Overcoming pessimism and self- limiting assumptions

As an ex head-hunter and now coach and mentor, I often come across people who are prone to self limiting assumptions and sadly, these often become self fulfilling. For some people these derive from a pessimistic mind set and for others, they are picked up along the way, through adverse childhood or career experiences for example. Once you have identified the tendency, the harder question is what to do about it?

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Self-limiting assumptions come in many forms and guises and are often expressed through a negative conversation which people have with themselves. I will never be able to do x or y because, or it was doomed to failure because. This might be termed a negative explanatory style or just plain pessimism and the more fortunate amongst you are more likely to have a positive explanatory style and a more optimistic outlook. For many years optimism and pessimism were seen to be innate and immutable, the glass was either half empty or half full and that was just the way it was. A rare convergence of thinking across the fields of psychology and neuroscience (positive psychology and neuroplasticity particularly) have proved that this is not the case and thankfully, there is much that you can do to improve your positivity and outlook.

Developing more mindful, self-awareness is an important starting point. This allows you to sabotage self limiting assumptions before they sabotage you. You will need to be vigilant at all times and if the thinking has become habitual, like most habits it may take time to break. For example it may take several years and several attempts to give up smoking and willpower alone will not necessarily be enough. The important point is the conversation you have with yourself if you fail. Was it bound to happen because after all, you are addicted or will this failure strengthen your resolve to quit this time around? Whichever option you focus your attention on will give it energy and will define your explanatory style. I quit by deploying the mental trick of convincing myself that I was doing myself a favour every time I did not have a cigarette, rather than by focussing on the sacrifice. I have known other people who just decide out of the blue to quit and never smoke again. Both approaches are equally valid and prove that it is possible to break habitual patterns of thought and behaviour. You can apply the logic to most career and life situations and a dose of Positive psychology will give you the tools to overcome most blocks. When in doubt, think about similar changes you have been able to make in your own lives. What did you do to make it work? How can you replicate that?

Visualisation can often help and by asking yourselves questions such as how would success look and feel? you are more likely to succeed, regardless of your specific goal. As a coach my role is often to help people to improve the quality of the conversations they have with themselves, or their inner dialogue if you prefer. It is interesting how often people are unaware of their self limiting assumptions or subconsciously prefer a pessimistic outlook because it protects them from harm or the threat of failure. If you have low expectations you are rarely disappointed, 'Every silver lining has a cloud' as one pessimistic friend once pointed out to me ironically. In career terms it is advisable to take a more positive view and to remind yourself that if you aim low enough, you may just get there...

Whilst most people would accept that pessimists are rarely as attractive to others as more positive souls with an optimistic outlook, there is an underlying aspect of our culture which is wary of optimists and people who are positive all of the time. We tend to see them as disingenuous in some way or not to be trusted. However when optimism is backed by a clear set of positive values, warmth and integrity it can be the most attractive combination and a quality which sets leaders and exceptional people apart. We would all aspire to that, surely? Yes and no.

There is a place for caution and a more pessimistic outlook, particularly where life and death decisions are involved. Pessimists may make better air traffic controllers for example and if optimism is preferable in the business world, extreme optimists in senior leadership positions can be dangerous to themselves and their enterprises. You only need look at the banking crisis to see that this is the case. As s client CEO pointed out to me 'what is the point of crawling off the edge of a cliff, when you can go off at 100 mph'. Thankfully his judgement was usually sound, but counter examples are not hard to find..


David Head

Coach and Mentor, Accelerating Experience

With twenty years experience in the search industry before becoming a coach, I combine highly personalised coaching and mentoring with broader commercial insight and perspective. I will help you to find your purpose, to thrive in your career and to change direction when this is what is needed. I will commit to helping you to achieve a state of flow by aligning values and purpose with what you do and how you do it. contact me via david.head@acceleratingexperience.com 07920 064056