I was curious about the relationship between hope and optimism, so I called an expert!
Dr. Elizabeth Rozell is a professor at Missouri State University. She has done significant research in the area of “Learned Optimism.” I asked Libby why she chose this line of research and she said, “I was drawn to it because I had learned to be fairly pessimistic.”
I loved that answer! She may have been a learned professor, but she was still a girlfriend I could relate to! I sat across from her desk in her upstairs office and asked some questions about optimism. I wanted to know if Libby felt that one could learn to be optimistic, and if there is a difference between optimism and hope. Of course, I had to ask the obvious question first! Here’s our conversation:
Jennifer: “Do you talk to yourself?”
Libby: “Yes, everybody does. We do it every moment of every day. We do it to explain what’s happening to us, to explain why people around us are acting a certain way, why this, why that…it’s just a constant process of talking to ourselves. We spend a lot of energy on these inner conversations. For example, if our spouse is short with us, we immediately begin an internal conversation to explain it—‘Oh, he’s having a bad day,’ or ‘Man, he’s a jerk!’ or ‘What did I do to make him mad?’ “
Jennifer: “Does that constant self talk have an impact?”
Libby: “Most people get in a pattern of talking to themselves in the negative. Like, if the spouse is short, they think, 'I’m just unworthy to be treated kindly.’ Instead, they could think, ‘Hey, he’s having a bad day, which has nothing to do with me.’ ”
Jennifer: “Why do you think that is the case?”
Libby: “Psychologists say that at least half of our personalities are inherited, so it’s hard to know where to draw the line. We, as children, listen and learn from our parents. We tend to follow the patterns of thinking that they had. Psychologists say it is usually the parent we spent the most time with who has the most influence. So if your mother engaged in a lot of negative self talk, then you might be inclined to do the same.”
Libby then recounted a great story from the book Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, to illustrate her point. She told of a mom who went to a grocery store with her young daughter. After shopping, they returned to their car where they discovered, to their dismay, that someone had rammed a shopping cart into the side of their brand new vehicle! As the five-year-old daughter looked to her mom, the mother exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! I knew I shouldn’t have parked there! Why did I do that?” rather than saying, “What schmuck did that to my car?” The mom, through her self talk, told her daughter that even though it was a random event, it was still her fault. The real damage was not to the car--it was to the daughter--because through her mom’s response, she learned to create her own pessimistic self talk.
Jennifer: “So, if this self talk we engage in is learned, modeled, etc., can it be unlearned or remodeled?”
Libby: “Absolutely! Life can be explained many ways, and we can choose which explanation we are going to believe. People who tend to be negative grab those negative explanations. Those people must teach themselves to consider the other alternative. If you are prone to be negative, you must catch yourself and consider your opposite impulse. You must entertain other options and explanations for the events in your life. When a spouse is short, think, ‘He’s having a bad day,’ rather than always thinking, ‘He doesn’t love me.’ It will help break the habit of always grabbing the negative first.”
Jennifer: “Are you describing optimism?”
Libby: “I’m describing learned optimism. To be a pessimist means that whenever something bad happens, you blame yourself, and if something good happens, you give everybody else the credit! To learn optimism, you make great effort to entertain positive explanations and anticipate positive outcomes.”
Jennifer: “How long does that process usually take?”
Libby: “It begins with recognition and then continues with reinforcement. You can be pessimistic in some areas of your life and optimistic in other areas. For example, you may be an optimist when it comes to your work life, and a real pessimist when it comes to your relationships. The cycle begins to break when you recognize in which areas you are pessimistic. “
Jennifer: “Do you see hope and optimism as the same thing?”
Libby: “Almost one and the same. Because when you’re optimistic, you have hope. And when you are pessimistic, you are hopeless!”
So, here’s my take-away from our conversation:
1. Even a PhD talks to herself! What a relief!
2. One of the best ways to begin to tell your soul to “Look Up” is to recognize when you are pessimistic. Recognize and reinforce the times your self talk is optimistic. Replace your hopeless chatter with hopeful soul talk.
3. It’s important to examine your self talk to see if you are simply repeating the damaging self talk your parent spoke. If so, hold it captive at the door of the thought closet--it doesn’t fit, it’s not yours, and it is no longer welcome!