By Andrea Bonior, Ph.D
Over the course of our lives, we run across all types of people—and the fact that we're prone to classifying them as "types" shows just how much we tend to believe that people are certain ways by nature. But the truth is, many aspects of our personalities and emotional make-ups develop over time through the psychological habits we have adopted—the ways we interpret events, the thoughts that run through our heads like clockwork, and the explanations we give ourselves for how the world works. Few people want to become bitter and negative, and yet it's not uncommon, especially for people who have experienced more than their share of tough times.
Want to have a more hopeful and optimistic outlook on life? See if you can diminish these mental habits, and go from there:
1. Not forgiving others.
Many people equate forgiveness with forgetting that something happened altogether, or with saying that it was okay that it did. That's not what forgiveness is about. And many people claim that they have forgiven someone for something, while in reality, they have not. What real forgiveness means is allowing yourself to be free from the resentment of having been wronged, to accept that something has occurred and to believe that you deserve to move on from it. It is letting go in its healthiest, truest sense. Forgiveness doesn't minimize the wrongness of someone's actions. It just allows you to no longer be hurt by them. Forgiveness is associated with reduced depression, stress, and hostility, and improved self-esteem and even physical health. When you look at its benefits, you'll see it's about being kind to yourself, not doing a favor for someone else.
2. Not forgiving yourself.
Even more kind is allowing yourself to move on from your own mistakes. Regret, embarrassment, shame, and guilt from a single mistake can haunt you for years. And the ensuing negative thoughts, stress, and pessimistic outlook can create a dynamic in which you view the world in a bitter way—all because you feel that you are unworthy of feeling okay. In fact, forgiving yourself has been shown to help reduce feelings of depression. If you find yourself plagued by thoughts of past mistakes, start noticing and exploring them: When are they at their worst? What feelings do they bring on? What makes them go away? If you are locked in a never-ending fight with the thoughts, trying to "reason" your way out of them, see if instead you can learn to accept their presence without endorsing their meaning.
3. All-or-none thinking.
It is amazing how frequently all-or-none thinking seems to underlie such a variety of unhealthy psychological states. From panic to low self-esteem, from perfectionism to hopelessness, it is not uncommon to uncover hidden and not-so-hidden patterns of this dysfunctional thinking in my clients when they are struggling with a negative worldview. What all-or-none thinking does, by its very definition, is make your outlook on life more rigid. It magnifies negativity by making it appear bigger than it really is. It keeps your mind focusing on what's gone wrong rather than what's gone right, and it sets you up to see the bad in people, things, and life more often than the good. See if you can catch yourself making this mistake in daily life: Are you inherently uncomfortable with shades of gray, and do you prefer things to be more black-and-white? That might be good for organizing a closet, but when it comes to how you process bad things happening, it can hurt you.
4. Holding others to a higher standard than you hold yourself.
When you are constantly disappointed and annoyed with people around you, it could mean that you are having an unlucky break and not being treated the way you deserve. It could also mean that you are choosing ill-fitting people to accompany you throughout life. Or, more likely, it could mean that you have a set of overly rigid standards for other people's behavior that you don't apply to yourself. In fact, sometimes we are hardest on others when we see our own traits in them—things that we don't like to admit or examine. Seeing them in others makes us uncomfortable. Like the classic hypocrite who crusades against sins far smaller than the ones he or she commits in their private life, it's bound to create a disconnect within us that causes stress, hostility, and negativity. Examine what's really going on when you're chronically frustrated with someone, whether it's the stranger in the left-hand turn lane or your messy roommate. Are you looking at the whole picture? What if, instead of bathing in the negative energy, you chose to reflect on the last time you made a mistake and the way it may have looked to others? Sending empathy to others, even when you least want to, can be a surprisingly powerful tool to take away the anger.
