Pessimism is like drinking. A little bit of it can get you through some sketchy times in your life, but make it a habit and it will give you cirrhosis of the brain. I’ve been a pessimist all my life. After reading the book by Dan Seligman titled Learned Optimism, I learned that optimism and pessimism are more than just a tendency to be positive or negative. They are paradigms for the way we process all of our experiences in the world. Moreover, neither one of them has much to do with reality because they are manifested in the conversations we have with ourselves when we are alone, conversations that tell us if we did a good job, or a bad job, or if something going wrong was our fault.
I was taught from a young age that whenever things went wrong, it was because I screwed something up. As a forgetful person, there was never a shortage of ammunition to throw at me when things did go wrong. As a corollary to this lesson, I learned that I never had a right to relax or feel proud of myself until I had checked and rechecked every possible way that things could go wrong, and built a solid plan of action for how to deal with them. On the outside, this sounds like responsibility. Every one knows that it’s attention to detail that gets you ahead in the world, and sloth is a sin besides. In reality, no one can predict every possible failure and trying to do so is why the Japanese have “overworking” as an official cause of death.
As an adult, it’s now Me, Myself and I that throw the ammunition at each other, and we’re all standing in a circle as we do it. Trained from so young to always look to myself for the source of bad things, and to prevent them rather than react to them, I read disaster into events that could be benign as a summer breeze, and I berate myself for failures that others would see as shining accomplishments.
Today I received an e-mail from a student in my graduate seminar. He was withdrawing from the course because he felt he could not keep up. We are only on our second full session. My heart sank as I read his most sincere apology for wasting my time. I immediately starting wracking my brain for ways in which I failed to accommodate him. Did I speak too fast? Was I not clear about the prerequisites of this course? Is the material just plainly too hard for these students? Was I taking for granted knowledge that is specific to my field? I was so distraught that as I entered the classroom for my next lecture and saw only two of the four students I expected, I almost broke out in tears.
Moments after my near crisis, one student walks in and informs me that the fourth guy is sick. We had a great time together talking about economics and laughing at some of its silly implications. The students took their work seriously and after today I know that this one course is going to be fine.
Walking back to my office, I wondered to myself why I had been so upset. I’ve had students drop my classes before, and I’ve had students stay in who are clearly not able to keep up. I’ve never had bad reviews. What’s different now is that I am working at a new institution in a new country with students who are studying English at the same time as they are studying the material in my class. So, essentially, I’m out of my element. Anyone who is out of their element experiences stress. Pessimists, however, take all that additional uncertainty and chew on it, ruminating and worrying it into a stomach ulcer, or a chronic migraine, or just crippling self doubt.
With so much unknown and untested, my inner dialogue had almost free reign over my interpretation of events. My habits of blaming myself and looking for fault were compounded by the fact that I didn’t have any baseline of comparison. I realized that in my home country, small classes were desirable. Even for me, as the professor, a small class is more manageable and I know the students are more comfortable and learn better in the more intimate setting. So why was I getting upset? Habit habit habit.
I realized that where I was seeing crisis, there was none. Where I was looking for fault, there was none. I could have easily congratulated myself on making it clear from the start what we were going to accomplish so that the student didn’t waste half of his semester struggling, just give up before making it to the end. Instead of fretting about how my poor teaching skills are causing the students so much distress, I can focus on how much better off the students who remain are for having a class more appropriate to their level. Even better, I can remember that I was hired as a teacher because I am an amazing teacher. I have over ten years of teaching experience, perhaps even fifteen, and my experience spans more than just academia. I have taught dance lessons, I have coached running, I have taught self confidence to the chronically depressed. I have taught introductory courses and advanced courses. I know what I’m doing. If the students don’t like it, then it’s not my fault, it’s just the way things happen.
Well, it’s easy to say those things now. Habitual pessimism makes it difficult to say those things in the moment of perceived crisis. It makes crises out of nothing and it makes you, me, the pessimist powerless in the face of these crises specifically because the crisis and the ability to overcome the crisis are both in our own minds. Outside in the world, life is bigger and there are many other things that matter more, but inside my mind, the obstacle is insurmountable.
Luckily, I am able to see the problem for what it is. I have learned in the past few years several strategies for dealing with my old frenemy. As frightening as it was the first hundred times, I’ve learned that the best defense is a solid outside opinion. When I’m nervous, I talk to other people who I have reason to trust. When it’s a work problem, I talk to a colleague. My habitual response was always to deny any encouragement they gave me, but now I force myself to believe them 100%. Some might say that this is dangerous, that it’s giving away too much of my autonomy to strangers, but I say that when my own judgment has turned against me, there is no better judgment than that of anyone else!
With practice I’ve noticed that it gets easier to believe people, and I find their words more comforting. I never knew I had a problem being comforted before. I did know I had a problem feeling close to people and a problem with giving myself permission to put down all the baggage and relax, godammit. The best part is that I’m seeing these problems in retrospect, from a place of greater wholeness and well being. And it’s empowering to see them go! Knowing that the stress and the worry are all products of my mind, I now have the confidence that I can be happy and relaxed and worry-free in any situation. I have given myself the freedom to define my own life and set the bar for my own personal happiness. I don’t have to wait anymore for the perfect job to land in my lap, I make my job perfect from where I am. I don’t have to wait around for the right person to love me, either. I make my friends, I really make them because when I share my troubles and allow them to help me, we both are better off for it.