If we desire to maintain resilience in the current state of uncertainty, we need an evidence-based practice to build a sense of realistic optimism. According to UPenn psychologist and researcher Martin Seligman, a founding father of Positive Psychology, some of us appear to be hardwired to respond optimistically to life's downs and ups. Others are wired to respond in the opposite way. Thankfully, we are not tied to our genes. With practice, we can cultivate resilience and genuine hopefulness by building strong positive thinking abilities. I like to consider the process of structuring hopefulness, strength, and positive thinking abilities as an analog to developing physical fitness: it takes attention, repetition, concentration, and commitment. You can nearly constantly enhance your physical fitness if you approach an exercise program with the same qualities.
The first difficulty to get over is the belief that you require to be in a different position in life in order to prosper. You do not. You can start from here, overwhelmed, concerned, anxious, whatever. Do not fall under your story about how you feel. Decide for what you plan to accomplish and where you would like to (rather than "should") go. It all begins with a decision. And you do not need to feel much better before you attempt the practices below -- do them now! And you do not need to translate your progress in the short-term. Measuring the increase in strength and endurance after a single exercise would not show much improvement.
Seligman points out that people with a positive approach to life habitually accept positive thoughts and dispute negative thoughts. Optimists tend to think that their life balance will be brought back, excellent events will take place again and that bad events are an exception; pessimists assume the reverse.
Here's the ABC(DE) practice that is based upon over three decades of research. It focuses on challenging the thoughts while accepting the emotions. I successfully used it with clients to help them re-examine the thoughts behind their pessimistic views - rather than focusing on their emotions - in order to achieve pragmatic optimism.
ABCDE stands for Adversity -- Beliefs-- Consequences-- Disputation-- Energization.
A-- Adversity: Start by spelling out the situation. Stick to the facts and what actually happened.
B-- Beliefs: This is your chance to write down/dictate/email yourself the thoughts you had during and after the situation.
C-- Consequences: Take a look at the repercussions of these thoughts -- How did you feel? What happened then?
D-- Disputation: This is the hardest part of the exercise. Actively dispute beliefs that break your life balance and send you into the downward spiral. A way around that is to think about it as if you are giving advice to your best friend who called you asking for help. If this friend was in the same situation, for which you already know all the details, how will you gently dispute his thoughts without belittling their emotions? practice arguing with yourself/Imaginary friend in a productive way. Stick to the facts. Otherwise, your mind won't buy into your arguments!
E-- Energization (action): When you have actually been effective in challenging the problem beliefs, you feel an increase of energy, a sense of renewed hope, or a minimum of serenity.
Could you see how this system works? It is about acknowledging the situation, thoughts, and feelings. Then challenging the thoughts - not the feelings. Then take an action; any small step counts. Here's an example from one of my client's life situations during the COVID-19 crisis.
Adversity: "When I was laid off from my job in a managerial leadership position during the coronavirus crisis, I felt a paradoxical relief. I was waiting anxiously for my fate at my current job. There were rumors all around but no one was fired (yet). At the same time, I was ready to move forward. I was all right. I was optimistic and survived well for almost 3 days. Anxiety and stress started to sneak into my thinking. My positive thinking left me. I felt like bursting into tears."
Beliefs (thoughts): "How will I ever regain my confidence and get things done if I can't stop worrying? How will I be able to get a job when many of my friends are laid off? I do not know where to start."
Consequences (feelings): "These thoughts left me feeling unfortunate about my situation. I questioned myself whether I could be able to become a leader again in my field. I was not able to focus and I just wished to vanish."
Disputation: "Well, I did not lose my positive thinking capability. It is a separate quality from my job. It is there inside me and it needs to be ignited. It might be wise to let some friends know what is going on. I do not have to suffer alone under a rock. And while some job opportunities might end up being passed on to others, there will constantly be other opportunities that will pop up."
Energization: "I decided to set up a phone call with a close friend who was in a similar managerial position level. After telling him about my situation, he confided that he was also laid off a week ago from his managerial position. I was shocked and also relieved that I was not alone in this situation. Mid-way through our call, we started to think together about the next small steps that we could take to network and see what is available in the market."
Type it. Dictate it. Email it to yourself. Note it on your favorite app. Use whatever favorite tool you like. It will get you over the "activation energy" hump!
How will we ever restore your sense of positive thinking and get things done if we can't stop imagining a terrible outcome? Positive psychology teaches us maintaining a sense of optimism is not a trivial task, even for personalities that are hardwired to respond optimistically to life's ups and downs. Taking a step back and disputing our thoughts - rather than disputing our emotions - is one way to do it. The ABCDE method helps us let go of negative narratives that we think that we have no control over.
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