Thoughts & Observations

External Optimist Internal Pessimist


Researcher and author Martin Seligman has years of experience gauging whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist based on their word choice. He has done this with everyone from politicians giving campaign trail speeches to baseball players explaining a win or a loss.

And while a trained researcher can clearly detect the difference between the speech of an optimist and the speech of a pessimist, there are many people who have learned the art of seeming hopeful and optimistic on the outside, but being incredible pessimists on the inside.

They fall into the category I call “external optimist internal pessimist.”

When something goes wrong for someone else, the external optimist internal pessimist might comfort them by saying things like: “It’s not your fault.” “When one door closes, another one opens.” “You are amazing. You will totally pull through this.”

But when it comes to how they talk to themselves, they don’t use such supportive, optimistic language at all.

When something goes wrong for the external optimist internal pessimist, they explain it to themselves using language that is, using Seligman’s terminology, personal, pervasive, and permanent: “You’re so weak. You can’t finish anything.” “You never reach the goals you set for yourself.” “You’re horrible at sales. Other people could do this so much better than you. You’re never going to be successful at this.”

External optimist internal pessimists can even trick themselves into thinking that they have a completely optimistic worldview because they constantly hear themselves saying positive things to others.

But they are often not so carefully listening to what they say to themselves.

And while what we say to others and what others say to us is important, the voice that we hear most frequently inside our heads is our own. If that voice is one of constant pessimistic berating, we are more likely to become depressed, withdraw, and even shorten our lives.

The answer isn’t to adopt a stance of false optimism. If you are a pessimist, it means you are also usually a realist, so tricking yourself into feeling positive by reciting “I am wonderful”-style affirmations in front of a mirror probably won’t work.

But what Seligman and others have found does work is listening to yourself more, catching yourself when you slip into pessimistic explanations, and challenging yourself to find alternative explanations. Instead of taking one missed sale as an indication that you are a bad sales person, could it be that the client simply wasn’t the right fit? Or maybe you were tired and didn’t give the pitch fully? Or maybe the way you talk about the product needs to be updated?

Walk through it the way you would with a person you love and care about, except this time that person is you.