~ notes from an uncommon journey ~

Learned Optimism

At Camp Widow East one of the sessions I attended was called Lessons in Loss and Living, which frankly I felt some resistance to but attended anyway because it seemed the most appropriate for me of the ones in that time block. See, I sometimes feel like the message around "lessons" in this context is: "Well, as long as you can find the lesson in it, that makes it all OK!" Gag.

But as it turned out, this was probably the best session I attended (right up there with the Widowed Blog Slam--more about that one in a future post). [Update: Here's that future post.] The presenter, Dr. Michele Reiss, who's written a book by the same name, is a psychotherapist who works with the terminally ill and the grieving. Incidentally, she worked with the late Randy Pausch (and his family), he of The Last Lecture fame.

What I remember most from what she said was when she talked about the spectrum of optimism and pessimism. A "complete" pessimist, someone who's all the way over on one side of the spectrum--their glass is empty. A "complete" optimist, someone who's all the way over on the other side of the spectrum--their glass is overflowing. She said that in reality, most of us live somewhere in between. She pointed out that when a glass is half empty, it is also half full. She said something to the effect of: "You don't negate the negative, but if you can also let in the positive, that will give you more leverage to deal with the challenges in your life."

"You don't negate the negative"--I appreciate this so much. Because, as I've said before, when it seems that the message is: I need to just "switch" from the negative to the positive, I get pretty annoyed. A) I don't think it's that easy (it may be that simple; it is not that easy) and B) I feel that that message can, in effect, be minimizing of what the person has gone through.

On one of her handouts, Michele put the following:
Key Ingredients for "Learned Optimism":
  1.  Your ability to be aware of positives in your life, despite co-existing negatives.
  2. Choosing to see adversity as a challenge/opportunity, not an immobilizing obstacle.
  3. Taking time to appreciate the small pleasures of the present moment.
  4. Remembering that whatever hardships you encounter, there will be others whose struggles are greater.
The very fact that she calls it "learned optimism" is great. It acknowledges that some of us are still on the pessimism side of the spectrum--way closer to "glass empty" than we would like. So that is very validating. And it posits that one can change in this regard. Not "switch," but take steps. And that strikes me as very realistic.

At this point I feel a lot better about numbers 1 and 3 than I do about 2, and have mixed feelings about 4:
  1. I can totally see how making yourself more aware of the positives in your life can help. In fact, I've started to do that before. Honestly, the biggest challenge for me here may be actually making this a habit. Forming just about any healthy habit is so hard! I haven't written in my I Love Me book (discussed in the post I just linked to) in ages.
  2. I read "Choosing to see adversity as a challenge/opportunity" and think, "Ugh. Seriously?" I struggle with this one. This one's even part of the Christian message."See it as a blessing!" ("it" being whatever horrible thing that's happened) is the idea. "Count it all joy...when you encounter trials of various kinds," Paul said. And all I can think is:
    Are you kidding?!? Exactly how is my fiancĂ©'s death supposed to be a blessing, hm? Oh, 'cause someday I can help people? (Well, I will help others, 'cause there's no way I'm going through all of this pain for nothing.) But--I didn't ask for this. I wasn't looking for a f*cking mission. I was in love, thank you very much.

    And if I seem angry...Damn right, I'm angry.
    Now, "not an immobilizing obstacle"--that I can see. Emotionally I often feel like my life will be "this dark" forever. But intellectually I can give assent to the fact that if I truly think any particular challenge will prevent me from moving...then it probably will.
  3. This one also makes sense to me...and frankly seems pretty easy. If I'm, say, enjoying a cup of coffee, making a point to note how good it is and that I'm deriving pleasure from it...can make for a good moment in my day...that I might not've acknowledged otherwise.
  4. What I think when I hear this is, "Don't compare one person's pain to another's; pain is pain." But wait...struggle isn't exactly the same thing as pain, though I'm sure there's some overlap. In any case I do think we can all observe situations others are experiencing that we're not and think, "Well, I'm  glad I don't have to deal with that." And I don't think that's illegitimate.
So as I see it, my next steps are to start doing the easier ones, 1, 3, and 4. (Why try to start with the hardest one? I'll probably have to work on that one in therapy!) Or...start again I guess! Now if I can just make gratitude/positives journalling a habit...I'll be in business.

P.S. Special thanks to Robin the Supa Freshwidow for her contribution to this post.

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