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Keeping a Balanced Perspective

Optimist? Pessimist? Or Realist?

Glass half-full. Glass half-empty. Hey, at least there’s a glass of something.

Perspective determines how we approach and tackle those pesky life challenges. Are you an optimist who looks for the best in every situation? Or a pessimist who anticipates the most negative outcome? Or maybe you’re a realist who’s just assesses what is, without the emotional coloring.

I’m an optimist by nature, a pessimist by training, and a realist in my resolve. So I figure I’ve got it covered on all fronts. Sometimes that comes in handy.

Take as an example the water damage issues we’ve been struggling with in our house. Can I hear a collective “oy!” or “aargggh” or just a plain old guttural groan?

Just about anyone with a roof over their head has had to deal with a water problem, whether it’s a leak from above or an unwanted pond forming in the basement. Our 15 year old house has had few problems … until now. And we’re getting them all at once. Most of them due to water, which is one of the most damaging agents out there. Insidious, too. You may never know you have a problem until WHAM! It hits you over the head with fall-out from a hole in the roof, a crack in the foundation, a leak in a pipe, or mold quietly growing out of sight. The problem suddenly makes itself known and has to be resolved immediately.

Yup, just in the past few months we’ve had to deal with a leak in the roof, cracks in various pipes and caulking, and rotting wood from water seepage. We’re still investigating the source of the water pooling in our basement, usually after a major rainstorm. A handful of headaches all pounding at the same time.

So we do our best to deal with the problems, one after another. Our perspective about the whole thing doesn’t change the fact that we have to resolve them or they’re only going to worsen. It does, however, play a major role in our mental and emotional health, and especially in our relationships.

We’re all essentially emotional creatures. Fortunately, we also possess intellects. Choosing which will rule us makes all the difference in the world. Venting our emotions feels great temporarily, but leaves us feeling a bit empty and upset after the tension is released. It can also be rather damaging to those around us. Kids, spouses, and animals, in particular. While we all need to vent once in a while, it’s often more constructive to channel our emotions into decisive action, figuring out what’s need to solve the problem at hand and then doing just that.

Perspective helps resolve problems without falling into those emotional traps. So does an optimistic or a pessimistic perspective help out more?

Optimists tend to see troublesome situations as specific, time-sensitive events:

  • Temporary - a short-term issue, rather than a long-running negative narrative. “This, too, shall pass” sums it up. Unless, of course, you ignore the problem and take no action. Then it will only worsen. And you'll probably turn into a pessimist. (Don't let that happen.)

  • A balanced view – taking into account a full history (of a house, in this example) and weighing all that went well against those that went badly. In this example, we’ve enjoyed 15 years without much of a problem. Anywhere. And we reasonably expect not to have these same problems again for a while, assuming that they’re fixed correctly.

  • Not taking the setbacks personally – our water problems happened because, well, houses need maintenance over time. A series of problems doesn’t mean that “everything bad happens to me.” Nope, they just happen and to just about everyone at some point in their home ownership. Hey, does anyone remember a character named Joe Btfsplk in the Li’l Abner comic strip? Joe was known as “the world’s worst jinx,” bringing disastrous misfortune to everyone around him. A small dark rain cloud perpetually hovered over his head to symbolize his bad luck. Yes, Joe was not an optimist. And he had reason to take everything personally. To borrow from Jessica Rabbit, he was "just drawn that way."

  • Opportunities vs. obstacles - seeing problems as opportunities for overall improvement rather than as insurmountable or on-going obstacles. It can be just the excuse you need to upgrade, freshen up, or redecorate a room, for example. Assuming you have the money, of course. If you don’t or if your home proves to be a real money pit, well, then again you may have reason to be pessimistic.

So let’s see how pessimists tend to view problems and the advantages of that particular mindset:

  • Permanence – getting stuck into thinking that the problem “will last forever” or at least be on-going for the foreseeable future. Sometimes pessimists see the problem as bigger than it actually is. And act accordingly.

  • Pervasive – figuring that one problem means that there’s probably another lurking behind it. And yet another behind that one, ad infinitum. A pessimist can't help but anticipate the worst possible outcomes.

  • Personalizing the problem – attributing it to a “this sort of thing always happens to me” way of thinking, expecting new problems even when there’s no indication of one developing.

  • Global – extending the problem to something that everyone has to deal with. Damaging if you think your one bad experience with a contractor means that ALL contractors are out to take advantage of you. Maybe so, but probably not all. Actually, with respect to water damage, it does affect the majority of homeowners, so maybe here the pessimist has a point. Which leads us to …

  • Greater accuracy in assessments – the pessimist is often more correct in estimating the extent of the problem or how long it could persist, while the optimist may be more inclined to shrug it off and not delve too much into the details of why it happened.

I find the most value in the middle ground: a positive, optimistic mindset keeps me focused on the problem, while maintaining a healthy, balanced outlook as I solve a problem. No negative self-talk to derail my determination or efforts. I find this especially useful in my voice over and on-camera acting careers. Like just about every other actor, the ratio of rejection to bookings is overwhelmingly high. If we let that totally discourage us or dissuade us from our goals, we may as well just give up. It’s a fact of the industry. A positive mindset is absolutely crucial to our overall well-being.

The pessimist inside me adopts a mantra of “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Contingency planning was a big part of my business career! And playing Dungeons & Dragons once upon a time ago certainly taught an early lesson in the value of backup planning, especially for wayward adventurers. (And having a backup to a backup is imperative - gotta watch out for those killer spiders...!) Yes, the whole Plan B and Plan C. Because you just never know. You hope to never have to use them, but they’re there if you do. In my house example, we’re educating ourselves on causes of water damage, researching options on how best to treat it, and most importantly, how to proactively search for signs that it may be developing unseen elsewhere.

It all wraps up to a practical approach. If there’s a problem, deal with it. Keep a level head. Consider all options. Research those options and have a plan of attack on the problem. With regard to our home, we proactively inspect our home from time to time to make certain that all looks in order: gutters, locks, fixtures, etc. We know that a home takes time, money, and maintenance, so we also make sure to have a budget for time like these when everything seems to hit at once.

Half-full? Half-empty? Hey, at least we have a home. And it hasn’t been condemned. Yet. 

A sense of humor helps with perspective. Despite the water issues, our house is actually in great shape. Subjectively at this moment, we feel differently, but the realist in me is looking at things objectively and knows that the problems are being fixed. The optimist is looking forward to everything being done, once and for all. Well, until the next problem rears its head. (Hey, get back down there to the bottom of my psyche, you pessimist!)

So what are you? An optimist? A pessimist? Or a realist? Probably a bit of all three, though one will be sitting in the driver's seat more often than the others. But it's your choice which perspective will be the primary lens through which you see your world. And how you feel about it.