In his book Learned Optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman explains, “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”
For example, let’s take the common issue of weight and food issues. Has you noticed that due to the recent economic recession and other stressors, you’ve developed more than a nodding acquaintance with Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, extra-large pepperoni pizzas, and double cheeseburgers? Have late-night refrigerator raids become a common occurrence? Have you been beating yourself up over instances of compulsive eating? And how can you handle this situation like an optimist?
View the behavior as temporary – a blip on the radar screen. When we’re under stress, we secrete an inordinate amount of the hormone cortisol, which can fuel our appetite. Try not to identify yourself with the exceptional amount of stress you’ve been experiencing, nor with your bouts of emotional eating. Recall the many days during which you ate in a healthy manner.
Also, learn how to interrupt the stress cycle through practicing mindfulness meditation, taking up yoga, breaking up important tasks into manageable bites (so to speak), and getting sufficient rest.
For instance, taking a few minutes to become quiet and take some deep breaths can go a long way toward reestablishing a sense of calm within your body and mind. Did you know that breathing shallowly, as is common when one is stressed, only exacerbates anxiety, for physiological reasons? Alternatively, taking deep breaths from the belly turns on the relaxation response.
Isolate the problem. Watch out for catastrophizing, such as telling yourself, “I can’t do anything right”, “I’m a mess”, or “I hate my life”. As wildly dramatic as these phrases may sound, it’s not uncommon for people to beat themselves up after overindulging with food. Headaches, foggy thinking, nausea, and other symptoms of a “food hangover” are very real phenomena and can be quite unpleasant. Try to counter this sense of doom by remembering and appreciating the areas in your life that are going well.
How are your relationships with your family and friends? Do you enjoy a morning jog with your dog? Do you have the blessing of a steady paycheck? A recent episode of emotional eating does not have to cloud your entire life. Get some perspective on the matter.
Consider the many contributing factors. While it’s true that nobody poured food into you, perhaps you were at a business event, surrounded by an abundance of delectable hors d’oeuvres, and you ate a few too many appetizers due to anxiety about small talk with your boss. Perhaps your husband (or wife) polished off the rest of the fresh fruit and vegetables in the frig, and when you came home from work late at night the bag of Oreos looked especially inviting.
Whatever the case, forgive yourself. Even though many people feel that speaking harshly to themselves and in effect cracking the whip will motivate them to “straighten up and fly right”, actually the opposite is usually true. When we beat ourselves up verbally and mentally, this often causes us to lose motivation, because, after all, why would we want to take good care of someone we just yelled at? Forgiving ourselves for being human and thus imperfect is more likely to bring about kinder and healthier behaviors. Indeed, a recent study revealed that when dieters went off their diets, those dieters with self-compassion were more likely to get back on their diet than those who rated low in self-compassion. So, go ahead, give yourself a reassuring pat on the back and get back on your feet.
A caveat: Being an optimist does not mean relinquishing responsibility for our actions. We can be both kind and firm with ourselves when we recognize that some adjustment in our behavior is indicated. The difference is that optimists believe in the possibility of such change.
Keep in mind that your future is not set in stone. What tomorrow brings is largely dependent on your beliefs about today’s events and yourself. Such beliefs shape how we feel and how we act. Instead of yielding to the sense that “all is lost”, shift your focus to what you can control: How can today be different and more in line with your healthy goals for yourself?
Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, New York: Vintage Books.