My journey to becoming an optimist is an ever-evolving process. To many people, over-the-top optimism seems foolish and naive, and it can seem as though optimists are lying to themselves in order to convince themselves that all is well, even when all is not well. Several times I’ve asked myself, “Does being optimistic mean living in a fantasy?” and “Are there ever circumstances where complaining is justified?”
When I was a missionary, I once had a companion who was going through a personal trial, and as a result she was very pessimistic. To help “cheer her up,” I determined that I would be as optimistic as possible. So whenever she talked negatively about something, I tried to shed some light and point out something positive about that thing. Then one day she blurted out, “Why are you so contradictory?!” Contradictory? I thought incredulously. I associated being contrary with being negative, and so in my mind I was anything but contradictory! She continued, “Why do you always say the exact opposite of everything I say!? It’s so obnoxious!”
I began to wonder if perhaps I might have helped her more by acknowledging (to a certain extent) that the things she complained about were indeed difficult to bear. And yet, a part of me recoiled at that idea, because I had been trained to believe that negativity is counterproductive, and any complaining only makes a bad situation worse. I’m learning that the balance of knowing when to be optimistic and when to show empathy is a skill that takes time and experience.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me, “Do I complain a lot?”
I thought for a moment, then replied, “I wouldn’t say ‘complain.’ I would say . . . you make lots of observations and you’re very honest.”
“So yes?” she said, interpreting my statement as a euphemism (which it very well could have been).
However, in pondering this incident afterwards, I realized there is a difference between “honest observations” and “complaining.” What’s the difference? The difference is whether or not you have compassion and loving feelings for the people involved in what you’re speaking of. For example, if you’re currently having loving feelings for your brother, and you tell him that he interrupts you a lot, then your words come across as an honest observation. But if you’re having negative feelings towards your brother, and you tell him that he interrupts a lot, then your words come across as a complaint.
So it’s not that optimists choose to overlook things or pretend things don’t exist. When you’re optimistic, you can still notice and point out all the things you would notice if you were pessimistic. The only difference is how you feel about it. And feeling good about it puts you in a better position to solve the problem, so being optimistic is the intelligent way to go.
I can turn almost any complaint into an “honest observations” as long as my complaint is against the action or attribute instead of the person who is doing the action or possessing the attribute. I can make an honest observation that I’m running late, and it’s not a complaint as long as I’m not feeling angry with whoever delayed me.
I doubt that any of us are perfect at being optimistic all the time (at least not at first), but we can definitely learn. When you catch yourself complaining or thinking negatively, it’s important to not beat yourself up about it, because that just creates even more negativity. Instead, try to see the sense of humor in the situation, or even find the irony in the complaining itself, as I will soon demonstrate.
I want you to notice that up to this point I’ve been trying to make honest observations about complaining. But I would have a completely different tone and feeling if I were to switch to complaining about complainers.
I just can’t stand complainers! They repeat their complaints so much. Isn’t once enough? Seriously, isn’t once enough? And complainers are so impatient! If I hear one more complaint when I wake up tomorrow morning, I’m gonna scream! And complainers overuse exclamation points, which drives me crazy!!!
And what ALWAYS makes me mad is that ALL complainers over-generalize ALL the time. They exaggerate every time they open their mouths even a fraction of a millimeter. And complainers always assume that everyone agrees with them, but we all know that’s not true.
You just can’t please complainers. Everything is wrong in their eyes, and everything about that attitude just seems so wrong to me. Don’t complainers know that their complaining will never impress anyone? I can’t wait for all my friends to read this and tell me how right I am. And complainers are so harsh. We don’t need harsh people like that around here; let’s just shun them all.
And when will complainers stop repeating themselves? And why do complainers keep asking so many rhetorical questions? They’re just complaining about the unknown . . . and I have no idea why they do that.
Sometimes I just want to shout at complainers, “Stop complaining! Stop losing your temper! Stop being hypocrites! And stop being impatient NOW!” Complainers have no idea how dumb they sound. What’s more, they don’t know when to stop. Come on, complainers! Enough already!
And FURTHERMORE, complainers have no creativity in any area. They’re uncreative and dumb about their dumb use of adjectives and their dumb, stupid . . . everything. If there’s anything they’re creative about, it’s in thinking up new things to complain about. There is only one thing they never complain about, and that’s themselves. Glad I’m not that way.
Okay, hypocrisy and object lesson aside, I’d like to end on a good note. If you think you’re someone who complains a lot . . . awesome! Why do I say that? Two reasons. First, the fact that you’re aware of it means that you’re on the road to improving it. After all, change can’t begin until there is an increased awareness. Secondly, if you are capable of being a complainer, that means you have the gift of being observant, honest, and passionate. And once those attributes are redirected for good, countless people will benefit from your energy and your honest observations.