The Power of Realistic Thinking

Most of us know that too much negativity is not a good thing. A negative thought pattern and toxic negativity causes stress for you and those around you. It can stop you from chasing dreams and from enjoying life. Your feelings act as a guide map for your behavior, and focusing too much on negative feelings can lead to distress.

Too much positivity is also not a good thing. There is such thing as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity comes from the notion that people should only feel their positive or happy emotions. It is dismissive of stress and negative emotions, and dismissive of other people’s feelings. It shows up as “just smile,” “just be happy,” or my favorite, “good vibes only!” Toxic positivity is an unhealthy way of thinking, and it won’t get you far in the long run.

Realistic thinking is a cornerstone of CBT. Realistic thinking is not about being too positive or too negative, but about looking at the situation from all perspectives. At its best, realistic thinking opens doors and creates opportunities for you. At its worst, it helps you cope and come up with a contingency plan. And that, right there, is realistic thinking. Realistic thinking will help you look at a situation from the most probable point of view and come up with a plan to tackle each scenario.

There are many different techniques to be a more realistic thinker, but for this article I want to focus on one.

Best case/worst case

Have you ever found yourself predicting a negative outcome? We do it often, and it prevents us from getting what we want or need. This activity can take you to places you’ve never thought you’d be. Because, well, you’ve always predicted the worst-case scenario.

Best case/worst case is an activity that helps ground you, and helps you find middle ground in a situation. It is good for a person who typically concludes that disaster will happen, or for someone who thinks they have a crystal ball and predict the outcome of a situation. Take a situation that is provoking unsettling thoughts and feelings. Now think of the worst case scenario. What would the consequences be? How would your life be different? Write these down. Now, that’s just one possible outcome, and the worst one. What are some other possibilities, say the best case scenario? What does that look like? Now let’s think, what is most likely to happen, what’s the most realistic scenario? Best case/worst case helps you to flesh out the negative thoughts and think of other possible and more realistic outcomes. It is then important to go forth and test your thoughts. You’ll probably find that things go your way more often than you expect, and when they don’t, you are still able to cope.

Here’s an example of a situation that I worked on recently with a high school client.

Situation: The student was having trouble understanding class content and needed extra help.

Thoughts: “My teacher is going to get mad and yell at me because I should know this already.”

Feelings identified: Anxious, nervous, worried

This student was jumping to the worst case scenario in his mind. He assumed that the teacher was going to yell at him for asking a question that he should already know the answer to. Among other strategies, we did best case/worst case.

Here are his answers:

What’s the worst case?: That the teacher yells at me, doesn’t help me, I fail the assignment, and I cry.

What’s the best case?: That the teacher helps me understand and we do the assignment together.

What’s the most realistic scenario? The teacher might be a little annoyed, but will help me with my question.

Sidenote: True outcome: The teacher was nice and helpful with the question and was glad the student came to her. The student was able to complete the assignment on his own.

By doing this activity, this student was able to open his mind to the possibility of different outcomes. He was able to see that he was able to cope with all of the possible outcomes, even his worst case scenario. This gave him the confidence to do something uncomfortable and approach his teacher. By going forth and testing his prediction he learned that the outcome was even better than his prediction. It also helped to make him aware of his primary thought and conclusion that the teacher would yell and he would cry. The client was able to take this strategy and apply to other scenarios where he was predicting an outcome that he felt he would not be able to cope with.

On a personal note, I do this with flying and it has helped me to get on planes and travel. The most realistic scenario is that there might be some hiccups, but I am able to cope and get where I want to go, and have a great time. The true outcome is many times even better than the most realistic scenario we come up with. The most important part of this exercise is after you identify the most realistic outcome, you go out and test it.

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