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Realistic Optimism

Posted on December 13, 2013

A concept I use in my trainings is Daniel Siegel’s definition of the mind.  “The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” I’m fascinated with the idea of the flow of energy and information through our own bodies, to other people.  By embodied, Siegel means the physical structure of our brains.  This is where I want to start this post about the next component of resiliency: realistic optimism.  
I get my working definition of realistic optimism from psychologist Sandra Schneider who puts forth her definition: “Being lenient in our evaluation of past events, actively appreciating the positive aspects of our current situation and routinely emphasizing possible opportunities for the future.”  I like her definition because it measures reality with a positive outlook.  Schneider challenges us to search for the “positive aspects” and “possible opportunities” regardless of the situation.
As I work hard to build my understanding of mindfulness I am learning a great deal about the power of positive energy and information.  Being traumatized entails negative energy and information flowing rapidly through our physical bodies.  This can easily overwhelm our coping capacity and we can find ourselves in a downward spiral where our whole existence can seem hopeless.  Getting back up when hard things happen, involves shifting the energy and information in our brain from negative and fearful, to hopeful and realistic optimism.
Shifting energy in this way takes a high level of cognitive and emotional regulation, and we often need other people to help us make this transition.  For the most part, the brain is designed to keep us in the downward spiral.  Our brain will choose the negative, because it thinks that it is better for our survival for us to live in fear.  This fear should help to minimize our exposure to future painful situations.  Our emotional energy goes to fighting and running away from those harmful variables in the environment.  This fear keeps us alive when there are real threats, but it can also ruin our lives when negative energy dominates our functioning and the energy we bring to our relationships.    
To recover we have to find hope in our situation for a better future.  Here is a slide I got from reading Al Siebert’s resiliency research.  
While a very simplified way to look at the complexity of resiliency, I like this slide because it show the importance of internal regulation.  In this model the negative energy from a traumatic or stressful event comes into our system and there is a fork in the road where we either react to this fear or use our higher cognitive functions to respond to the situation.  
Reframing requires finding the positive in the situation.  My wife is a master reframer.  I remember driving her car into a ditch on a snowy day in a failed attempt to get down the mountain.  I’m pissed off about the car, the ditch and the meeting that I would likely miss.  As I stomped up the mountain my anger grew until I walked through the door and faced my surprised wife.  After asking if I was okay, she went on to state how lucky I was to not be hurt and that the situation could have been much worse for me and the car.  
This used to drive me a little crazy, as a lucky man would have a car that was not sitting in a ditch half buried in snow.  What my wife was doing was offering me a way to replace my frustration by finding the positive in the situation and injecting positive energy into my thinking.  I learned that I needed to listen to her and accept her reframe.  I found that the sooner I let the positive energy come in, the faster I could solve the problem and move on with the challenges I needed to face.  I’ve also had to admit to my wife that she was right…again!
In our work with traumatized clients, learning the skill of reframing is critical to someone whose world had become a dangerous and painful place.  Clients come through our doors for so many reasons.  One of the most important resources we have to offer is hope.  Let’s face it, sometimes hope is hard to find as our clients lives and behaviors can make us question whether there really is any hope in their situation.  However, we have to search and find the concrete successes and positive momentum whenever and wherever we can find it.
Siebert’s model shows that this positive reframe has to happen before post-traumatic recovery and growth can occur.  An injection of positive energy and information will not fix years of pain overnight but it starts a shift that can lead to confidence and give motivation to overcome the demons of the past.  As with any change, our brain will slowly change as it builds synaptic pathways for positive energy while weakening those fear based ones.  There will be short falls and relapses, and progress is often at a snail’s pace.  
As I’I’ve mentioned in several post, our greatest gift to our clients is the relationship we build with them.  We assist in the recovery process by bringing hope and energy into our work client.  Like all emotions optimism is contagious and we should spread it every chance we get.
This week I challenge you to look at your environment and work with clients.  How do you bring realistic hope and positive energy into your clients’ lives?  Post your thoughts in the comments.

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