Body & Soul: Work getting you down? Tragic optimism might be the answer - Michelle Gibbings

Is work getting you down? Thanks to for the opportunity to provide my ideas and suggestions on how to get through some of the toughest periods.

The brain tricks to cope when the negativity is getting you down.

Are you struggling with end of year fatigue and feeling frustrated, disappointed and a range of other emotions? If so, you are not alone.

Navigating your way through today’s uncertainty isn’t easy, but there are things you can do to reframe and refocus your attention.

Drop the expectations

Having expectations over this time is unhelpful. If you expect something to turn out a certain way, you can quickly become disappointed or feel defeated when it doesn’t turn out as expected. Expectations can lock you into a way of seeing the world as the way it ‘should be’ rather than the way it ‘is’.

You can place expectations on yourself that are unrealistic – expecting that you should be able to do what you’ve always done when the context and emotional circumstances are so different.

Accept your emotions

Finding your way through the uncertainty starts with acknowledging how you feel. Your feelings are valid, and ignoring them won’t help. Instead, it’s about making sense of your emotions and accepting that this time will pass and you will come through the other side.

We need to experience the lows in life to appreciate the highs in life. These punctuation points – the full stops, exclamation marks, dashes and commas – help to mark out our days. When everything feels the same, we stop noticing what’s good.

Learned optimism

Of course, being optimistic at the moment is hard. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, talks about learned optimism. He said: “Optimistic people generally feel that good things will last a long time and will have a beneficial effect on everything they do. And they think that bad things are isolated: They won’t last too long and won’t affect other parts of life”. But can you be overly and unrealistically optimistic or what I call a hopeless optimist? Hopeless optimism is the Stockdale Paradox.

Jim Collins wrote about this in his best-selling book From Good to Great, sharing the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than seven years. In reflecting on that time, he found that the optimists were the ones who most struggled because they were unrealistic about when they’d get out. Admiral Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.

Centre on reality

So what we need then is optimism with realism attached or what Scott Barry Kaufman, drawing on Viktor Frankl’s work, calls tragic optimism. He said, “Tragic optimism involves the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times”.

Being optimistic isn’t about denying how you feel. It’s about acknowledging it and then making a conscious choice to approach the situation optimistically.

Martin Seligman outlines how you can take deliberate steps to cultivate a positive perspective, and his research shows optimism is a trait you can learn. For example, the simple daily practice of writing down three things that went well and why. Results show this practice leads to increased life satisfaction and lower rates of depression.

Know your purpose

With emotional acceptance and a reality check, you are well-placed to focus on what matters to you. This is your purpose – your why. With that knowledge in hand, you can set reasonable goals that account for the current circumstances and design your path to get there in a manner that is adaptable should it need to shift.

All while maintaining the courage, conviction and capability to know you will get there in the end. But perhaps it is just going to take you a little longer than usual.

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