Hope for the best but don’t stop there

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Have you heard a phrase that goes something like “Hope for the best, but prepare the worst”? I like that sort of realism. Sometimes you hear it with “expect the worst.” Even for someone as cynical as me that feels a little doomy and gloomy. So for today, let’s stick with hoping and preparing.

I’m still learning to do this and how to do this. With my type of executive dysfunction, it’s extremely hard for me to imagine a scenario before I’m in it. I can also be annoyingly rigid in my expectations. If something changes suddenly (even a good change), I’m thrown for a loop. Sometimes I have to go hide in the corner and cry. Sometimes I’ll yell at you. Nowadays, I can often hide it until I get home and have an outburst of rage that things didn’t go the way I had imagined they should. What’s bizarre, though, is that usually, I hadn’t imagined them beforehand, yet I still have that thought.

The magic happens when someone sits down and says, “You know what? There might be problems when we get there. There will be a lot of people. It’ll be loud. The event might not start on time. What else do you think could go wrong?” We talk it out. If something happens that was in our talk, I don’t get upset. If something happens that wasn’t, I might dislike it, but I don’t lose my cool. I feel more regulated and in control of myself. Oh yes, I knew that might happen. The difference is remarkable. I can focus on doing my best and behaving my best. That lets me relax into a situation and kinda-sorta-maybe-a little bit go with the flow better.

Guess what? I came across some research today that suggests this really is an incredibly effective way to reach goals.

I found this article from The New York Times online called “The Problem With Positive Thinking.” I liked the article a lot. So I went to the professional psychology journals to look up more. And it turns out that when you imagine your goals, just imagining them coming true won’t reliably make it so. Combining that imagining with very realistic planning and imagining about possible obstacles or failure points is the key. It’s not about dwelling on possible failure. It’s about planning thoroughly. And when you spend a little time imagining everything that can go wrong, you are better prepared for it!

Here’s a picture that goes with the article. Have a look and a ponder. And then I’m going to tell you my problems with positive thinking.

A black and white line drawing of a person in profile, sitting in a bright red chair. The person is hunched forward. They hold up an enormous red smile that faces the viewer, and the smile partly covers their downward, resigned gaze.[Image description: A black and white line drawing of a person in profile, hunched forward in a bright red chair. The person holds up an enormous red smile that faces the viewer, and the smile partly covers their downward, resigned gaze.] Drawing courtesy of the New York Times online by Olimpia Zagnoli.

If you’re thinking positively about something, don’t let me rain on your parade. I’m not telling anyone who thinks positive things to stop. What I’m criticizing is two-fold: 1. The demand that people think positively and 2. The belief that the positive thinking is what’s actually bringing success to your life.

It’s the positive thinking in this picture that pains me so much. The person who genuinely feels down, out of ideas or resources. But they hold up this big old smile for the public because the public is going to demand that. Inside, that person doesn’t feel the smile. And honestly, even though “fake it till you make it” has some value in some settings, it’s not a realistic, sustainable way to pursue and reach life goals.

When we insist that people think positively to achieve their goals, and we put up those memes on Facebook instructing each other to purge all the negative people from your life, we set up some kind of utopia that only certain people are allowed into. If you automatically exclude some people from your utopia, what would you do if you found one that seemed even more utopic, but you had been banned from it for such an arbitrary reason as “you don’t think enough positive thoughts?”

Another issue I have with it is that, while positive thinking can play a real role in recovering from brain injury, it is essential to acknowledge the role that access to resources plays in recovery for a lifetime. Here are some examples of things where positive thinking is simply not going to be an adequate solution on its own, but access to resources will provide massive solutions:

1. You are a black or brown person, and all of the support groups in your region are led by and filled with white people. Your service providers are white. You’re not able to find providers and peers for support who share important cultural, ethnic, and communication values and practices with you. Even the most open-hearted and liberal among us still engage in racist acts on a regular basis that we don’t notice but that make support groups and doctors’ offices hostile places for non-white peers with brain injury. And this person is just supposed to think positively more often? Alone? This report on a 2003 Native American Summit on TBI talks about this. Positive thinking will not make peers and support resources appear in your area.

2. You’ve been institutionalized in a nursing home where nearly all the residents are 20, 40, even 60 years older than you, and you don’t have peers your age, activities that interest you, or a chance at education or meaningful social contact.

3. The people around you might abandon you, threaten to leave you, or stay with you but mistreat you because they don’t like the new you, they don’t believe the new you is real, or they don’t or can’t accept and understand how to be accommodating. You could easily begin to think you’re not worth being loved if enough people send you that message. The instruction to “think positive” isn’t powerful enough. And if you don’t think positively enough when told to? That can lead to shame and self-blame that you can’t do it when others around you (who have more resources) seem to be able to.

4. You are already living in poverty or are houseless, or you lose your home because of TBI consequences.

So the recommendation in the New York Times article and in a bunch of professional journals I looked at was to think positively, have high expectations, but use what they call “mental contrasting” to imagine the obstacles you might need to address or conquer as you reach toward your goals.

My first challenge to you, then, is to incorporate this balanced way of thinking about the future into your life when you can. Give it a shot. See what it does for you. My second challenge is to see what you can personally do to assist in creating a more balanced world where people with fewer resources, less access, and fewer peers with similar cultures can meet their basic needs and beyond. Because positive thinking doesn’t pay the electric bill, doesn’t build a house, and it doesn’t put food on the table (or get you a table).

Finding out what support someone might need and then seeing if you can figure out how to assist with them getting that type of support? That can lead to bills being paid, housing being found, and food filling bellies. And walking with someone like that also generates love, respect, and community without setting up that contrast of, “I did it. Why can’t you?”