Questioning Negative Narratives and Inviting More Optimism
We all have narratives that run in the background of our consciousness as we go through our day.
They’re stories we tell ourselves, consciously or not, about why the people around us do the things they do, what they mean, and what’s about to happen next. And if you’re like me, it can be startling to notice how often they involve jumping to negative conclusions.
That doesn’t automatically make us pessimists - we really do believe we ‘know’ these worst-case-scenario stories are valid, from experience. And yet the longer we go on believing them, I think it only gets tougher to recognize A.) how often we’re wrong, and B.) the cost of believing these assumptions.
I noticed this habit in myself one time when we were flying to Seattle.
I love to travel and I was really excited for this trip – but few things in this world make me more agitated than airports and pre-flight jitters. They have this way of making me especially, mmmm, shall we say... disenchanted with other humans. Probably because I believe I know what to expect from my own experiences – and it’s not great.
The lines. The delays. The impatient crowds.
But for some reason that Wednesday morning, something felt different. That day, I could pinpoint my usual thought loops and patterns as they popped up; I was willing to look at them, and gently question their validity.
Imagine a split-screen in your mind as you read through the contrasting pairs of scenes below.
The blurbs under “Expectations” go on the left, and the blurbs under “Reality” go on the right. (Ever seen (500) Days of Summer? It should look a whole lot like this scene.)
The alarm goes off at 5:30am; I groan and hit ‘snooze’. Already I’m wondering what I’ve forgotten to pack, and feeling anxious about our scheduled cab arriving late, and missing our flight.
I stumble to the airport Starbucks, already feeling irritated at the long, slow-moving lines of cranky under-caffeinated travelers and the many roller-suitcases that I’m sure will be clogging the pickup area.
At the gate, I absentmindedly grumble about the crowds. Why does everyone crowd the gate so early? Why do they insist on creating unnecessary tension? Are we impatient children?
We find our seats, and I start dreading the long flight. Being on an older plane probably means no little luxuries, like seat-back screens. (First world problems, am I right?) We’re surrounded by young kids, who I’m sure will be fussy the whole time. It’s gonna be a lonnnng flight.
Just as I'm settling into my movie, I feel someone behind me grab onto my seat-back and jostle my seat. I stiffen, and bristle.
Our cab pulls up early, and morning rush-hour traffic moves along surprisingly well. The security lines are crazy-short, and our bags go through incident-free. Our gate is nearby, with lots of open seats.
The coffee line moves quickly. I remember to grab a bottled water from the case — the perfect size for traveling! I exchange a smile with a man next to me; his salt-and-pepper hair reminds me of my dad.
Our group is called to board, and we slip easily into line. The man who scans my boarding pass is a perfect blend of warm and efficient. There's plenty of space for my bag in the overhead bin.
We luck out with an open middle seat between us. I notice there are outlets at each seat. (Surprise!) As we take off, I watch the kids in front of us press their noses up to the window, shouting “BLAST OFF!” with delight. A flight attendant hands me a packet of Biscoff cookies - my favorite!
I feel a hand on my shoulder, and turn to see a silver-haired woman. “Sorry to bother you.” We smile, and my shoulders relax from around my ears.
Drowning out the noise of negative expectations
Beyond the “look on the bright side!” and “every grey cloud has a silver lining!” platitudes we’ve heard and rolled our eyes at since we were kids, there was something deeper that I started to understand from my travel experiences that day:
All those little happy surprises I listed in the Reality column were all there, just waiting for me to notice them. And if I’d had tunnel vision and been focused on my negative expectations, I would’ve missed them.
We do it all the time. We keep our blinders on, hellbent on validating our assumptions and looking right past the details of our reality – some of which might have pleasantly surprised us if we’d paused to notice them – straight to the crap we’re expecting. We skip ahead to the worst-case-scenario, bypassing who-knows-how-many opportunities to be present, or surprised, or grateful.
I was listening a podcast on the plane called Doing the Work with Jay and Becca, and it was an episode about your Small. Jay defines ‘your small’ as all the stuff that gets in the way of being your highest, best self.
My Small looks like being irritable, assuming the worst, and getting huffy when people don’t always behave the way I think they should.
That guy cut me off because he must be a jerk trying to get ahead of everyone in traffic.
Ugh, great, this airplane is full of babies. Can’t wait for them to cry the whole time.
What was I thinking, going to Trader Joe’s on a Saturday afternoon?! It’s gonna be a total zoo.
And sometimes, I might be right about that stuff. But... is that really a ‘win’?
As long as you’re looking for proof to support your negative narratives, you’ll always find it.
Our brains are actually really, really good at that — finding proof to support the ideas we already have.
But if we can retrain ourselves to stay open and curious where we might otherwise go in expecting the worst, we can start to rewrite some of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for years and make more space for optimism.
Not to mention, we can spare ourselves a lot of preemptive stress and even unnecessary frustration along the way.