What we’ve been talking about is how important it is for us—all of us—to embrace reality. If you want to be mentally fit and function at your best, then you will see things as they are. People who wear rose-colored glasses walk into walls. Positive thinking—if it blinds us to reality—is just a set up for a fall.
Look, I know that an encounter with the truth can be harrowing. Everyone who’s run for office—and I ran for president of my sixth-grade class!—and lost can tell you how devastating that can be.
But here’s what an expert has to say: Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 29. In his recent memoir and in interviews, he talks about how he kept trying to be optimistic. But at some point it became too hard to keep up the front:
That was the point where I went 'I'm out of the freakin' lemonade business. I can't put a
shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?' People
have a lot worse than this to deal with, and I have a broken arm and a bad back and
Parkinson's and I'm whining and squealing and complaining. So what good has
optimism done me?
It’s not that optimism was gone. It was that, yeah, you can turn lemons into lemonade, but rocks are always gonna be rocks, and you gotta deal with what’s out there.
And here’s how to do that.
1. Embrace the identity of being a person who sees things as they are. So take in the bad news. Face it. Accept it. In a study of Holocaust survivors, of the people who entered the concentration camps, the ones who ended up surviving were the ones who recognized fastest that their lives had changed and that they were living under entirely different rules, and that they had to learn these new rules immediately. It’s the same thing with a bad marriage. People can survive a bad marriage. What ruins people’s lives is not seeing that their marriage is bad quickly enough, not accepting it quickly enough, not acting on this reality quickly enough.
Reality’s not the monster, denial is. Accepting reality is your dance partner into the best possible new life for you.
2. Know that the bad news isn’t the end of the story. Bad news is a blow. That’s for sure. That’s why we don’t like reality! But it’s not mindless optimism to say that bad news isn’t the end of the story. Bad news is the beginning of a story where you begin to find the best possible ending for yourself.
3. Make sure you learn the whole story. The world isn’t divided into two countries, Optimia and Pessima, one land where there’s only good news and happy hopes and another land where there’s bad news and doom. There’s one world, our world, Realia, and here the good and the bad are all mixed up. No bad thing comes without things you can do to cope, and no good thing is the unmixed blessing it promises to be.
So when you learn some piece of bad news, grab hold as best you can of the whole story, the worst that can happen, the best that can happen, the good that might come out of it, the bad that might come out of it, and all the things you can do to cope. Talk to people who’ve gone through what you’re going through and learn from them. Think of whatever new reality you’re dropped into—or that’s dropped onto you—as a new city that needs to be explored and that’s full of all kinds of resources. So find some guides to its treasures.
4. Plot your comeback. A renowned psychiatric epidemiologist said that the major difference between mental illness and mental health was the difference between “If only...” and “Next time...” The way to deal with reality is to think of it as a problem to be solved, not a doom to be fled. So having faced your reality, ask yourself, What are my strengths, my resources, my supports, my possibilities, my options, my allies, and so on?
This is the difference between being bullied by reality and dealing with it.
5. “What’s my next step?” I used to have a running joke with my insurance agent. Whenever I called him up for anything, he’d say, “Hi, what’s up?” And I’d answer, “Jerry! A giant meteor’s just crashed into our house!” He seemed to think it was funny. But the thing is, if a giant meteor has just demolished your house, that is literally a crushing reality. It is, of course, overwhelming. And in a sense it is something that no one can deal with, unless your whole life is meteors crashing into houses.
But staggering out of that reality, all you have to do is one thing at a time. You just have to take the next step. And there isn’t usually only one right next step. Just make your best guess, do something, and then do the next thing, and keep living in the land of “dealing with” instead of “if only.”
6. Find your OK. As you are busy dealing with reality, coping, managing, taking one step at a time—in other words, doing great—you will from time to time be flooded with terrible thoughts. They’ll feel as though reality is crashing in, but it’s only your thoughts about how everything is not going to be okay that are crashing in.
Now the solution isn’t optimism. You aren’t going to push back that tidal wave by merely saying that everything is going to be okay. Instead you have to do what I call find your okay. What is that? Well, you been having thoughts about why it makes sense to think you’re doomed. So, now think about how you might not be doomed.
In other words, ask yourself, “How might it be true that I am okay here, or that I’m going to be okay? What are the forces on my side? What are the positive steps I can take?”
Now none of this can take the meteor off your house or cure Michael J. Fox’s disease. But what they can do is say, “This is how, in the face of this challenging reality, I can do things to cope and make things better than they might have been otherwise.”
If you do these things, you’ll be well protected against whatever life throws at you. You’ll know what’s real so you’ll never be surprised, never be caught flat footed or unprepared. You’ll know how to deal with reality in the best way possible. And even if you lose the illusion that everything will be all right, you will gain the real strength of knowing you can cope better than you ever thought possible.