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Navigating the balance between Optimism and Stark Reality

OPTIMISM is important and life-giving. Having a positive outlook helps keep us moving forward, gives us energy, holds depression at bay, improves our relationships. Gratitude for the blessings in our lives has been shown to reduce our stress and improve our health – to an extent. But if we employ an optimistic, grateful, positive attitude to avoid acknowledging some stark realities of life, ultimately we may pay a high price.  Read on for insights into how to balance these… after some clarifying background.

As a psychologist for over 25 years I have helped people appreciate themselves and their efforts as good-enough. I have guided them through not putting themselves down when they don’t meet a certain standard. I have taught them to celebrate each small step they take.

At the same time, I help them balance this by taking a clear look at consequences they may fear, evaluating how likely those consequences are, and making a plan to deal with any likely outcomes. They learn to avoid catastrophizing, while being realistic and taking care of themselves as a good friend would care for them.

A common example I use to illustrate this concept with my clients is this:

Suppose they are a student, and they have become extremely anxious fearing they will get kicked out of school if they fail their upcoming test. I would ask them some questions, and guide them through the different types of answers.
– How likely is it that they will fail: Have they failed many tests before? Have they been going to class and paying attention? Have they been doing the homework and the readings?
– If the answer to these questions is that they don’t fail tests, have been going to classes, and have been doing all their work, then this is the time for optimism, a positive attitude, self-soothing, and perhaps some light-hearted distraction.
– If however the answers are that they’ve failed many tests, skip classes, don’t pay attention when they do go, and haven’t done any homework all semester, then optimism alone would be sheerest folly. It’s time to make some plans and take some action. Go talk to the teacher, to the counselor. Study a lot. Get help. Prepare to take classes over. Reality is: failure is likely, and getting kicked out of school is also likely – without changing direction and taking some serious steps. Optimism will still be important though, in combination with a serious action plan. If action is taken, there’s every reason to look forward to positive changes and outcomes.

The Harsh Reality of Health

In practice, we need to take stock of the harsh reality of our health and our lives if we want to avoid consequences that are unpleasant, and likely. Here’s some truth: We live in an overall toxic environment these days, and without taking care to clean up our bodies to the best of our abilities, we will suffer declining health, increasing disability, and degenerative illness on the road to premature death. That is stark, harsh, unpleasant reality.

We have built-in mechanisms in every cell to detoxify and repair, but those mechanisms become overloaded, and run out of fuel. We become vulnerable to each new assault on our health. Where we might have been able to weather the challenge of poor nutrition, a toxic environment, or food sensitivities when we were younger, tiny bit by tiny bit we are less and less able to cope. Slowly we become a little more inflamed. New aches and pains. New brain fog, fatigue, fuzzy thinking. More colds, illnesses, new skin conditions. Energy and libido decline, stamina decreases… little by little.

Do we say “we’re just getting old” and brush it aside by saying we’re doing the same as everyone else around us, we’re grateful for the functioning we have left, we’ll be just fine, or our doctor says this is normal? So very often that’s exactly what we do.

But wait. Instead: Take. Stock.

What are the factors – obvious and hidden – that have accumulated, are dragging us down, and can be cleaned up?

So many of them you already know for yourself but may not want to admit. You don’t get enough sleep – but that’s because you’re busy! You drink more than you secretly know you should – but it’s fun! You’ve heard so many times that sugar is bad for you – but life is about indulgence!

Other factors you might not be able to uncover without some testing. Do you realize your liver is clogged up and not filtering well anymore; you’re unaware you’re sensitive to some foods that you keep eating; your hormones are out of balance; heavy metals have accumulated in your body and are blocking crucial biochemical reactions; you’re not absorbing nutrients very well even though you’re eating them… the list goes on.

You can open yourself up to stark, harsh, reality, that it’s time to take a clear-eyed look at the improvements you can make in your health, and it’s time to make an action plan that you will follow – and at the same time feel full of hope and optimism that you’re taking action. Take control of your health NOW, while it’s a choice you can make. Do some hard work now to avoid the consequences you’d rather not face that likely are inevitable. As I wrote just the other day, if someone with a crystal ball said “Your number is up in 2015,” or “you’re going to spend the last ten years of your life in a wheelchair, and be unable to listen to music even with your hearing aids,” would you take action now?

Once you face reality, make a plan, and start to take action, then bring back in that optimism, that positive outlook, that gratitude, even more. Congratulate and encourage yourself. Tell yourself you’re doing everything you can. Tell yourself you’re giving it your best. Be grateful for every positive step you take, and the people you love who you’re working hard to stay sharp and alive for. When health-building gets hard, give yourself that pep talk.

The stark, harsh reality is that the kind of debilitated aging that you don’t want is likely in your forecast, but you can Take Action Now and take health-building into your own hands, with that knowing smile that you’re doing what it takes for your healthiest possible future.

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