and thinking they’re likely to change any minute? (In other words, the positive situation is only temporary.)

If your choice in this case was the last option, is it possible that you are mentally robbing yourself of the joy of life by the chronic prediction that good things won’t last?

Pervasiveness: Do You Overgeneralize?

Another thought pattern that differentiates pessimists and optimists is the degree to which they see things as general or specific. Again, these tendencies show up in both negative and positive circumstances.

You make a mistake on a report.

Does this sound like you? “That’s about par for the course. I never can do things right.” (A general statement of incompetence.)

Or this? “How did I miss that? That’s not like me. Anyway, let me get it corrected so that we can send it on.”

Hear the difference? When you generalize a negative statement, this is an open pathway to discouragement and even depression. On the other hand, seeing the situation as a specific situation that can be corrected leads to positive action.

Optimists do tend to generalize positive events. For instance, if they went to a job interview and got the job, they might conclude, “I interview well.” The less optimistic person might say, “I did OK on that interview, but I probably got hired because they were badly in need of people.”

Realistic Optimism

Understand that I’m not talking about being a Polyanna, wearing rose-colored glasses that blind you to the truth of problems you really need to address. I’m also not suggesting that you take the most positive interpretation in a high-risk situation, causing you to take gambles that can take you under.

Being realistic about the facts is healthy. That’s just good problem solving. However, a steady focus on all the negative possibilities will make your life miserable, as well as the lives of those around you.

Do you need to work on your pessimistic thought habits? After all, what you think about, you tend to talk about. What you think about and talk about, you tend to act (or not act) on. What you do repetitively becomes a life habit.

Pessimism or optimism…your choice of approach makes an amazing difference in the quality of your life, both on the job and off.

I fully agree with Art Linkletter, who said, “Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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