How to find optimism in trying times
2020 has been the longest year of our lives. No matter who you are, you’ve likely been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Maybe you or a loved one has become ill. Perhaps your job is impacted or your savings have been wiped out by market volatility. The entire world has been rocked by an invisible force that’s wedged its tentacles in all facets of our normal lives.
Working remotely throughout the pandemic has forced me to reflect deeply on my mindset and outlook on life. The lifestyle to which I was accustomed changed – I haven’t seen my family and big plans have fallen through. However, I made the choice to remain optimistic no matter what obstacles are thrown my way. It’s easier said than done, but I’ve created a framework and series of habits that enable me to find the silver lining in the midst of chaos. I’ve become my own port in a storm.
Optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” It’s the glass half full mentality – in the face of difficulty, I can exercise control over my beliefs and actions, giving myself the option to succeed.
It’s worked wonders for me. You can become more optimistic by practicing this framework yourself.
Recognize what you can control and control it.
We’re wired to hate ambiguity. Since childhood we were programmed to regurgitate information and abide by our parents’ rules and values. We got really good at taking tests on the content we read in a textbook. Our parents gave us lists of chores and we (mostly) did what we were told. Very little ambiguity.
As we grew up, we realized that the real world doesn’t quite work this way. Most jobs don’t have incredibly clear how-to guides. Micro-management is looked down upon. It’s up to us to decide how we do our work so long as the end product meets the manager’s expectations. Lots of ambiguity.
When the pandemic struck and we were forced to fend for ourselves, we leaned into our vices to ease the pain of not knowing what’s next. People are desperate for direction and leadership so they can remove the ambiguity from their lives.
What if you could provide that for yourself?
The most successful people are experts at identifying what they have control over in any situation. They refuse to believe that circumstance can steal their ability to choose their outlook.
When COVID-19 first struck, I regressed to my worst habits. I stopped exercising regularly, I drank too much, and I closed myself off from loved ones, scared to infect them with my negative energy. There was a lot going on. We were preparing for a round of layoffs that would cut the team I’d spent years building by 75%. I was shook. I had subconsciously made a choice to lament my perceived lack of control.
I quickly realized that I was stuck in a negative spiral. I’d read too many books about positive self-talk and I’d led teams through too many trying times to allow myself to wallow. So I made a new, conscious decision.
One day I decided enough was enough. It was time to make some changes in my environment and routine. I woke up and decided to stop drinking. That was the first step. I had total control over whether I’d numb my feelings with alcohol, so I controlled the hell out of it. That simple decision had a trickle down effect on the rest of my habits.
Shortly thereafter, in search of something positive to layer into my daily routine, I began meditating. Then I started exercising again. I reversed my negative spiral and soon had positive habits stacked upon one another. As a bonus, I soon had enough energy to support other people who were struggling with how to respond in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
In the worst of circumstances, we can always choose our perspective. Victor Frankl shares this sentiment in, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, about his time in Auschwitz during the holocaust.
“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which did exist.”
Frankl explains that people who embrace challenges and keep a positive mindset become spiritually and mentally fortified. When you’re at the crossroads of a challenging decision, remember that nobody but you can decide how you’ll respond to it. Control what you can always control: your attitude.
Physiology drives Psychology
Some days going for a run sounds amazing. You lace up your shoes and feel like you can go forever. Other times the thought of hitting the pavement is unbearable. In my experience it’s the days where running is the hardest that I need it the most.
As evidenced by my decision to stop drinking, giving your body something positive to focus on has drastic impacts on your mindset. When you’re down in the dumps, do something to charge your body up. Positive Psychologist, Amy Cuddy, has an enlightening Ted Talk where she outlines the impact of body language and positive physical habits on our mindset. It’s as simple as going for a walk, eating an apple instead of chips, or playing a board game with a friend instead of watching TV.
When things get hard, your brain begs you for something to distract it from the pain. These are the times when you fight back and decide to do something physically enriching for yourself, knowing that the self-love will lead to positive feelings on the other side of the struggle.
Again, it’s about making a choice. If you watch TV instead of nurturing your body, you’re only delaying your confrontation with the challenge. This will accumulate over time, making it more and more challenging to get back on the right track.
Resist your brain’s pleas to ignore the problem and you’ll be rewarded with a fresh outlook. Embracing the struggle is the only way to know you have the guts to get through it. Your mind is constantly being conditioned. Choosing what’s comfortable instead of what improves you models your brain to become less resilient and gritty. This dissolves the ability to react positively in times of stress, which leads to more negative emotion. It’s the negative spiral again.
Communication is Key
Find your tribe. A tribe is a close circle of friends, family, and significant others who unconditionally have your best interests at heart. Tribal values are deeply rooted in us from the days when they were critical for survival.
During positive times, interactions with your tribe are usually social, fun, and light-hearted. It’s during the hard times when the colors of your tribe really stand out. They show up for you whenever and wherever you need them. We often get hurricanes where I live in North Carolina. It’s amazing how many texts and calls for support I receive at the onset of a storm – my people show up when the chips are down.
When you feel pessimistic one of the best things you can do is to share your feelings with members of your tribe. Let them guide you to different perspectives. A good tribe adds tools to your toolbox.
I’m a social person, but my instinct is to dive inward and try to intellectualize my way out of a pessimistic outlook. Sometimes it’s hard for me to practice what I preach. I succumb to the Netflix binges and refrain from exercise. I make careful note, through journaling and meditation, when I recognize I’m falling into this pattern and I’ve trained myself to call someone in my tribe to snap me out of it.
If your loved ones don’t know how you’re feeling, they can’t support you. Shed the ego and make the call. Be vulnerable.
Drawing people you trust closer to you when you’re down is an optimism shot in the arm. You’re not alone. Share your feelings openly with the right people and watch the fear melt away.
Become a Beacon
You don’t have to be perfect to help others when they’re struggling. The act of showing up is a powerful way to ground yourself. Make time for other people in your tribe. Proactively reach out to check in. Maybe they need it, maybe they don’t. You never know if you don’t ask. Helping others work through their emotions deepens our own resolve. If we can help them solve their problems, can’t we do the same for ourselves?
Like a lighthouse guides ships safely along a coastline, you should be the beacon your tribe leans on for support and guidance.
There’s a catch, though. Misery loves company. It doesn’t benefit anyone to compound negativity by lamenting about how shitty everything is. If you’re going to show up for your people, show up with charisma and confidence. Your physiology drives your psychology.
Becoming a port in a storm isn’t just an ideal. When you master the art of controlling your mindset and behaviors, you become empowered with choice at every fork in the road. To maintain a positive outlook in times of adversity, bear in mind:
- You’ve been granted the gift of choice, so use it.
- Even when you slip up, fight your brain’s urge to become complacent.
- Do something physically positive for yourself and your brain will hop on board.
- When all else fails, call your tribe to action. You’re never alone.
Once you get in a rhythm of self-care and positive habits, make yourself available for those around you. Share your light with them and watch the network effect take hold on your optimistic outlook.
2020 may have smacked us square in the face, but I’ll be damned if it takes us down. Hold the line and fight for positivity. The world needs it now more than ever.
What is Beanie & Blazer?
Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.
Want more content like this?
Follow my Twitter feed to get bite-sized snippets about performance and mindset.