How to banish pessimism

Psychologies tests two different personal development techniques designed to help us find a more positive outlook on life. Interview by Flavia Mazelin Salvi


How to banish pessimism

Josephine, 39, knows what would make her happy: making a success of her new relationship and blended family. But can she do that without allowing pessimism to eat away at her? She tested two different personal development techniques to find out.

This month, I will be moving in to a new flat with my five-year-old daughter, Lara, my partner, Christian, and his son, Max. Two years after my divorce, I’m looking forward to this new challenge.

However, even though objectively I have no reason to question my decision, I can feel an overwhelming negativity gnawing away. Unfortunately, I’m used to having the type of thoughts I call my ‘black mice’. They nibble at my optimism, dampen my spirits and lie in wait for the pleasures in my life – great or small – to tear them apart. Having decided to fight them with all the strength I can muster, I contact two therapists, and test out their techniques for combating negative thoughts.

Technique 1: NARRATIVE THERAPY – a new story

‘The theory behind the narrative approach is that each one of us is made up of multiple stories,’ coach and psychotherapist Pierre Blanc-Sahnoun tells me. ‘These stories generate habits, thoughts and behaviours. Some act as motors, others as brakes. The goal of narrative therapy, which was conceived and developed by the psychotherapist Michael White, is to help us realise we can use our own resources to escape from the grasp of limiting stories and tell ourselves new ones.’ First, I focus on the problem by thinking about what’s really behind my distrust of anything new. The question is simple: why do I act this way? Once I have identified the right question, I have the answer: it protects me from disappointment, and I’m never surprised when life deals me a blow. My negativity is defensive.

Second, I ask myself how this defence system came about. This means I have to try to identify my inner critic. It’s not hard to find: he has the face and the voice of my paternal grandfather, a patriarch who preached suspicion and self-control throughout his life. The result: my father and uncles are sensible, mistrustful and prudent. As for my mother, her own mother was extremely over-cautious, and she sees any kind of change as a threat. It is not surprising, therefore, that my inner critic starts to predict all kinds of disaster and calamity the moment I decide to make radical changes in my life. I realise that I’m not a natural pessimist, but that I put a strategy, inherited from my family, in place to protect myself.

By recalling these memories, I realise that my grandfather was himself hostage to his past. His father moved to the UK after having lost everything in his native Spain, and he had to start again from scratch. I realise my mistrustful inner critic has good intentions: to protect my family and me. With that, my perspective softens. I realise I’ve given its voice far too much power. It’s time to develop a different narrative to change my perspective. Blanc-Sahnoun asks me to recall a time I took a decision that turned out to be the right one, despite all the warnings of my inner critic. At first, I don’t think I can recall a single time this happened (ever the pessimist), but then I remember I left my hometown for London 13 years ago, against my parents’ wishes.

And, despite a few setbacks, I’ve never once regretted my decision. It troubles me that I had forgotten such a personal victory, and I’m conscious that it shows a very different side to my personality. I may be pessimistic and mistrustful, but I am also brave and confident. I now need to identify the voice that tells me, ‘Go for it!’ Spontaneously, I blurt out, ‘It’s the intrepid youth in me, the one I imagine as a joyful pioneer.’ In effect, the reckless tomboy that I was until puberty still lives in me. And she resurfaces when a challenge or a chance to play comes along. I hand over to her and the new life that awaits me becomes attractive and filled with positivity again. This is good news. In my personal story, the joyful adventurer is capable of seeing off the severe judge.

Technique 2: EMOTIONAL MANAGEMENT – comforting the child within

According to psychologist and psychotherapist Isabelle Filliozat, ‘Emotions are unleashed when we are wounded, frustrated or in danger. It is the tool our body uses to repair itself.’ Contrary to what we believe, the emotion is not the problem; it is part of the healing process. In order to be more confident and at peace, we need to rediscover and express the emotions that were suppressed in the past. This exercise with Filliozat comes at just the right time. When I was saying goodbye to Max, Christian’s son, I felt him stiffen and avoid my embrace. I also noticed his father’s reaction – a mixture of embarrassment and worry.

My daughter, Lara, had spent all day trying to get the boy’s attention, but he’s a surly and defensive pre-teen, and she had no luck. Her words – ‘he’ll never accept me’ – stayed with me all day. Max’s sadness, and his attempts to keep me at a distance, had upset me more than I realised. I see myself as a little girl again. I feel on the verge of tears. I ask myself what I can do, right now, to manage the situation and find it less hurtful. I return to the past to listen to the emotions of the child I was. I close my eyes and visualise the park, the bench I liked to sit on, the other children playing. My mother is lost in thought and waves vaguely in my direction from time to time. I feel alone, powerless in the face of her sadness. My toys lose their allure and I would give up everything to make her happy.

As an adult, I feel a pang of anguish for the child’s confusion. I surprise myself by saying in a quiet voice, ‘Don’t worry about her. She’s a grown up, she has made her choices, she has resources. It’s you who needs to be comforted.’ Next, I visualise myself as a young girl, reassured, returning to play with the other children. I no longer worry about my mother on the bench. I am not her mother. I take the opportunity to say that to her, loud and clear, and I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my chest. Back in the present, I see Max sitting alone in a corner, hunched over his games console. I imagine myself going towards him and telling him I understand his sadness and anger, that I’ll never push him, and that he’s not obliged to like me. I feel I am behaving like a real adult, just as I would have liked my mother to be with me.

Now it’s up to me to continue acting this way.

More inspiration:

Read Overcoming pessimism and self-limiting assumptions by David Head on LifeLabs