5. Believing that things will never get better.
Severe hopelessness can be particularly dangerous, putting people at increased risk for depression and even suicide. But even milder beliefs about how things will never improve can do significant day-to-day damage: "My sister will never get her act together," "I'll never be able to pay off my student loans," and "The world is a bad place and getting worse" are all beliefs that show hopelessness and can blind a person to significant evidence to the contrary. A lifetime is, for most of us, a decades-long ride that sees many highs and many lows, and many ebbs and many flows. Believing that there is a downward trajectory obstructs the beauty of everyday things and keeps you hopelessly and inaccurately believing negative ideas—giving them a staying power that they don't deserve. Imagine how much peace you can feel simply by allowing yourself to believe that harmonious and beautiful things are out there in the world, yet to be experienced. It takes practice to see them, but they are there and always will be.
6. Believing you have less control over your life than you really do.
Learned helplessness, first identified by Martin Seligman, involves the belief that we don't have control over our situations even in cases when we do, and so we convince ourselves we shouldn't even bother to try. This mindset has been shown to be correlated with depression, and for some people it follows a period of time when they really did not have much control over their lives—perhaps while suffering from abuse or neglect, for example. But when the belief that we have no power persists after we, in actuality, have gained power back, we're denying ourselves the potential to make our lives better. And we increase the likelihood that we view the world as an inherently demoralizing place, convincing ourselves that we can't make a difference. The more we can feel that we steer our own ship, the more we can build a life that suits us. Are you underestimating your ability to get out of that dead-end job, find a partner that treats you well, or develop a peaceful resolution to your years-long fight with your brother? If so, you are doing yourself a great disservice—and increasing your chances of letting your mindset harden into a bitter one.
7. Believing the myth of arrival.
The myth of arrival refers to the idea that once you have "arrived" at a certain point in your life, everything will fall into place and the life you have waited for will finally begin. But sometimes this belief—that things will automatically get better once a certain thing happens—can be nearly as damaging as believing that things will never improve, because the former sets you up for a devastating letdown when things actually don't get better. "Once I finally meet the one/get my promotion/lose those 20 pounds/live in a bigger house/get my kids settled into independent and successful lives...then I'll be happy" are common ways of thinking. But putting our happiness on hold—and in the hands of a random life event that may or may not have any effect whatsoever on our happiness—is giving way too much power to an external situation and not nearly enough to ourselves. It robs us of the ability to find joy on our own terms. It makes us miss the proverbial journey because we're so hyper-focused on the destination. Worst of all, it sets us up for a crash when we realize that it wasn't those 20 pounds making us depressed—it was the fact that we were depressed, for different reasons entirely, that made us put on 20 pounds in the first place.
It was one of the "cognitive errors" that Aaron Beck first identified as putting people at higher risk for depression, and it often manifests itself in believing that if you fail at one thing, you will fail at everything. The tendency to overgeneralize—to turn a molehill of a setback into a mountain—also underlies the thinking patterns of a lot of people who have pervasive negative views of the world around them. Sometimes this type of thinking can even look like paranoia: "Give anyone an inch, and they will take a mile" or "Just about everyone will take advantage of you if you let them." It's true that not every person is a paragon of virtue, but it's also true that there is a lot of goodness out there if you just let yourself look for it. And just because there are scammers doesn't mean that you should stop helping those who aren't. After all, helping others gives us a mood boost. So examine your beliefs to see if you are—against all available evidence—overgeneralizing the world into a dangerous or hostile place, which may show hostility coming from within.
9. Not practicing gratitude.
Being grateful for things big and small brings big changes to your mental health. It is much harder to be bitter about your late-arriving dinner and have it ruin your whole night if you allow yourself to acknowledge how gorgeous the blooming trees outside the restaurant window were while you waited, or the fact that you are able to afford to pay someone to cook you a meal at all—or the fact that you were with someone who could make you laugh, no matter how much your stomachs were growling. Some people may think that gratitude, meditation or keeping a list of things that you're grateful for is hokey. But would you rather be a little hokey or be the person who goes their whole life without the mental and physical health benefits—lessened depression, improved immune system functioning and heart health, among many others—that gratitude brings?