Retroactive Pessimism (a favorite of optimists)

One way to make failure easier to digest is to tell yourself that, in retrospect, the odds were stacked against you , and failure was all but inevitable.

Apparently researchers found this method, called retroactve pessimism, to be a favorite vain brain tactic of people who had charactersistics associated with the life strategy known popularly as optimism. This pessimistic strategy sneaks in the back door on these optimists, I guess, but this seems to account for much activity by our vulnerable brain.

Optimism enjoys a status that it doesn’t necessarily deserve in our society compared to pessimists, much the way right handers have compared to left handers. My grandmother was forced to learn to write with her right hand even though she is left-handed.

Dr. Julie Norem has done some interesting research looking at two very different approaches that successful people achieve goals. She calls them ‘strategic optimism’ and ‘defensive pessimism’. Strategic optimists set their sights high, make big plans,  and though they often overlook those pesky obstacles that are bound to arise, are able through their contagious enthusiasm end up successful. Defensive pessimists are propelled by their fear of failure, causing them to bust their hump through meticulous attention to planning and preparation, and also are successful at least as much as the strategic optimists. It turns out that attempts to get someone who is naturally a defensive pessimist to adopt the strategic optimist style sets them up for failure. You can read more about this at . Lack of success in achievement, at least in Dr. Norem’s laboratory, is associated with a pattern of avoidance, or trying to force yourself into a style that is not your own.

As Frank Zappa said from the song on the album of the same name , “You are what you is, You is what you am. You ain’t what you’re not. So see what you got. You are what you is. And that’s all it is.”

Some other therapist colleagues of mine, Doctors Barry Duncan and Scott Miller, have done great work over at the Intitute for the Study of Therapeutic Change. They have emphasized the importance of discovering your own theory of change, and have found in many studies of therapy encounters that the ability of the therapist to match his/her efforts with the clients already existing theory of change best predicts good outcomes for the client. For example, someone presenting for help with problem drinking who already believes that their drinking issues are caused by an illness are going to do better with a 12 step program than clients who don’t believe they have an illness.  On the other hand, if the client believes they have just developed some bad habits around drinking, they tend to have more success in behavioral modification programs. More from these guys at  .


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