We hear a lot about the importance of keeping a positive attitude, aka, being optimistic. Like gratitude, it’s a term that gets thrown around as one of those absolute “must-do’s” if you’re going to “live your best life” and “shed the negative beliefs holding you back,” and so on. The question is, how? With all the many not-so-positive things most of are contending with on a daily basis, optimism is a tall order.
When I talk about optimism though, I am not talking about the happy-face-emoji version of it we so often see espoused as a mental health panacea, but rather, a grounded, clear-eyed optimism. This optimism doesn’t ask us to superimpose a blanket of feel-goodness over layers of unhappiness. It does not ask us to deny, avoid, or repress pain in favor of “positivity.”
No, this type of optimism asks us to acknowledge and validate our emotions and experiences, actively face our difficulties and challenges, take self-supporting action, and find as much empowering and motivating material from our own lives as we can throughout the process. It creates a sense of possibility based on a recognition both of what we’re capable of, and the actions needed to shift us a little closer to wellness.
This is what I call Empowered Optimism.
We often think of optimism as that sense that things can and will somehow get better. When you add ‘empowerment’ into the mix however, it becomes a sense that things can and will get better because of what you do to make that happen.
Getting Real is Good
Empowered Optimism doesn’t tell us we can do anything and be anything, because that’s a set up for disappointment and disillusionment. For instance, telling myself I will someday be totally depression and anxiety-proof is not helpful because it’s unrealistic. Instead, I want to give myself something that is both inspiring and attainable.
So while there is nothing in my history to suggest I have the mental health superpowers necessary to attain a forever-state of bliss, I know that even when I’m scraping bottom, I’ve got the tools to pull myself up.
How do I know this? Because I have the evidence. Even if I have no idea how I’m going to drag myself out of bed, and less than an ounce of faith that anything I do will make a difference, I consistently choose to help myself—whether that means reaching out to friends, exercising, journaling, picking up my guitar, reading an inspirational blog or book, listening to an uplifting song. And I won’t stop until I feel better.
Try This: Proof of Your Inner Strength
- Think of a day or moment, sometime over the past month, when you pushed through painful or difficult mental health symptoms to get yourself up and out into the world, fulfill obligations, or take care of yourself and/or others.
- In your mind’s eye, picture yourself on that day or in that moment. Remember the obstacles, and see yourself overcoming them, doing what you needed to do in spite of everything working against you
- What did it feel like to prevail in spite of those challenges? Was there a sense of empowerment? Pride? Reassurance? Whatever the feeling, let it sink in.
This is proof that you have the inner strength needed to take care of yourself!
Taking Action with Self-Care Goals
When struggling with our mental health, it can feel like we’re just being carried along by a stream of circumstance, watching life from the sidelines, or stuck in “wishing and wanting” mode. Putting small, manageable, self-care goals in place gives us a greater sense of control, purpose, and direction.
If you’re going through a rough time, a self-care goal can simply be getting out of bed, calling a friend, reading an uplifting book or blog, doing a random act of kindness. If you’re managing anxiety, you could have as a self-care goal, a twice-daily breathing practice or finding a good therapist, a support or meditation group. And if you’re anything like me, making your physical environment as peaceful and cozy as possible is huge, so I include self-care goals things like clearing out clutter or adding some cozifying element to my house (I do love Etsy for that!).
Every time we fulfill one of these goals, however small, we’re reminding ourselves that we have the ability to take care of ourselves, and this provides a good dose of motivation to keep at it!
This is empowered optimism in action.