How can you stop pessimistic thinking when it seems to be your natural thinking style? One way is to train yourself out of the habit. Learn to develop alternative viewpoints to challenge those pesky automatic thoughts.

Our survival and wellbeing require a balance between optimism and pessimism. Undue pessimism doesn’t just make life miserable, over time it can seriously impact your health, job aptitude

Pessimistic thinking is underpinned by negative beliefs and expectations. These are generally unfounded. Even if you think you have evidence for your negative belief, this is usually shaky at best and probably downright wrong.

There is nothing wrong with pessimistic thinking in itself,  but can become a toxic habit that reduces you ability to see possibilities and opportunities. 

There’s a huge amount of evidence from psychological research which shows that pessimists tend to make false predictions based on a single negative event (“I was let down by one woman so women are not to be trusted”; “I never eat green vegetables because I tried spinach once and it was horrible”). 

This faulty logic, woven into your thinking, then influences your decisions. Once you have understood how your mind is working against you like this, you do something about correcting it.

Learning to argue

Psychologists call this disputation. Learning to challenge your negative beliefs means arguing with yourself. You certainly know how to do this already, so you don’t need to learn much. The trick is to transfer the skill you already possess to something useful, rather than letting it rampage through your mind destructively.

(To sidestep for a moment, for my purposes here I am describing entrenched pessimistic thinking. Studies suggest that relatively few people are actually true ‘pessimists’. We can be optimistic about one thing, like our career prospects for example, and pessimistic about another, our chances of meeting our perfect partner, for example.

It is for you to decide in which areas of your life you can most usefully apply your skills of optimism).

Not only pessimistic thinking

Rumination – when a single thought, or a series of them, just keeps repeating itself over and over in your mind– is another toxic habit linked to pessimistic think. Learning to argue with yourself is a great way to break any pattern of unwanted.

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Argue with yourself

To return to the topic, if you have a pessimistic thinking streak you probably already argue inwardly to talk yourself out of believing evidence which conflicts with your negative outlook.

Let’s say, for example, that someone has applied online for 52 jobs without being invited to interview. Pretty demoralising, right? Let’s also assume that that person has made the pessimistic assumption that finding a job will be really difficult, if not impossible. Then let’s assume that they see a report which says that there is about to be a surge in job vacancies in their sector due to economic, trends. This challenges the (unproven) assumption about job prospects. Will the pessimist be cheered by this? Probably not.

Somebody who uses the skills of optimism would seize on that promising news. Because of their negative mindset, however, the pessimist will find arguments to discount the positive news (“It doesn’t apply in my area”; “They probably want younger/more experienced people”; “My other applications have failed so there’s no point in bothering.”).

How to argue with yourself

So, you know how to dispute your beliefs. To practice using this skill to train your mind away from pessimistic thinking, and towards a more optimistic outlook. Get into the habit of spotting your limiting negative assumptions about an adversity, stop the thought, and counter it with your argument. Here’s how it works:

Adversity: “I lost my job at the supermarket when they cut back. I was the first to go, which means I’m the least employable.”

Assumption: “Something about me makes me unemployable.”

Argument: “Although I’d had the job two years, I was the most recently employed, that’s why they let me go.”

Adversity: “I was distracted and shunted my car in the parking lot.”

Assumption: “I’m a lousy driver, I don’t deserve a licence.”

Argument: “I’ve had a clean driving record for 15 years. That accident happened on the day I’d heard your mother went to hospital. I was stressed and distracted.”

Adversity: “That’s the fourth time my spouse and I have had a major meltdown this week.”

Assumption: “We are not compatible, I’d better start preparing my exit plan.”

Argument: “We’ve been generally happy and our friends always comment on how close we are. We have a strong foundation, we should be able to work it out.”

Challenge those negative assumptions

Do this regularly and you’ll get better at it. The more consistent you are in doing this, the sooner you’ll begin to train your mind into more optimistic habits.

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