My in-laws bought a beautiful SUV with pristine paint and not a dent in sight. They came to visit us for the weekend, and my mother-in-law needed to run an errand. She offered to let me drive. I promptly backed the aforementioned SUV directly into a trailer parked behind it. I cried. My mother-in-law might have too. In the moment after the incident, I told myself things like, “You’re such a mess! You always do stuff like this. You’re never going to get it together.”
Years later, my in-laws were in town again, and we were heading out for a day at the lake. I had a sudden craving for coffee so we pulled into a parking lot. I made my purchase and exited only to discover my family talking to a stranger. Someone pointed to the bumper of our SUV, and I could see the crumpled metal and shattered headlight. The responsible party said, “I didn’t see you in the rearview mirror. It’s a work truck I’ve never driven before, and I’m not used to it. I wish I had backed out slower.”
I stood there, coffee in hand, and considered our very different explanations of two strikingly similar events. Back in graduate school, we learned about research by a psychologist named Martin Seligman. He asserted that there are two distinct ways of explaining events in our lives. The first style, pessimism, saw unfortunate events as personal, permanent, and pervasive. In other words, those with this style believe it’s their fault, it will last forever, and it affects every area of their lives (see my response to backing into that trailer as an example).
The second style, optimism, sees those very same events as external, temporary, and specific. In other words, they attribute the cause to something outside themselves, they believe it won’t last forever, and whatever happened is only related to this individual situation (see the response of the man who backed into Mark’s car as an example).
This optimism is not the stereotypical kind where someone ignores reality and insists that everything is good all the time. None of us want to be that way so try to put that definition of optimism out of your mind. What we’re talking about actually gives us a more realistic view.
Seligman found that those with the pessimistic style were more prone to anxiety, depression, and even physical illness. They were more likely to quit jobs, not push through obstacles, and give up. Here’s the good news: We can change our style. Doing so begins with recognizing our natural response. If we tend to react with a pessimistic style, then we can pause and choose to process events in a different way. We can ask,
What external factors contributed to this? (I was driving an unfamiliar car and the trailer was parked in my blind spot.)
Will this really last forever? (This is unfortunate, but it can be fixed in a few days.)
Does this really affect every area of my life? (One bad moment as a driver doesn’t make me a bad person.)
The goal of this reflection is not saying “I’m fine!” with a fake smile on our face. It’s also not about getting out of our responsibilities or passing the blame. The man in the parking lot and I both ended up paying for new bumpers. Explaining events differently simply helps us be more resilient and minimizes the long-term damage to our emotional, mental, and physical health, as well as our relationships. It decreases our anxiety and helps us fight off depression.
Also, while Seligman calls this optimism, it sure feels a lot to me like living in grace. As believers, we aren’t limited to just “pessimist” or “optimist.” We can go above and beyond either because we’re indwelled by and empowered through the Spirit.
Sometimes, I’m still tempted to look at what happens in my life as personal, permanent, and pervasive. We all have this tendency — when our spouse leaves, when our evaluation report at work is not what we hoped, when our teenager yells and then slams the door, when we get laid off, when our friend stops returning our calls, when we spill the milk.
We often can’t control what happens to us. But we can control what we think about it. “For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 NKJV). As a woman thinks in her heart, so is she too.
God, You have given us powerful minds that shape how we view ourselves and circumstances. When we start to give in to negativity and self-criticism, shift us back toward grace and compassion. We so often do this for others, but it’s much harder to do for ourselves. Empower us to do so. Amen.
For more encouragement and a life-changing tool, 15 Minutes to Your Mission Statement: 4 Exercises to Help You Discover Your Personal Strengths and Direction, subscribe to Holley’s blog.
