On being positive and changing your mindset

I’ve been told I’m an eternal optimist. But I’ve also been told I’m too negative. Perhaps it’s like how some people tend to think I’m an extrovert, while others think I’m in introvert. Many of my character traits are ambiguous in a way. Not because I don’t know who I am, but because how I am or react depends on the circumstances. I admit that I’m an introvert – though one that doesn’t mind showing her weird side. And I wouldn’t say I’m negative, but I am realistic. And, I have a dark, morbid sense of humour – which some may think of as negative. I guess it is, like cynicism is. And passive aggressiveness – or active aggressiveness for that matter. And (unfortunately), I do not think I can change those sides of me.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t be an optimist at the same time. It is because I anticipate the worst at times, that I have plans A, B and C ready, just in case. Just like I believe there’s not only one path to happiness and success (we are all different and have different priorities and definitions of happiness and success), I also believe that one person has several potential paths to happiness and success within a lifetime – all depending on the circumstances. Doesn’t that sound optimistic? Also, while I am in general pessimistic about the state of the earth and mankind (or rather, our impact on each other and the earth with all her inhabitants), I am also generally optimistic when it comes to the smaller, concrete things that other people may worry about (I have no fears, don’t easily get nervous about ‘things going wrong’ because I believe I can solve anything – or at least, anything can and will be fixed one way or another). The only exception is when it comes to people and their behaviour – trust issues perhaps: doctors, garages, people I need to rely on but realistically know (due to past experience) that I can’t – meaning I am anticipating doing damage control.

When something bad does happen, I try to turn it into something good. For example, last week my noisy downstairs neighbours woke me up at 5am. I went to bed quite late, so I had a broken night of sleep and couldn’t fall back asleep while it was pitch-black. I could have been upset about it, but instead, I decided to take a peek outside and saw that the moon was shining bright. So, I decided to take photos of the moon and I love the result!
Every situation and every thought has positive and negative sides to them. My UN job was both a dream and a nightmare. Fame, I think, is both a blessing and a curse. Situations can’t always be categorised into one or the other. Still, there are certain situations that are clearly negative. When injustice is brought onto others, for example. In that sense, I have chosen the worst career since all human rights violations are caused by humans and it can sometimes make me feel quite misanthropic. While I’m not sure I still believe in the good in mankind, I also realise that cases still shock and upset me. It reminds me of this quote by Janis Joplin that I like and applies: “I must be an optimist, because a pessimist is never disappointed.”

And I recognise the power that positive thinking can have in certain situations. Mind over matter, right? I would love to apply the theory of being positive and having a positive mindset, but how does that work? Are you never allowed to think any negative thoughts? Not get upset? Frustrated? Angry? To not feeling anything at all anymore, or think negative thoughts, I’m not sure if I can – or want to. (Imagine me not reacting to the things I deal with at work – perhaps it would be better for my own state of mind, but at the same time it would mean that I may lose that feeling of passion to fight injustice as well.)

A couple of online positive thinking websites give me some answers on how to be positive: see the positive in every negative situation (success rate: 70%); cultivate and live in a positive environment (success rate: 60%); don’t let vague fears hold you back from doing what you want (success rate: 99% – I’m basically fearless); add value and positivity to someone else’s life (value: 90%; positivity: 60% – how to combine raising awareness on social issues and bringing positivity?); exercise regularly, eat and sleep well (success rate: 60%); learn to take criticism in a healthy way (success rate: 70%); meditate (success rate: 10%); practise active gratitude (success rate: 70%); use self-affirmations (success rate: 10%); do things you love to do (success rate: 80%); show compassion (success rate: 80%); follow your positive thoughts with positive actions (success rate: 80%); go slowly (success rate: 60%).

I understand the general theory and it’s not too bad. But, I also came across this: “believe a positive attitude is a choice.” While it may often be up to you how you deal with situations, I maintain that sometimes you simply cannot see the good or that you cannot feel more positive than how you are feeling at that particular moment. And if it’s a negative thought or feeling, should the realisation that what you are thinking or feeling is actually a choice make you feel even worse about it? It is basically negativity-shaming. This other thought crossed my mind (and to be clear, I don’t agree with it): strictly speaking, if you have the power to change any negative situation into a positive one through your mindset, you can change rape into a consensual sexual encounter. Nope, I can’t subscribe to that idea.

While aiming to be and think positively most of the time, I think that there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of realism or pessimism. As Dr. Oettingen wrote in the New York Times, using ‘mental contrasting’ combining positive thinking with realism, challenges and obstacles to reaching a goal can be assessed more objectively and dealt with properly leading to better successes of reaching a goal. It’s the realism that will prepare you for anything and keep you on your toes. Just know what to do in case things don’t go well, which is more an issue of flexibility, creativity and resilience anyways. You can learn how to dance in the rain, but nothing wrong with not liking being wet while doing so – or bring an umbrella and then dance with the umbrella out… “I’m singin’ in the rain…”

The earth has positive and negative charged poles, floods and droughts, mountains peaks and valleys. I believe it is only natural. Just know when and how to balance the negative out and/or turn it into something constructive. Self-reflection and self-criticism can seem negative, but it may lead to positive change. Not being satisfied until something is perfect leads to much better work than ‘bullshit’ optimism and thinking the slightest effort is enough to succeed. Besides, some of the world’s most beautiful songs and works of art were created out of negative emotions and thoughts!
There’s nothing wrong or shameful with a little bit of negativity at times. A certain darkness is needed to see the stars clearly. And a little pinch of salt will make the taste of sweetness even sweeter.

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