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Prescription Optimism

By Lynn Colwell

A client explained that she's stuck in a writing rut because she's on constant overwhelm. In other areas of life, she explained, she's organized and orderly. But when it comes to writing, it's as if she's possessed. She's inundated with ideas. Where to start? When she opens Writer's Market seeking to be inspired, boy is she! She comes up with a great story perfect for a particular magazine, then spends hours ferreting out dozens of other publications where the piece might fly. If she does attempt to write, article ideas buzz around in her head like a hive full of furious bees. She sits before the computer in a confused haze, dizzy with too much of a good thing.

Her real problem, she realized during a coaching call with me, is not that she has so many ideas. The problem is that she is paralyzed by fear. She's afraid of making the wrong choice.

"What, I ask her, "would making the wrong choice mean?"

After a moment of quiet, the words tumble out almost as quickly as her thoughts fly. "If I chose to write about something, and I submitted it and the editor turned it down, it would confirm for me that I'm a lousy writer." Then a light went off. "So if I never pursue an idea, I can't fail. And if I don't fail, I can continue to live with that little part of me that thinks that maybe, just maybe, I can write."

Her plight reminded me of a friend who, when I asked how her nine-year-old daughter was doing in school, burst into tears and sobbed, "I don't want to be a grandmother." Not being the fastest car on the track, I had no idea what she was talking about. She proceeded to tell me that her daughter had been sent to the principal's office for passing a note inviting a boy to plant a kiss on her cheek. From this my friend's thinking had careened forward like this: Oh my gosh, she's already wanting to kiss a boy. Next thing you know she'll be secretly dating a 19-year-old punk and by the time she's 14, I'll be a grandmother!

These two people did what many of us do. They predicted the future based on their worst fears rather than on their most fervent hopes. Their minds immediately leapt to an appalling scenario rather than to a more optimistic possibility.

My client tells me that she does this out of fear of failure. Another, more insidious reason, is that culturally, we are taught that optimism is at the very least unsophisticated and at worst, can lead us where we don't want to go. After all, if we believe we will win and then we lose, we will be disappointed, upset, sad. (Even worse, others may witness our failures.) To avoid the momentary pain these feelings may bring, we dismiss optimism as childish.

Yet what else keeps a writer writing when he has been rejected hundreds of times? What other way is there than to believe utterly and completely in what you are doing? If you give up the first time your work is rejected, one thing is for certain: You will never succeed.

If you recognize yourself in the examples above, know that there is hope. You can change. Here are five ways to get started:

  1. Identify your negative thinking pattern. Uncover the reason you believe you are having a particular problem such as being stuck with your writing. Then attack it. Don't just accept the idea that you were born negative and nothing will ever change that.

  2. Recognize that you always have a choice in how you think about something. So instead of accepting that you will fail, tell yourself that you just might succeed. Write down what succeeding would feel like.

  3. Remind yourself that you will never succeed if you don't try. Embrace the possibility of success. Know that it's a wonderful feeling to believe in yourself even when no one else does.

  4. Do whatever you need to do to build your confidence. This might involve taking writing classes, reading books, asking (and/or paying) published writers to read your work.

  5. Create accountability. Craft an intention for yourself, then share it with someone you trust. For instance, if you, like my client, have too many ideas, tell a friend that you will select one idea by the end of the week. Once the idea is selected, tell the friend that you will write the article the following week and finish it by Friday. If you do this a few times, the grip of overwhelm should begin to loosen.

If you're a confirmed pessimist, you might want to look at the book, Learned Optimism, by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., to discover more ways to turn your head around.

Just imagine what your life might be like if you believed that the best was possible, unfettered by the mindset that the worst is inevitable.

About The Author

Lynn Colwell is a life/personal coach and writer. After a career including public relations and corporate communications with hospitals and high tech companies, she decided to devote herself to making a difference in people's lives. Her complimentary online newsletter has been called, "An inspiring, exciting, fun, pick-me-up." Sign up for the newsletter or contact Lynn at

Copyright 2004 Lynn Colwell


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