Realistic Optimism – the Goldilocks Sweet Spot of a Resilience Mindset
My friend Tracy, whose husband Dale suffered a minor stroke in February, (see Supporting Another Person’s Resilience – Brilliantly) is learning that tricky but essential sweet spot of a resilience mindset – realistic optimism.
Not too pessimistic, “Oh well, better not take any risks or try too hard,” that could lead to depression, lack of motivation, missing out on the reading driving, cooking Dale can do as he recovers his balance and vision.
Nor a Pollyanna pie-in-the-sky “Everything’s going to be great!” that would ignore the very real heartaches and fears about falling and further injury while navigating the stairs or working in the garden.
Realistic optimism looks at what is possible, even probable – the camaraderie of Thursday morning bowling with his buddies, even if his score isn’t what it used to be – and courageously accepts what isn’t – no more off-road trips by himself in the mountains near their home, but driving to the store and post office by himself, yes. And finding this balance is what makes flexibility and creativity in moving through their challenges possible and productive.
People who are realistically optimistic pay attention to the difficult and the negative. They don’t ignore it, but they don’t ruminate endlessly over something that can’t be solved or changed. Focusing on what can be solved or changed keeps people actively engaged and hopeful, making workable choices about creating a new future.
Realistic optimists don’t fool themselves about what doors have closed or avoid honest reality checks either. There is a realistic acceptance of whatever challenging circumstances have befallen them so that what has happened is part of their story but doesn’t have to determine the rest of the story.
This realist optimist helps people look at a stressor or a trauma from multiple perspectives. They can re-frame a hardship as a potential challenge to learn and grow (Dale has spotted three new bird species in their garden as he spends time more contentedly there) and they get busy pulling in the resources they need to solve their problems (working with a neurologist who specializes in eye trauma, practicing the eye exercises that will help strengthen the vision Dale has.)
These intentions help people depend a sense of meaning in their lives, Dale and Tracy treasuring the years of a loving marriage that allow them to face their new realities together, with realistic optimism.
Exercise: [adapted from Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges]
1. Identify one specific current difficulty to work with. [Examples: a scheduling conflict between a beloved niece’s high school graduation and a seriously lucrative teaching opportunity, or a review of the checkbook balance suddenly reveals a shortfall, not the money in the account needed to pay this month’s bills.]
2. Spend 10-15 minutes writing down everything you are thinking about this difficulty, and about yourself in relationship to this difficulty.
3. Indicate which thoughts view this difficulty from a negative or pessimistic perspective, if any. Which ones view the difficulty from an overly “rose-colored glasses” perspective, if any. Which ones view the difficulty from a perspective that’s truly realistically optimistic.
4. For one (or more) of the pessimistic or falsely optimistic thoughts, re-frame the thought to be more realistically optimistic, hopeful, yet truthful.
5. Re-engage with the difficulty from the newer more realistically optimistic perspective. Notice any shift in your experience of the difficulty or of yourself in relationship to the difficulty. Savor the energy and effectiveness of realistic optimism.