Balancing Optimism and Pessimism

As far as I can remember, I have always been a pessimist, but I’m trying to be more optimistic now. After all, I constantly hear that optimists are happier, healthier, and live longer than pessimists. When I say that I’m trying to be more positive, I don’t mean that everything is indiscriminately rainbows and sunshine. Rather, I make a distinction between situations where it helps to be positive and ones where it doesn’t help.

I recently read this article, which describes how engaging in positive fantasies may actually diminish one’s chance of success. Instead of dismissing positive thinking entirely, I was inspired to sort out when positive thinking is useful to me, and when I think it’s pointless.

Back in high school when I was applying to colleges, I decided that the more optimistic you are about future outcomes, the more disappointed you will end up if things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. I used that to justify my pessimism regarding admissions, as a way to prepare myself for disappointment. It worked. 😛

I don’t believe in thinking positively about the distant future. By “distant future” I mean any point in the future that is vague, which could be three months from now, as soon as next week, or even sooner. I avoid using statements such as “Everything will work out in the end” because 1) we don’t know the future and 2) it gives a false sense of assurance, which, as stated in the article, may lead people to not put in the effort that is necessary for the desired outcome. What is certain about the future, though, is that the situation will have to change at some point, whether it’s for better or for worse. (The unemployed recent college graduate cannot live in his parents’ basement forever. Some possible alternatives are that he gets a job, or goes to graduate school, or gets kicked out by his parents, or the house collapses from a natural disaster, etc.) Unexpected things do happen and are capable of changing our lives drastically.
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When it comes to thinking about the future, it’s important to be objective. The problem is, many people are not objective. I know students who study for hours every day, but still stress out and think they’ll do poorly on the upcoming exam, only to end up getting the highest score in the class. I’m not saying that those students shouldn’t study so diligently, but that they don’t have to torture themselves in the process. The flip side is being optimistic while lacking what it takes to achieve the result. There are people who are so unrealistically optimistic that they try (or force their children to try) to do things that they are clearly not qualified for, which only leads to disappointment. (Unfortunately for the the children, the repeated rejections lead to diminished confidence.)

If it’s the immediate future and you are adequately prepared, then be optimistic. For example, it’s the moment before your interview, and you’ve already rehearsed and done your homework. The distinction between this and the distant future is that you are right about to execute the plan that you’ve thoughtfully made. It doesn’t really matter which stage of a project you are in, as long as you already have a concrete plan and are not merely in dreamland. The plan does not have to be foolproof, but it has to exist so you can give it a try. It’s important to be positive now because if you think it won’t work, why would you even bother? When I have ideas for jewelry, I’m often not sure that they will turn out the way I intended, but I still gather my materials and go forth to test the design. It also helps to believe that you are capable of finding another solution in case the original plan fails.

I do think it’s important to think positively about the present. Instead of only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, look for the good in things. This is known as positive reframing. For example, last Friday the bus I was on arrived late so I couldn’t cross the street in time and saw the bus I wanted to transfer to drive away. This meant I’d have to wait another half hour. I was annoyed, but remembered that we passed by a collision. When I realized I didn’t have the worst commute that morning, I no longer felt annoyed.

Confidence and optimism

I’ve heard people say that optimism leads to confidence. In a sense the two feed into each other. Confidence is built by experience. If I’m pessimistic about the outcome, then I won’t even bother trying. On the other hand, if I am optimistic, I am more likely to try, and the more I try, the more practice I get, making it more likely I’ll succeed, which leads to more confidence. Another positive and realistic option is to think of each try as an opportunity to practice. Even if you don’t reach your goal this time, you gain more experience that could help you attain it in the future.

A Woman’s Physical Appearance and Confidence

Why, particularly for women, is physical appearance inextricably tied with confidence? Sure, we’ve all heard “Look good, feel great,” which I do think is true to some extent, for both genders, but that is not the topic for this post. What I’m talking about here is if a woman says she doesn’t care much about how she looks, people automatically assume that she is lacking in confidence and that she does not believe her body is worth the effort to look good. While it could be true in some cases, it isn’t always that way. Everything that I state here is the opinion of one woman, so while there definitely are women who think differently, it is likely that there are others who have similar attitudes.

Not wearing makeup or shaving legs on a regular basis has little, if anything, to do with one’s sense of self worth. I don’t regularly wear makeup because I don’t think it’s important, not because I don’t think I’m important. Can’t a woman simply not find those things necessary to do because she thinks there are more significant things for her to focus on than looking pretty?

I have classes to attend. Outside of class I spend most of my time in my room or in the library, studying (or attempting to study). I have a fifty-paged thesis to write by the end of July. These things are currently a higher priority to me than my superficial appearance. There are some girls who care about it all and can pull it off. They always show up to class fashionably dressed, with makeup on, and manicured nails. Good for them; they are they, and I am I.

When I say I don’t care much about my physical appearance, I am referring to makeup, styling my hair, manicures, dressing fashionably, and wearing sexy but uncomfortable shoes. Note that I did not say “I don’t care [at all] about my physical appearance.” I am not saying that I think it’s fine for me to look like a total slob. I still care about my health, hygiene, and basic grooming. I shower, brush my teeth and floss every day. I remove unwanted hairs from my face and axillae when needed. My nails are always clean and I trim and shape them every two weeks. I do my best to stay fit by eating a balanced diet and exercising nearly every day. I am happy with my weight. It is a healthy weight for my height, and that is what matters to me.* Bottom line is: a woman can express love for her body by eating healthy foods, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining good hygiene, and not engaging in self-destructive behavior.

To me, makeup is icing on the cake. While I will admit that I do look prettier with some eyeliner and mascara on, it simply isn’t important enough for me to use it every day. I go natural because I don’t see a need to hide any imperfections on my face. If I really wanted to let all my blemishes bother me, I would be walking around with a paper bag over my head. In my opinion, a lot of it is mind over matter. I will, however, use makeup for photos and important events.

I might fret more about my appearance when I first become interested in a man, but currently, none of the guys I’m surrounded by on a daily basis are ones that I’d actually want to attract. Besides, the special men in my life found me attractive the way I naturally am. I understand that there are men with different preferences, and they’ll seek women who share the same priorities.

In no way am I implying that women who put a lot of effort into their physical appearance are insecure. Everyone has their own style, and it’s important to be respectful and to not make assumptions about people based on their appearance.

*If you’re wondering, I am 5’5″ and 125 lbs. I think that I have a nice body underneath my clothes. While I have turned heads in the past by wearing a halter top and mini skirt, I no longer seek such attention. The only people who get to see more of my body are those who deserve to.

Written 5/11/13