Sunday, January 20, 2008

A worry wart? Sir, you insult my capacity to worry (and what's love got to do with it?)

Depression and worry run in my family. My beloved grandmother, now passed, was a notorious worrier. I particularly remember a time when she had to take a math class and make a certain score on a following test to keep her job when she was in her sixties. She fretted and worried for months about losing her job, only to make a really good score.

I, myself, am a pretty strong pessimist by nature. I can be woefully optimitic (and prefer to be this way) about many things, but I am particularly harsh on myself. It doesnt' matter how much success I have, I constantly believe in my own capacity to screw it up. To counter-balance this, it's nice to have a husband who strongly believe in my best and actually has a much better opinion of me than I have of myself (which, according to the research of Sandra Murray and others, is a key element to a happy marriage, so, yea, me I lucked up on that one).

Recent resarch seems to indicate that perhaps like a wart, worry is biological: inherited, genetic. Unrelated to this study, noted psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has noted his belief that pessimism and optimism are both inhereted traits, at least partially. However, as Dr. Seligman has demonstrated and as this research back up, you can work to overcome those worrisome ruminations. You may continue to think about how your glass is half empty, but part of the strategy is to see what options are available for filling the glass up, instead of just fretting about your lack of water.

During a particularly low part of my life, I obsessed on a image that I've had in the back of my head for quite a long time. It's an image of my future that likes to pop up when I'm feeling really down: a picture of myself, quite aged, alone in my house, lonely except for about a dozen cats. A counselor looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "can you picture a different picture of your future? Can you see a future where you are surrounded by friends and people who care for you?" Well, sure, doc, but why would I want to?

See, now that's real pessimism for you. I can't say that I've put that bleak future away for good, but it actually was something of a revelation to consider a positive end to my life. If you're a natural optimist you probably think I am genuinely nuts at this point, but it actually took someone else to point this out to me.

Dr. Seligman outlines an ABCD technique not dissimilar to this approach that I have begun teaching to my students. I think it's highly valuable although I admit that it is probably too easy for my optimistic students and very difficult for my pessimistic students. I try to help by challenging negative thinking when I hear it from them, but I admit I feel like something of a hypocrite when I do. Still, it's about them, not me, so I plug away at it. I fully recommend that you take a look at either (or both really) of Dr. Seligman's books to learn more about his techniques. He also discusses the real, tangible, quantifiable benefits of optimism and the actual negative repercussions happen for pessimists. Optimistis actually go to the doctor less, have better health and live longer lives than pessimists. Of course the true pessimists says "good, let's get this all over as soon as possible."

Some of Dr. Seligman's works
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

A few links on successful relationships. And, no, I'm not legally married of course but I consider my relationship the equivalent to a marriage.

Successful marriages

Gottman research on marriage success and failure

How are Gay Couples Different? (found via Joe.My.God)

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