We often can’t control what happens to us. But we can control what we think about it. - @holleygerth Click To Tweet Leave a Comment
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
Thank you for a post that speaks to my heart. When the question was asked, “Do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty?” I was always in the “half-empty” camp. Then to make matters worse, I would beat myself up for being a pessimist…talk about insult on top of injury. I realize how I am prone to think and the enemy knows it too. He is all too happy to jump on the negativity bandwagon and rub in our mistakes. I am realizing that, like you said, we have a choice as to which direction our mind is going to go. I am practicing with choosing the “grace-filled” option. Those are great questions to ask when something negative happens…will be using those! I also love this song by Hillsong that sings of asking Jesus, “Tell the devil, no, not today, Lord!” It’s kind of been my theme song when the creep wants to rub salt in the wounds and get me down on my mistakes…maybe this will help others. There is power in the name of Jesus. …https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kebQsnSTRI
Beth Williams says
I believe I’m more pessimistic than optimistic. When things go wrong I blame myself, get upset & like you say those things to me. My tendency is to believe them. Never to the point of anxiety or depression. I don’t usually stay in that frame of mind for long. Something good happens & I get happy. I can change moods easily. Knowing what causes those problems can help me avoid them & thus those feelings. The devil uses those “bad” things in life to get us down & feel defeated. It is another trick in his bag. My belief is that God allows trials/tribulations in our lives to bring us closer/back to Him. Accidents will happen, people leave marriages, children rebel, etc. We can’t control any of this spinning earth. We must go directly to God, pray & ask for His divine guidance. God will help us see from an eternal perspective.
barbie robinson says
I like that…we cant stop the spinning earth.
Thank you for your comment!
Could the scripture reference (Proberbs 23:7) be incorrect? I looked mine up in the ESV and it is very different. But it is the middle of the night and I am a tad exhausted from feeding babies…
Yes it’s the same, but also has a part b after it. Blessings and rest sweet mama
Thank you so much for this Holly. I have struggled my entire life with battling depression and self image. This article speaks to me so clearly. I have always thought of myself as a positive person, but that does not include how I treat or look at myself. I am quick to extend grace to others but not myself. Thank you for opening my eyes to this. I need to be kinder to myself. I know through God’s grace that He will help me. I must see myself through His eyes and stop letting the enemy cast doubts upon my life. Thank you again for sharing your self so honestly.
I seem to be a pessimist also. I just now realizing it @ 46 years old! Oh how I want the negative self talk to be different. I pray God will change the way I handle things. I want so badly for my circumstance to change & often feel like if they don’t, I can’t see the good until they change. I see my 15 year old daughter the same way. Dear Lord, please forgive me for my pessimism & the way I handle disappointments. Please help my daughter to see the positive side to her circumstances!
I need help!! Right now I need your prayers I am in Auckland to get an emergency or full passport (my daughter cut the bio page out of my passport) I’m in another country from Australia and travelled by plane to Auckland so it makes it a bit harder. My family is due to travel overseas in 7 days. And on top of all that I have misplaced my laptop with the forms needed inside to hand into the consulate general tomorrow plus the laptop has all my Masters notes on it. Talk about timing Holley, I am a natural pessimist which I hate but I’m choosing to be an optimist in this situation. I could have left it in the restaurant where I had dinner or on the bus. Please sweet Lord grant me a miracle, I’m so sorry I was so careless … if anything please allow me to get the forms back and my passport on time. I ask to remain an optimist in your good grace….Oh dear this can turn into a disaster….please I’m reaching out to you God, let everything work out!! Amen
Wow! What a concept! I need to relearn my responses to unpleasant circumstances. I am getting better, but still have a long way to go. Thank you for this insightful piece.
May you be blessed on your own journey, Holley!
Nancy Ruegg says
“Optimism…sure feels a lot to me like living in grace.” Oh, I love that comparison. Surely God is an optimist, as he slowly but surely works within us to desire his ways and to work out his good plan (Philippians 2:13)! But he never gives up on us and always expects the best (1 Corinthians 13:7). Surely that is also grace. Thank you Holley!
Thanks You Lord for using Holley to share this message. And thank you Holley for allowing God to use you to remind us how though the enemy has His tricks, God has us. One of the scriptures the Spirit reminds me of in times where I am being pessimistic is, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Philippians 4:8 KJV
When I meditate on that truth I find peace and yet the enemy still seeks to disrupt it with doubts or being over analytical. He’s after our minds and I thank God for Him giving us a way of escape.
Grace and mercy be with us all.
This really spoke to my heart! I tend to go to “pessimist” when I do something clutzy. I beat my self up and wonder why I can’t do anything right. On the positive side, I am learning not to harbour these feelings for very long.
Thanks for the reminder of God’s Grace which,h we need to extend to ourselves.