I know, I dread to say it. Pessimists get a bad rep, sometimes rightfully so.
Going biking around the city, and I’ll remember the grating sound my bike made. Listening to feedback on my writing, I’ll be drawn to the things people said I could improve, agonizing over those. As a result, I need constant validation from others, although it barely ever sticks. My head has long been a magnet for negativity and it’s been draining me and even those around me.
But I don’t believe that ‘once a pessimist, always a pessimist.’ I’ve found ways to turn my mindset around.
What it takes is consciously detangling myself from pessimistic thought patterns. I was once enrolled in a Science of Happiness course (ironic, I know) where I learned about mindfulness tools. One of those was called the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercise and it aimed to rewire your brain to think in a more positive way.
Naturally, I was doubtful. But it makes sense. My thoughts, feelings, and behavior are so closely connected that if they were on a Venn diagram, they would be overlapping each other. Recently, my thoughts are more introspective than ever. So, on my journey to become a more mindful pessimist, I’ve been keeping tabs on my thinking—especially negative thoughts.
Here are some pessimistic thought patterns that I have become more aware of throughout my journey:
A major one that precedes all others. I predict negative outcomes, imagining the worst possible scenario to happen. This is often the case when I try something out of my depth, such as when I flew to another country for a project without knowing anyone that would be on my team. I assumed that I wouldn’t get along with anyone and was already counting down the days to come back home. I thought they’d see me as a fraud and not want to work with me, although we were all enrolled in the same class. At the last moment, this thinking almost made me drop out of it.
I’m so grateful I didn’t because I ultimately met some of my closest friends there and produced good work.
Sometimes I look at situations as if there are only two possible outcomes. Either my team likes my idea or they hate it. I often forget that everything can be placed on a scale, they may like it but think that a certain part isn’t working. They may dislike it but see potential, suggesting a way to elevate the tension in the story.
Making sweeping negative conclusions about a situation can be the easiest way for me to make sense of what is happening. For example, if I have an awkward conversation with someone, where I unintentionally said something insensitive, I may walk away and say to myself: “They certainly don’t want to talk to me again.” It is far easier to just claim that and be “done” with it rather than acknowledge my fault and find a chance to apologize. In these moments, I need to remember that I can’t read anyone’s mind and the only way to know for sure is to have a conversation with them.
Using ‘should’ or ‘must’ statements
I have fixed ideas of my future and the way I conduct myself, even to the extent that I expect how others should react to me. Thinking that I should be close to people working in my field and they must want the same things that I do sets up unrealistic standards for both parties.
When these expectations aren’t met, I feel a deep sense of failure. Whenever a ‘should’ or a ‘must’ make their way into my thoughts, I need to take a step back. I can’t predict everything, who am I to know what ‘should’ or ‘must’ happen?
Admittedly, I am a very emotionally driven person. I tend to value the way that I feel about something—a job or person I’ve met—rather than rationalizing the reality of working in that environment or being involved with that person and their lifestyle. I often make the mistake of thinking that something must be true because I feel that it is. I feel annoyed with someone; therefore, they must have done something wrong. Or I feel lonely; therefore, there is no one around that cares enough to reach out to me. These are both dangerous thought patterns because once I’m in them, I begin to ignore any evidence to the contrary.
Consciously recognizing these thinking errors and reframing them in a positive light is changing my outlook on the future. I started off the year rejecting every opportunity that came my way out of fear that they would overwhelm me, such as grad school and internships. Now, I feel more hopeful and am willing to try out what comes my way. I am enrolled to start a graduate program this coming fall.
Even if it doesn’t work out as planned, I can stay on track and remain positive by steering clear of the major thinking errors. I can’t help being a pessimist, but I can be a mindful one. Some of us are more susceptible to negative thinking like I am, but there are ways to navigate it without spiraling into hopelessness.
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