Possibilities are just that.
Possibilities have no party affiliation, no good or bad label on them. Not really. They just are. It’s the attitude we bring to them that can make a difference.
In graduate school I had a professor who was known for being gruff. He was cranky all the time. To us he seemed ancient, a World War II vet who probably suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before it was a diagnosable condition.
To understand this story imagine a world where there was no caller ID. No voicemail. There were only landlines and most homes had only one number for the whole house. My professor said there were two types of people. One kind that, when the phone rang, thought, Oh boy! Someone’s calling me! And the other type that said, Oh, no! Someone’s calling me.
The optimist and the pessimist.
Most of us have a good idea of which we are. Like being an introvert or an extrovert, our outlook on the world as being a place of wonderful possibilities to be enjoyed or potential dangers to be avoided seems to come with our DNA. Part of our temperament.
Both attitudes in their extreme have limitations. Both attitudes have a basis in truth. If we’re born with a certain temperament, can we learn to be otherwise? Can I distress my shiny flawless optimism by sandpapering its glossy finish? Can I brighten up the pessimism with a dash of paint?
Yes. I think so.
“Trust, but verify.”
~Russian proverb attributed to Ronald Reagan
For the Pessimist
When we were born with a pessimistic temperament that sees the empty part of the glass every single time, the possibilities life brings us are held off at arms length. The pessimist says, I don’t trust anything, I don’t have confidence that anything will work out which is how I avoid getting hurt by the world. I screen all my calls. I micromanage my employees, my children, my spouse. The world is a dangerous place. By not expecting anything good to come from anything I prepare myself for the inevitable disappointment.
There’s at least a little pessimism in all of us. That’s because our nervous system is wired that way to assure the survival of our species. As a result, sadly, Brene Brown writes, we humans tend to not trust happiness. If something good happens to us we doubt it or worse, are afraid of it. Events, people, happy happenstance is approached with a sopping wet blanket. Feel joy in a child’s accomplishments? It won’t last. Something bad will happen, just wait. A promotion at work must mean the job isn’t that good or we are plagued by imposter’s syndrome. Fooled them for now but someday my lack will be exposed. And on and on it goes.
Sometimes how we were reared can make a difference in our attitude. Many families create an environment of worry and fear of the world. Such an attitude can be cultural, nurtured by lessons learned over generations of persecution. The world is a dangerous place, it can hurt you, don’t trust anyone. Because there is a grain of truth in this perspective it can be difficult to nudge. It’s like the person who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and has to wash his hands every ten minutes. With fears of pandemic they could say, “See? The world is full of germs and viruses and I am justified in my behavior so leave me alone!” Common Sense, that golden source of Reasonable Wisdom, says, no, that behavior is crazy-town. Wash your hands, certainly, follow the CDC guidelines for good hand hygiene, but you can over do it.
If you tend toward pessimism, take your time when there is a new possibility.
Possibilities can hold consequences that hurt, there’s no denying that. Just as likely, however, many possibilities provide outcomes that are good. Be aware of your knee jerk reaction to reject them, to say an automatic no. Instead talk to it. Say to yourself, “Now wait a minute, it’s possible that the opportunity to start this new venture that I’ve dreamed about will result in disaster. But I’m careful, thoughtful. I’ve done my research. Is it just possible that it could become a solid success?”
“When people show you who they are, believe them.”
For the Optimist
My sunny point of view is not something I chose. I just always had it, like my brown eyes. I was born this way. So when someone shouts out, Possibilities! Come get your possibilities! I’m there! I’m first in line. I can’t wait to see what’s in store because I’m sure it’s going to be great. Oh, boy, someone’s calling me!
Does that make me a sucker? Kind of. My first therapist told me I was naive and probably would be all my life. I took high offense. How dare he? I was a sophisticated, well-educated, cultured young woman! I spoke French, for God’s sake!
He was right, of course. With my innate optimism comes a good dose of trust that everyone will always do the right thing, be honest, not hurt me. Deny the dark in favor of the light. That sounds pretty naive doesn’t it?
Usually I enjoy my optimism and can’t imagine or have a hard time imagining being any other way.
The sun shines in my world even when it’s cloudy. Humor can be found in almost any situation and laughter exposes the beauty underneath the tension. I love smiling, laughing. I love loving and loving feels always full of hope.
I’ve learned the hard way to trust the darker side of my gut when it says, no, don’t trust that person. It’s happened a few times in my work particularly when I hired someone that didn’t work out. When they left, a voice inside would say “I told you so!”
One person I interviewed six times over the course of a year before hiring her! She was so sweet, nice, eager to please on the surface. But my skin would crawl and my stomach churns a little bit when I was face to face with her. That should have been enough to show me clearly not to bring that person in. But the positive possibility of growing my practice, my belief that I could smooth out the rough edges with my awesome mentoring, overrode my gut. Years later, when that person revealed who she really was and quit, leaving behind a cloud of betrayal, I regretted only that I trusted her more than I trusted my own gut. My optimism wasn’t my friend in this case.
So I’ve learned Dr. Angelou’s lesson. Many times.
When my optimistic mind wants to greet everyone into my life like a trusting puppy I pause now. If a deeper part of me, my gut, true voice, authentic self, whatever, narrows its eyes and growls, like the seasoned older dog that has seen a thing or two, I listen. That old girl is trying to protect me. I remember to trust her. She’s always right.
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.
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