Had you asked me if I were an optimist, up until a very short time ago I would have said “Yes, of course”. I always try to see the best in everyone and in every situation. I go to work each day hoping for a positive experience and I go to bed each night fully expecting to wake up the next day. That’s optimism, right?
But while I always believed my glass to be half full, there was a constant fear I’d knock it over. The more I thought about it the more examples I could find of times when I would be hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
My boss would ask to speak to me and my heart would pound as I wondered what I had done wrong. What shortcoming was about to be exposed? I felt like I wasn’t enough and it was only a matter of time before everybody else would see the truth.
A letter arriving in the post would send my head spinning and my skin would flush with fire. I would be sure it was going to be a bill I couldn’t afford to pay (despite the fact I’ve always been fortunate enough to have sufficient to pay them).
If I was invited out for an evening fear would set in. I’d know I wasn’t going to have fun and I would feel out of place.
Yes, it turns out I am a pessimist, or at least I was. I am now choosing to identify as a recovering pessimist.
I feel like I have been taking antidepressants for so long they have become a part of my identity. Am I predisposed to depression due to being a pessimist or am I a pessimist due to depression, and can I change?
I decided to rewire and retrain my brain. To switch to positive thinking and optimism and to move away from a negative mindset and I found an amazing place to start.
Let me tell you a little bit about REBT.
When I decided that a new way of thinking was in order I did a quick Google Search. This is one of the first things that came up when I typed in ‘can you change from being a pessimist to an optimist’.
So what is it? Well it stands for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and it’s part of the same family of therapies as CBT.
It is founded on the belief that our emotions are not disturbed by events themselves but our interpretations of those events.
According to the founder of REBT there are 10 cognitive distortions that act as lenses we experience things through.
1. Mental filtering – focusing on negative events rather than any positive outcome.
2. Jumping to conclusions – assuming the worst.
3. Personalisation – Disproportionately blaming yourself when things go wrong.
4. Black and white thinking – All or nothing, good or bad, right or wrong.
5. Catastrophising – believing things to be much worse than they are.
6. Overgeneralization – everything ALWAYS goes wrong.
7. Labeling – I’m useless, I’m a failure etc.
8. Should and Must – This should happen this way, this must not happen!
9. Emotional Reasoning – viewing a situation based on how we felt in that moment.
10. Magnification and minimisation – magnifying other people’s positive attributes while minimising your own.
There are 3 basic ‘Musts’ that cause the distortions.
1. I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.
2. Other people must treat me fairly or else they are no good.
3. I must get what I want when I want it or else I can’t stand it.
REBT uses the ABCDE Method to look at our thoughts and reframe them into more healthy and helpful ones.
A – Activating event. An event that happens in our environment.
B – Belief you have about the event that has happened.
C – Consequence. The emotional response to your belief.
D – Disputing the unhelpful belief.
E – Effect of deactivating the unhelpful belief.
So in my case, one of my massive triggers and fears was making a mistake at work.
A – Going to work.
B – If I make a mistake it will be terrible. I will get in trouble with my boss and lose my job and end up destitute.
C – Panic attacks, crying, being off work sick.
With reflection and effort I’ve got to D & E.
D – People make mistakes all the time and they’re rarely serious enough to result in dismissal. I always work hard and try my best and as long as I do that, the odd mistake from time to time is okay.
E – I am calmer, more forgiving of myself and happier at work.
The ultimate goal in this is to shift your thinking from the three musts to the three types of acceptance, these are…
1. I am imperfect and that is ok. I have worth regardless of my shortcomings.
2. Other people will treat me unfairly at times and that is ok. It does not remove their worth or my own.
3. Life doesn’t always have to go to plan or be pleasant. It isn’t awful and it is usually at least bearable.
So there it is, a very brief summary of REBT. I’ve personally found it really helpful.