I heard a great quote recently that got me to thinking about what it means to be optimistic: “If life doesn’t give you at least a little sugar as well, your lemonade’s gonna suck”. In other words, a positive attitude isn’t always sufficient in and of itself.
I come from a strength-based, solution-focused approach to coaching and life. I’m a firm believer in the adage, “whatever we focus on expands”; and so it’s my preference to focus on strengths and possibilities. I’m a champion of unlimited human potential and inner wisdom, and I’ve always believed that there is more good to be found than evil. I’ve always believed that somehow, on some level, the things that need to be worked out eventually will. Needless to say, I’ve always considered myself an optimist.
But I’ve recently come to understand something important and eye-opening about the nature of my optimism. I’ve come to see it, in many regards, as a façade that effectively served to mask my naivety and ignorance – and to protect me from the harsh realities of life.
Through my quest over the past year to understand more about the world and our impact in it – how we interact with the earth and with one another – I found myself becoming increasingly cynical about human nature. As my knowledge and understanding accumulated, my disenchantment was feeding a growing sense of pessimism.
It was a spontaneous discussion about caring one day, though, initiated by my six-year-old son, which made me realize that I had actually let the pendulum swing too far: I realized that being a pessimist wasn’t going to do any of us any good. I also realized that the pessimism I found at the other end of the pendulum was just as much a façade as my optimism: it was really a strategy to protect me from feeling the pains ones can feel from truly acknowledging life’s harsh realities. It was easier to feel angry and cynical than sad and despondent.
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So it took an intense year-long journey to open my eyes; and a conversation with a child to refocus them. And I hope now that I’m closer to that middle ground: that healthy dose of optimism.
So what’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy optimism? The former, in my opinion, embodies a more realistic perspective on things with a sense of hope and possibility attached to it. The latter, I’ve come to see, is simply a ‘happy-face’ mask designed to hide ignorance, fear, and denial.
A healthy optimism entails the willingness to see the ugly things as they really are – to feel discouraged and angry when appropriate – but also remembering to engage fully with the beauty that does exist. Focusing on what is right and good in the world, without turning a blind eye to the rest, can give us the encouragement and strength we need to make right the things that need to be made right.
Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? Or maybe you consider yourself more of a realist. Or maybe it depends on the situation. It really doesn’t matter: the point is that it helps to take stock of the assumptions we tend to make, and the ways in which we typically choose to approach the world. We need to maintain a hopeful but balanced perspective in order to lead change effectively.
Chris Hammer, Ph.D. is a certified professional coach and licensed psychologist. He offers leadership and life coaching services, as well as various coaching ebooks for people who are passionate about their personal and professional growth. http://www.mycoachingbooks.com
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