Therapy Blog

Skepticism is not pessimism

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People often confuse skepticism with pessimism. While they both share a certain quality of questioning what is in front of us, neither is healthy in excess. A healthy balance, leaning towards optimism, is typically a great formula for happiness.

Let’s take a look and the differences, and why skepticism can be healthier when leveraged mindfully to counterbalance pessimism.

Skepticism

When we question something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being stubborn or negative. It simply means that we are engaging in a healthy cognitive exploration of reality. Without skepticism, we would be more likely to believe that snake-oil salesman, or that telemarketer asking for our private banking information!

Being skeptical means, among other things, being mindful of your intuition, or that “gut feeling” that tells you when something is not quite right. If something feels wrong, or just “off,” then ask good questions that help you find the answers you are looking for. This will help you feel better about yourself, and about the decisions you make.

Learning how to ask good questions is a teachable skill that you can learn if you don’t feel very skilled at it. It often involves doing a little homework before purchasing something expensive. Of course, not all salespeople are dishonest or trying to scam you, and quality salespeople will understand and support your healthy skepticism. They will freely give clear answers that don’t pivot or distract from what you are asking. If you keep asking snarky, passive-aggressive questions, or even repetitive questions, then you may be moving into pessimism.

Pessimism

Pessimism is a form of negativity that interprets reality in suspicious terms. The pessimist tends to assume the worst in situations and people; and because of this, tends to isolate themselves, which can further aggravate their pessimism via Emotional Confirmation Bias (ECB). When I say “pessimist,” I am referring to somebody that has established a pattern of pessimism, not somebody who is just having a bad day and is feeling pessimistic. Neither is particularly useful, but the latter is more tolerable since the person has not developed a reputation of negativity.

When we are feeling pessimistic, we may momentarily feel a certain delight in proving people wrong, shooting down their ideas, or even confirming to ourselves that our worst fears are, in fact, true (again, ECB). But transient pessimism is nothing to be concerned about as typically it passes, often within a few hours. After a traumatic event, we may find ourselves feeling pessimistic for an extended period, often as a survival mechanism whereby if we see everything as a threat, we will catch more actual threats, but at the cost of more ‘false-positives.’ For this post, a false-positive is where we think something is truly a threat, but it isn’t (a pregnancy test that shows that you are pregnant when you are not is an example of another false-positive). With help, the pessimism falls away and we are able to return to normalcy. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the pessimism may stick around longer than we, or those around us, are comfortable with. Once it comes to your attention, either through mindfulness or through somebody pointing it out to you, you can begin to resolve it.

For those with a generally pessimistic personality, you’ll likely see some form of Anticipatory Defensiveness or other difficult behavioral traits that tag along with the pessimism. Quite often,  your compassion may help diffuse the negativity, just be careful not to enable it. Many people that have had traumatic childhoods experience prolonged pessimism and the negativity you see is the dark world they may be living in. Compassion will help you resist the pull into negativity yourself.

How to deal with pessimism

We have already touched on using mindfulness to deal with your own occasional or persistent pessimism. I pointed out that the post regarding Emotional Confirmation Bias is very useful here as well. Dealing with other people’s pessimism can be a bit trickier though, especially if very intense and ingrained. Let’s start with dealing with other peoples’ pessimism.

How to deal with pessimistic people

First, breathe and remain calm. Pessimism can be difficult to be around when it’s persistent, or really toxic; breathing helps you remain calm because of the Relaxation Response involved in meditation exercises. Compassion for a pessimistic person can be difficult to connect with, but remember that it also insulates you from moving into that dark place. Sometimes, just letting a person know that you’re sorry that they are in a tough spot is all that is needed to help them pull out of the negative thought spiral, but other times, you may have to confront things more directly. In this case, timing is important as you probably don’t want to call them out in public where you might embarrass them. Being mindful of the nature of your relationship with the person is also important; how you would talk to a friend would likely be a bit different than how you would deal with a coworker.

Some tools to consider:

Compassion – Remember, a habitually pessimistic person is typically in a dark place and may be secretly suffering, and using the anger laced pessimism to vent it out.

Validation – Also be open to the possibility that there is a legitimate perspective in their pessimistic view. Sometimes, just letting somebody know that you can see how they’d feel pessimistic can help them open up to other ways of seeing things.

Humor – Be careful with this one; really know your audience. Sometimes there is an absurd irony to the situation that they may be able to chuckle at. You can also leverage humor by watching a funny TV show, YouTube videos, movies, or going to a local comedy show.

Changing the subject – Again, you’ve got to be mindful of the situation. When you can gracefully and naturally change the subject, you can create some space so that they can come back to it later with a fresh set of eyes.

Going away – It is ok to leave. While you don’t want to be rude about it, you are under no obligation to manage their pessimism. If you have an out, you can use it. Again, be tactful and even offer to pick the conversation up later (only if you really want to help; if you’ve got too much on your plate, you must let yourself have healthy boundaries).

Assertiveness – There are times when you need to point out exactly what you are seeing. Remember that assertiveness is NOT a mid-point between passive and aggressive . . . it’s an entirely different concept where you communicate your thoughts and feelings in an honest way, but not in an attacking or judging tone. Pointing out the pessimistic pattern and how it does not seem to be helping them can be useful. You may be able to help coach them towards other perspectives. Just watch their responses; look for signals of openness (Greenlight), slow down (Yellow light), and time to stop (Red light).

Relating to them – I have found that quite often when I maintain my own centered perspective, I can find some common ground with how a pessimistic person is feeling, or at least be able to see how they are getting to their viewpoint. Once you feel like they are relaxing a little, you may be able to coach them with some other ideas. A laid-back approach can be useful.

How to deal with your own  pessimism

Mindfulness is an essential part of managing pessimism. Once you have a bead on it, you can begin to notice it’s patterns and triggers. Use this awareness to engage your new optimism practice. This means stopping a few times a day and finding something positive to pay attention to, or finding a new perspective on something by giving the benefit of the doubt. Cultivating optimism is not about eradicating pessimism (there are ways to leverage pessimism), it’s about counterbalancing it. This increases the number of tools to choose from when you are evaluating your circumstances. We could say that healthy, beneficial pessimism would be periodic and remarkably similar to healthy skepticism since it’s more of a contained, logical pessimism that is applied mindfully.

When referring to unhealthy pessimism though, use the ANTs approach (scroll to it in the linked post) to deconstruct any assumptions you may have.  See if you can find evidence to support other more optimistic perspectives. Then you’ll have a more balanced perspective. To get the clarity and the steady mindset that you’ll need, use your breathing/meditation practice. Just doing a relaxation practice via breathing is fine as well. The point is to slow down the mind enough that you can allow in a new perspective. Remember, you’re not changing your mind here . . . you’re just exploring possibilities. Should you find a valid reason to shift your evaluation of your situation, you are free to do so. It is not uncommon to go back and forth a bit. Writing your thoughts down is also a great idea to help you make sense of all of the information you are processing. Even talking to somebody you trust can help you see other perspectives as you build your skill set at finding them yourself.

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