I like to think of the process of building hopefulness, resilience and positive thinking skills as an analogue to building physical fitness: it takes attention, concentration, commitment, and repetition. If you approach a workout program with those qualities, you can almost always improve your fitness.
The first hurdle to get over is the belief that you already need to be different in order to succeed. You don’t. You are the way you are and you can start from here, overwhelmed, worried, anxious, whatever. Don’t fall into your story about how you feel, but take a stand for what you intend to accomplish to restore your work life balance and where you plan to go. You do not need to feel better before you try these practices — do them now. Another caveat: Do not interpret your progress in the short term — measuring increase in strength and endurance after a single workout would be silly.
Seligman points out that people with an optimistic approach to life habitually accept positive thoughts and dispute negative thoughts. Those of us who are wired to be more pessimistic tend to dispute the positive and accept the negative. Optimists tend to assume that their life balance will be restored, good events will happen again and that bad events are an exception; pessimists assume the reverse. I am oversimplifying his rigorously considered arguments, and I encourage you to read the book if the science of this is important to you.
Here’s a practice he recommends for shifting from hopelessness to hopefulness. I successfully use it with my clients to help them restore their work life balance.
He calls it ABCDE for :
Adversity — Beliefs — Consequences — Disputation — Energization.
A — Adversity
Start by spelling out the nature of the situation. Notice that you can experience hopelessness in response to ostensibly positive situations as well as to negative ones. For example, getting a new client or being accepted into a final round of interviews can upset your balance and send you into a whirlwind of anxiety and fear that produces just as much hopelessness and overwhelm as not getting the job or not making the cut.
B — Beliefs
This is your opportunity to spell out the thoughts and beliefs that are fueling the negative response.
C — Consequences
Look at the consequences of your beliefs — what happened as a result? How do you behave? What happened then?
D — Disputation
Actively dispute the beliefs that break your life balance and send you into the downward spiral. This is where you practice arguing with yourself in a productive way.
E — Energization
When you have been effective in disputing the problem beliefs, you feel an influx of energy, a sense of renewed hope, or at least of peacefulness.
So, here’s an example from my life :
I was excited about moving forward on two projects when I fell on my bike and cracked my ribs. I was okay and working hard with this for almost three days, then depression and anxiety set in and my usual positive thinking ability left me. Instead of feeling like moving forward I felt like bursting into tears.
How will I ever restore my work life balance and get things done if I can’t stop these mood swings? Maybe I am just not meant to lead these projects. I don’t know enough and I can’t seem to get started — I probably should have said no in the first place. It would be better to bow out now, as embarrassing as that will be, than to keep going and have a bigger train wreck later when I just can’t make the grade.
These beliefs leave me feeling very sad and small, like a six year old, and then I wonder how a six year old can possibly be a leader. I find it hard to concentrate and I just want to hide.
Constant low-grade pain can take it out of anyone. The world is not going to come to an end if you delay things because you’ve been injured. And who says you have to do it alone anyway? Some of the problem is that you don’t have enough information to go forward. That calls for making requests of others, not for blaming yourself. And when you’re not leaning on yourself so hard, your positive thinking ability starts coming back and your mood lightens — so maybe it would be smart to cut yourself some slack this week after letting folks know what is going on. You don’t have to crawl under a rock — you can reach out instead to restore your work life balance. And even if some work projects end up being passed on to others, there will always be other opportunities.
I called and emailed colleagues to regroup. Not only did these conversations relieve my anxiety, they made simple next steps quite clear. In one case, my summary of a conversation ended up being exactly what our group needed to move forward. Who knew? I had been worried about making things happen on my own when all along my strength was in articulating and clarifying complex input from many sources.
See how this works? I do strongly recommend the book as there are many more practices in it that address different aspects of overwhelm and ways to restore your work life balance. But if you struggle with hopelessness and challenge yourself to work through this one exercise on a regular basis (and if that means five or ten times a day, so be it), your positive thinking skills will grow and you WILL get relief. Remember — don’t measure change before it can happen — keep doing the practices long enough for significant positive shifts to take root and grow.