“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” (Maya Angelou).
When we operate with a higher sense of coherence we are feeling into our agency (confidence in who we are and what we have), making us more able to optimistically re-orient ourselves, so we can navigate challenges from an inspired, creative, and embodied state of being. Those that tend to this empowered form of optimism have significantly less stress than those who do not (Troy, 2015). When we strategically use optimism to reframe our situation, we reduce our stress levels and lower our risk of developing a host of chronic health conditions (Aldao, et al., 2010). People who are more optimistic tend to live 11 to 15% longer than those who aren’t (Lee et al., 2019).
Strategic optimism is not helpful if it causes us to accept painful circumstances that are in our power to change or if we use it to avoid feeling difficult emotions. In fact, if we use optimism in this way, we may miss opportunities to tend to a wound that needs healing or to make changes that would benefit ourselves and others. Using the R.A.I.N acronym (Brach, 2013), recognizing, allowing, investigating, and nurturing difficult emotions is the first step. Recognizing our emotions and perception(s) of the situation allows us to gain awareness of our reaction. Allowance engages the self-compassion required to make a space to feel (because we are worthy of such expression!). From this compassionate space, we lean in with curiosity, eager to investigate, to learn more. Part of investigating is determining what we can change and control. After tending to necessary emotions, it is then most helpful to take a significant action, which acts as the release port, relieving us of the suffering that flows from feeling incongruence. By doing the significant thing, we build trust with ourselves as our spirit tends to the signals of the body, demonstrating to ourselves that we are worthy of such a significant effort. In this way, we are prioritizing our wants and needs over those prescribed onto us by others. Eventually, as we continue to do the significant thing, we deepen into secure attachment, which promotes a greater sense of coherence and congruence. If we cannot make a change to reduce our suffering, this is the time to accept, grieve the loss and optimistically resource and re-orient ourselves to the situation.
The significant thing is different for every person and dependant on the situation and the unresolved wounds that it intertwines with. Awareness of the significant thing comes from an embodied way of knowing (intuition), rather than the ‘figuring it out’ mind. It is the thing that takes the most self-compassion and courage, which requires the meaning of the significant action to overshadow the fear of taking it. While we may fear doing to do the significant thing, often desperately trying to compensate by doing several other things in its place, ultimately, we will continue to feel out of tune until we act. Finally, the significant thing if often subtle and may not directly involve others at all. It may involve writing a letter and then burning it. It may mean making a phone call to make something right, enabling us to tune back into our sense of self-integrity after a violation (to self or others) occurs.
The Significant Thing & Common Attachment Antidotes
For those who tend toward avoidance as a reactionary (not intentional) coping strategy, the antidote to clear the incongruent feeling, typically manifesting as anxiety, is often a ‘reaching out.’ For those who tend toward anxious attachment to others as a coping strategy, the antidote often involves ‘reaching in.’
Working with our Negative Bias
Optimism does not happen by merely thinking positive thoughts. For it to be effective, we must intentionally immerse in a positive emotional state that enables us to shift our trajectory. Once we embody a more positive state of being, we interrupt the fear and powerlessness associated with the stress response, which enables us to keep things in a more optimistic perspective.
Most humans tend toward a negative bias, which means that when negative things happen, they have a greater impact on us and linger longer in our memory than positive ones (Gollan et al., 2016). While negative bias may help us when we are in danger, it is not so helpful when faced with day to day challenges. To manage and even counter our tendency toward the negative, we need to consciously cultivate a more optimistic orientation. To develop optimism, it requires a conscious effort to recognize when positive events happen and to take the time to immerse ourselves in the felt sense of them. In time and with some effort, we can retrain our brains to automatically take notice of positive happenings in our day, balancing out our tendency toward the negative.
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us” (Helen Keller, 1929).
One moment at a time, one significant thing at a time, this is how we heal…