Is the glass half full or half empty? The question is fewer than ten words long and yet the general population – at least in America – tends to view it as a reliable way to determine if someone has an optimistic or pessimistic mentality.
The optimists of the world would claim the glass is half full.
The pessimists would declare that it’s half empty.
Honestly, I’ve always felt that the “true” answer depends on whether or not the glass was empty or full prior to reaching the half-way mark. If the glass’s most recent state was empty, then it’s now half full. If the glass’s most recent state was full, then it’s now half empty. I tend to think of this answer as being indicative of being a realist, but I’ve encountered a lot of individuals – both optimists and pessimists – who say it makes me pessimistic. I am inclined to think that means a lot of people view realism as depressing.
(For those interested, this is part 5 in the blog series I’m doing while reading the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Conquering Fear and Anxiety. It isn’t necessary to read the other posts, but here’s the link to the first one: Conquering Fear/Anxiety – pt. 1.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, optimists reportedly have more self-esteem and feel as though things will turn out alright more often than they will go wrong. On the other hand, pessimists are reported to suffer from lower self-esteem and a belief that the worst case scenario is the most likely one. Of course, in both instances, there are exceptions.
I noted above that I think of myself as a realist and that’s largely true . . . but . . . according to the book, I do have a lot in common with pessimists in terms of how we view successes and failures.
Pessimists, for example, view failure as a confirmation of their inability to do something. As a result, they avoid trying new things, if they’re unsure whether or not they’ll be successful at them. Even when they do succeed, the success is a source of anxiety and guilt, because it feels undeserved, false, or embarrassing. In that same vein, pessimists tend to be perfectionists and will critique themselves much more harshly than an optimist – or even a realist – would.
In that way, I am pessimistically minded. I don’t tend to “take pride” in my achievements, because I usually feel ashamed of how long they took or how hard they were. I am also inclined towards attributing quick or easy successes to flukes or to chance, rather than to myself and my abilities. Similarly, I do tend to focus on my mistakes. It’s not that I don’t see the good . . . just that I blow the bad out of proportion.
I don’t actually view other people’s successes the same way. If another individual succeeds at something they struggled with, I see them as having persevered and think they deserve admiration. If another individual succeeds at something easily or naturally, I appreciate their talent and envy their swiftness at the task. Also, I don’t tend to pick apart other people’s accomplishments the way I do my own.
Another point made by the book is that, when perfectionists are praised for their “imperfect” works, they can feel guilty for “swindling” their audience. They become determined to lessen that guilt by being “better” at their next task. This struck a cord with me, because I do tend to tell myself and others, “I’ll be better, next time.”
For instance, my supervisor will praise me for passing all my medications on time and doing my charting early . . . but I will be focused on the fact that I forgot to bring someone the ice chips they asked for and will feel the praise isn’t truly deserved.
Not only can pessimists feel anxious about succeeding due to an inner belief that the associated praise isn’t deserved, they can also fear succeeding for other reasons.
Mark Twain sorta nailed down one of them when he said, “There’s always something about your success that displeases even your best friends.”
In other words, fear of succeeding can actually mean fear of rejection.
We talk about sore losers, but we don’t tend to have the conversation in terms of the effects on the winners. By that, I mean we talk about the loser’s self-esteem and need to develop good sportsmanship . . . but not about how the winner can grow to regret their win or feel guilty over it or even like they should have intentionally lost. Not only that, but frequent successes can be met with indifference or even exacerbation, despite the fact that the newer successes might have taken more effort than the original ones.
For instance, I have always been an A and B student, but it took more work in college . . . yet my mother didn’t hang my thesis paper on the fridge. A sort of why bother mentality can arise from this type of situation being repeated in various forms.
The last note the book makes about fear of succeeding has to do with sex and performance anxiety. It’s explained, in the book, that performance anxiety in the bedroom is closely tied to a pessimistic world view and a fear of success. What, you may wonder, could cause a fear of succeeding at bedroom activities? Well, you’re setting up a standard for yourself that will need to be met repeatedly (if not surpassed) and you’re also opening yourself up to greater intimacy with someone . . . thus making failure an even scarier prospect.
I think part of the reason I enjoy bondage and submission in the bedroom is that it takes some of this away. I have a fetish for being used/abused, because I feel more comfortable in a passive role than an active one. I do tend to avoid initiating sex out of fear of rejection and it takes alcohol to change that. For me, it’s not just self-consciousness regarding how I look, but fears that I will do something awkward or “wrong.”
Logical flaws in the thinking process are most to blame for the above anxieties related to success, but can affect anyone. I am guilty of three such flaws on a regular basis and particularly in the midst of my panic attacks.
- Over-generalization. “I will never be able to get everything done.”
- Disqualifying the Positive. “I know people say I’m doing well, but . . .”
- Magnification/Minimization. “I forgot to page this doctor about xyz!”
The notion of failure as a desirable outcome is another type of logical flaw in thinking, but it’s not covered explicitly in the book. Failure can feel like the safe option when you consider that success can lead to guilt, rejection, and embarrassment. Deciding not to try to succeed can completely eliminate those issues. Also, for agoraphobics . . . such as myself . . . avoidance of the source of the anxiety makes the anxiety go away and thus reinforces the notion that failure (or inaction) is best.
All that can seem daunting. How can someone learn to be less self-critical? Or more optimistic? Is that even possible? Where would you even start?
The book attempts to answer these question by pointing to something called self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is the belief that you have mastery over the events in your life and can meet challenges as they come up. Apparently, this is the key to being the type of person who isn’t afraid of failing, doesn’t procrastinate, and is hopeful about life in general.
Okay, great! Now . . . how do you develop self-efficacy?
The book suggests that you build success slowly in order to avoid feelings of guilt/fears of loss and learn to be happy with not being perfect. Another recommendation is to become your own best friend by caring and nurturing yourself. To that end, the book explains that taking care of your physical and emotional needs is extremely important. As is redirecting negative self-talk.
For example, instead of thinking that I can’t do a task properly, I need to think about how I’ve learned new tasks and done them well in the past.
The negative thought may be, “I’ll never learn to manage my time properly.”
The positive counter-thought may be, “My time management skills have improved since I started at the hospital and will continue to get better with more practice.”
I don’t think – nor does the book claim – that building self-efficacy is an overnight process. It can actually, according to the book, take years of therapy to really make it stick. Which is great, for those who are able to afford that, but less great for those who can’t . . . like me. There is still hope; however, because the concept of self-help does still exist and the internet can be a great resource.
For the time being, I’m going to continue this sort of introspective blog project. I have already learned several things since starting. Here’s a little mini-list to end this post!
- I really do match the definitions of someone with agoraphobia.
- I actually have a pessimistic world view, based on the definitions.
- My fear of the unknown is rooted in a fear of lack of control.
- There are things in my childhood that account for all of the above.
- Being more self-aware can lead to being able to cope with the above.