Resilience Revealed – Optimism, Part 2

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Last week we talked about optimism as an important aspect of resilience and about how optimistic differ from people with a less positive mindset. (Click here for part 1 of the article).

Especially in times when it feels as if the jokes turn sour, healthy optimism is essential for maintaining mental, emotional and physical health. However, optimism is not walking through life with a neverending blissful smile (even if humour does make some things more bearable). Rather, optimism is about mental agility, i.e. the ability to track down one’s own thinking traps and to develop beneficial thoughts.

Establishing effective thought patterns means:

  1. Willing to stop the autopilot mode
  2. Being open to consider your own thoughts as one possible way of seeing things – but not THE TRUTH or the only way
  3. Becoming aware of your autopilot mode, i.e. noticing when you automatically switch on the same thinking patterns in response to certain stimuli, stressors or triggers.
  4. Developing the ability to switch off this autopilot, get at the helm and consciously choose thoughts that are beneficial to the situation, the relationship, problem solving and/or your wellbeing.

Our life is what our thoughts make it. (Marcus Aurelius) 

Mental agility is important for personal resilience because it is our thoughts that create our emotions which in turn influence our actions. Hence, the effectiveness of our actions depends on how well we can control and influence our thoughts. For we can’t always control what happens to us – but we can control how we want to think about it (you’ve probably heard this one before ;-)).

The 5 most common thinking traps on autopilot

When we are confronted with an unpleasant or uncertain situation, it is normal that we tend to find explanations. The only question is: do we seek these explanations only in our brain (ruminating, interpreting, thinking loops) and turn what we think into a belief – or do we choose to clarify the situation externally in order to move forward?
Apart from their mood-lowering effect, all 5 thinking traps have one thing in common that makes them so bad: they block communication and thus further steps on the way to a solution.

Let me demonstrate the 5 thinking traps with an example:
A dear friend recently applied for a job and got no reaction to her application. I’ll tell you what she did about it at the end of this article. But for know let’s assume her to be stuck in the 5 thinking traps:

Thinking TrapExplained In my friend’s mind …
Mind Reading
You assume to know what another person is thinking about you (which is mostly not very positive) or you expect other persons to know what you are thinking.“Well, if they don’t get back to me they did not like my application.”
“I can’t believe they did not answer! They should know that applicants do not feel good when they don’t receive any message!”
You believe that you are the sole cause of every setback and problem.“Perhaps I was too late with my application.”
“Ugh, perhaps I got e-mail address wrong?”
“They probably don’t like somebody like me.”
“I should have known better – there are millions of candidates that are better than me.”
You believe that other people or circumstances are the sole cause of your setbacks and problems.“How can somebody be so ignorant to not answer at all?”
“They are probably totally disorganized!”
“These online recruiting portals just let applications disappear.”
4. CatastrophisingYou waste all your energy ruminating on the irrational worst case outcomes of a situation, overestimating the threat and underestimating you own abilties to cope with it.“Gosh, if I don’t get this job I will not be able to pay the rent.”
“Probably they know my former boss who provided a bad reference.”
“What if my application got into the wrong hands?
You are convinced, that you cannot do anything about the situation or problem. That’s just life and how it always is.“Well, that’s just how application processes are unfolding these days.”
“I followed all their instructions. It was probably not meant to be.”
“And again something in my life that does not work out …”

We tend to have a preferred thinking trap. Which one is yours? What program is your autopilot running on?
Awareness is the first step to switch off the autopilot and create new thoughts.

3 ways to switch off the mental autopilot

To bring your brain back on track, use solid data and facts to proof to yourself why the thought is not true and to challenge your counterproductive thoughts.Use a mental sentence starter like “That is not true because …”
“… I checked the e-mail address twice.”
“… I also did not receive a rejection.”
“I do not know how they work in this company.”
Use optimism strategically to get the outcomes you want and reframe the way you are perceiving the situations.Tell yourself:
“A more helpful way /better way to see this is …”
This switch is particularly helpful if you tend to catastrophize. Create a contingency plan for the worst case scenario(s).“If x happens, I will do y.”
“If I do not get a response by the end of the week, I will …”
“If I do not get this job, I will …”

Back to my friend. She decided to act like a true optimist. She didn’t go into autopilot mode, but courageously picked up the phone (proactivity) to gain clarity (gathering information).
Through the nice conversation with the recruiter, she was able to explain her qualifications in more detail with regard to the job and to answer questions – and thus, her application moved from the rejection pile back into the application process — and finally she got the job!

See, it pays to be the driver of your thoughts and actions 😉
So, get at the helm and out on the road!

Enjoy the ride!


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