Optimism and positive thinking often don’t come naturally to survivors of trauma. Victims of violent crimes, for example, often lose their optimistic outlook and sense of safety, along with everything else their perpetrator took from them. But survivors can intentionally choose to have hope for their future. They can carefully rebuild their optimism, adopting a positive outlook on life and having favorable expectations for the future—which, while it may require more effort for some than for others, can be done.
When I was in my early 20s, living paycheck to paycheck while trying to earn enough money to pay rent and buy food for my little girl and myself, I fought against depression every day. There were a million reasons for me to be depressed: I had no family, no money, and no safety net. I wore the same two outfits to work day after day. My little girl seemed to continually need things that I could not provide. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere, or do anything. We lived on beans and rice, ramen noodles, peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese. I was driving an unreliable car, and seemed to always be just one breakdown away from not having a way to get to and from work. To make matters worse, I was working in a male-dominated office (and industry) where I was paid less than men who did the same job. Because I had gone from customer service to sales, and knew how to do my own service work, I was also expected to do all my own clerical work, while my male counterparts had secretaries.
It would have been easy to be depressed, and to let that depression slide into despair. I fought depression by writing notes to myself that encouraged me to keep trying, to work harder than my competition, and to refuse to give up. I taped notes to my bathroom mirror and pinned them on the walls of my office cubicle. In fact, I still have the paper that hung in my cubicle for six and a half years, until the day I took it down and packed it up as I left that job to open my own company. That note included the following quotes:
“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” —Jesus
“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” —Napoleon Hill
“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.” —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“There is nothing capricious in nature, and the implanting of a desire indicates that its gratification is in the constitution of the creature that feels it.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right!” —Henry Ford
The paper that hung on my bathroom mirror said:
Whenever I have a thought of limitation, I replace it with a vision of my achievement!
In addition to the little written notes I used to encourage myself, I would cut pictures out of magazines of the things we needed or that I hoped to have one day and tape them to my bathroom mirror. Sometimes, it would seem to take forever to reach a goal. But with every little success, I’d be more willing to drag myself out of bed rather than sleep my way through a bout of depression. With my little girl depending on me, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of indulging those feelings of depression.
People who choose to have a positive attitude decide not to blame others, even when their current circumstances are the direct result of someone else’s actions or failure to act. Decidedly optimistic survivors (those who decide to be optimistic) know that their circumstances don’t improve by placing blame on someone else. Placing blame implies that someone else is in charge of our lives. In fact, the very act of blaming others for the circumstances we face puts us in the position of being seemingly helpless victims, which opens the door to self-pity and depression. Seeing oneself that way influences the choices we make, the risks we take (or avoid), and the outcomes we get in our lives.
Decidedly optimistic people, on the other hand, take charge of their circumstances, however dire those circumstances may be. People who deliberately choose a positive outlook see problems as challenges to overcome and opportunities to grow. They see themselves as conquering the challenges they face; they are victors who have overcome (or are in the process of overcoming) ugly circumstances, and who will thrive because of the coping mechanisms forged through adversity. And this is a choice that anyone can make: choosing to think and act like an optimist means not focusing on the adversities endured, or what’s missing, or what others are doing to you or not doing for you. It’s a choice to live in the present, press toward the future, and let go of the past.
Opening the door to depression is dangerous. Depression grows like mold, thriving in cold, dark places. It soon permeates every aspect of life until it destroys positivity and optimism. Optimistic successful survivors resist the temptation to entertain feelings of depression—even for a few moments. Notice that I do not say that they don’t ever feel sad, depressed, oppressed, frustrated, or pessimistic; they do. In fact, if anyone ever earned the right to throw a full-blown pity party, it’s someone who has suffered at a time when they were unable or too vulnerable to prevent it. But just because they have earned the right to indulge in self-pity, doesn’t mean they should. Self-pity results in pessimism and depression, which only exacerbates the problems they’re facing. Self-pity and “woe-is-me” thinking should be avoided at all costs: indulging, even briefly, in self-pity is like taking a taste of poison; it will make you feel worse, and it may even kill you.
Successful survivors learn how to proactively fight depression. Although this sounds like an over-simplification of a complicated issue, successful survivors know that if they give in to depression and fail to take care of themselves, there is no one who can rescue them. They know that indulging thoughts of depression for even a few moments can lead to a half hour, a half hour can lead to a day, and days can turn into weeks. Life can be too good, and is too short, to give in to depression; to spend time wishing things were different or thinking about how things used to be or should be now is to waste time that you can never get back. You get the same amount of time every day as everyone else does; what you do with yours is the only thing that will determine your success. Using time wisely is an investment that will reap a return in your future.
To be continued… check back. I want to help you actively fight depression.