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The Downside of the Upside: How Optimism Isn't Always Your Friend

Do you love to dream about all the amazing things you want to do with your life? Do you fall in love with your ideas? Do you like to sit down and visualize how you’ll feel when you reach your goals? Does this fill you with warmth and happiness? Do you do this a lot?


Well stop it.

All this La La Land dreaming could be keeping you from achieving what you want in life.

It turns out, optimism is a complicated thing. And contrary to almost everything you've heard or read, rather than fuel your determination, an excess of optimism can actually hold you back.

You: Whaaaaaat?

Me: Let’s start with the basics.

Each of us has three minds: the negative, the positive and the neutral.

We all know the negative mind to be a bad thing. But sometimes, it gets a bad rap. The negative mind is our protector. It signals potential danger and harm. It’s beautiful.

But when we exist too much in the negative mind, we can become reactive. That is, we expect things to go poorly, people to let us down, and life to be difficult and we react accordingly. This pulls us out of alignment with our core values, which come from our very best selves, and we forget who we are. When we don’t know who we are, we tend to focus on our "should values" – these are the values given to us by our parents and teachers and other authority figures. Should values tend to be about who we should be and what we should do. Traditionally, these values are very restrictive causing us to become entrenched in a small identity. And from this small identity, we forget who we are a little more. I call this an Unhealthy Contractive Cycle.

It looks like this.

Next, we have the positive mind. The positive mind is where excitement and enthusiasm live. Those are good things. But there’s a difference between a disposition that allows you to believe that things will generally work out and drifting off into a La La Land of fantasies and outlandish expectations.

You know what I mean – like when you fully expect unprecedented success upon beginning a new project.

Or when you think a new life partner will solve all your problems.

Or when you think you can lose those 20 lbs in 3 weeks, just in time for that high school reunion.

When we go to La La Land, it’s usually because there’s a fear or need that we’re afraid to look at. And this pulls us away from who we are. In fact, it causes us to disrespect who we are. And when things don’t work out, all the worries and fears we dismissed come back in a tsunami of negative emotions. And you know how that turns out. Yup, back in the old Unhealthy Contractive Cycle. So unhealthy in fact, research has shown that when a resident of La La Land meets with reality, their immune system can become compromised.

What are the fears the overly positive mind refuses to look at? The big three are fear of loss, fear of less and fear of never.

At their core, the big three fears are really about the fear of not being enough. And if we’re not enough, then perhaps, we’re not loveable. And that thought is unbearable. So we ignore it. And we push ourselves into the positive. And if we’re not careful, we end up in La La Land.

La La Land isn’t a very productive place. In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, Gabriele Oettingen writes that “The pleasurable act of dreaming seems to let us fulfill our wishes in our minds, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting the challenges in real life.”

Rather than simply envisioning all the awesome stuff, Oettingen recommends a technique called “mental contrasting”. Sure, go ahead and do all the awesome dreaming you want. But then, list all the constraints, barriers and other impediments that could prevent you from achieving your dreams (more on this next week). Many of us worry that this will let the air out of our happy balloon, but fear not. Mental contrasting allows us to gain the energy we need to take action.

When we honour and are honest with ourselves, we see the negatives. And we see the positives. This is the neutral mind. The purpose of the neutral mind is to weigh information. Its mantra is “A noble asking”. This recognition and appreciation allows us to remain in a state of authentic alignment. And this spurs us into action with commitment and consistency. And that creates more ability for the noble asking, recognition and appreciation. This is what I call a Healthy Expansive Cycle.

Think of it this way.

The negative and positive minds are where stories live. (This is the best/this is terrible, I’m a genius/I’m a fraud, etc.). These stories put us in a reactive mode. And they drain our energy.

The neutral mind is where intuition lives. It sees the world as it truly is. It sees us as we truly are. It’s about responding. And this builds our energy.

I use Oettingen's mental contrasting when working with both my 12-Week Transformation and Unstuck Leader clients. The first few weeks of the program are spent determining the client’s needs and values. Then we visualize his or her ideal future, arrive at a life purpose and create a mission to get from purpose to vision. Then we set all kinds of ambitious, values-affirming goals. And then, in week 7, we list all the constraints that will keep him or her from reaching those goals. And we do it in great detail.

And I’ll tell you all about that in next week’s post.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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