Have you ever wondered why some people reach their full potential while others remain unfulfilled? Why does one person succeed and another fail? What makes the difference between a success story and a she-had-so-much-potential story? Is one an active participant and the other a bystander in their own life?
Twins from A to Z
A young lady named Amy came to see me for consultation, concerned that her life wasn’t going according to plan. At 29 years old, she was living in her parents’ basement apartment, working as a server at a local bar, and adding daily to her ever-increasing debt load. What made the situation worse was the fact that her identical twin sister Zoey was living a radically different life from her own. Rising through the ranks as a communications specialist for an international automotive firm, Zoey was recently married with a child on the way.
Below the Surface
What is critical in the field of psychology is to never treat the symptoms of a disorder in isolation. Instead, one must look below the surface to truly understand the source of the complaint. I asked Amy to invite her twin sister to our next appointment—it was important that I heard the story unbiased, directly from both parties.
On the surface, Amy and Zoey had so much in common: identical twin sisters raised by middle-income working parents. They shared genes and environments and went to university, where both had been varsity athletes and honour-roll students.
But on closer inspection, the twins were quite different in both disposition and outlook.
Attribution Theory and Perception
Using Attribution Theory, I can tell a lot about someone by the way they interpret the events that happen in their lives, particularly the explanatory style they use in analyzing setbacks versus successes.
The pessimist perceives failures as personal, permanent, and pervasive, and thus has difficulty moving beyond setbacks. They often get lost in a recurrent loop of negativity.
In contrast, optimists see setbacks as universal to everyone, temporary in time, and limited to one or two areas of their lives.
“The pessimist sees an obstacle in every opportunity; the optimist sees an opportunity in every obstacle.”
There was no doubt that Amy was suffering because of her attributional style, and she agreed to life coaching with her sister Zoey along for the ride.
Are Problems Personal or Universal?
Amy the pessimist: “I have bad luck. No one has as many problems as me.”
Zoey the optimist: “Adversity is part of the universal, human experience.”
One of the first things I noticed with Amy was how often she gets stuck in the negatives. No matter what angle from which she tells a story, her description of events always ends with a downer. In contrast, her twin sister Zoey spoke of challenges with heroic flare. Rather than perceiving difficulties as roadblocks, she described struggles as stepping stones and learning opportunities.
Assignment 1: Ask people about their problems. Take notes. Listen!
With time, Amy had become quite narcissistic in the way she perceived her challenges, acting as if she was the only person in the world with difficulties. As such, I assigned her the task of documenting all setbacks her twin sister experiences in the course of a week. Checking in with Zoey daily, she had to encourage her sister to share everything happening in her life, especially hardships. By the end of the first week, Amy appreciated how similar the two were in life experiences—the main difference was how they handled their tribulations. As a result, she vowed to complain less and listen more in future conversations.
Are Setbacks Permanent or Temporary?
Amy the pessimist: “My debt will last forever, so why bother paying it off?”
Zoey the optimist: “My debt will be paid off eventually if I make a budget and stick to it.”
No matter how short-lived a problem was, Amy imagined that each setback would last forever, that the debt she accumulated would never end. Zoey, meanwhile, described work struggles as strength-building opportunities, perceiving them as short-lived and necessary.
Amy’s belief that all problems are permanent and never-ending had created learned helplessness. She thought that no matter what she did, nothing good would come of it. She felt ‘out of control’ in almost every area of life, especially when it came to finances.
Assignment 2: Become an active participant in your own life. Take ownership!
Amy and Zoey agreed to meet with a loans specialist, who was an expert in both budgeting and student loans. It was important that Amy heard the same “it can be done” story from an independent, third party, underscoring that most problems are temporary.
At the end of the meeting, a financial plan was in place for Amy. What made this plan especially solid was her twin’s confession that she also needed help curbing her vacation spending. Collectively, they became accountable to each other, strengthening a sisterly bond that had languished in recent years.
Are Challenges Pervasive or Limited?
Amy the pessimist: “Every part of my job is miserable.”
Zoey the optimist: “I love most parts of my job. Except for the long hours.”
The final session addressed Amy’s tendency to generalize isolated struggles to everything, creating a kind of tunnel vision that blinded her to all that was good in her life. Amy’s sister also shared her list of challenges. But rather than floundering in her misfortunes, Zoey perceived them as isolated and limited. She accepted life as it was—dark clouds and all.
Assignment 3: Intentionally look for the good in your life. Be grateful!
The goal for the last assignment was to open Amy’s eyes to all the positives in her life, especially during difficulty. For an entire week, her phone was programmed to chime randomly throughout the day, signalling her to write down three things that were going well, no matter how mundane.
The results were promising: as time went on, Amy found herself sharing more ups than downs with family and friends.
Optimism is a life strategy.
Optimism is not simply a Pollyanna feel-good, pie-in-the-sky way of living—it is a concrete life strategy that moves people forward. It helps people focus on what’s within their control, making it easier to let go of setbacks and move on to what matters: life itself.
Visit DrAndreaDinardo.com to learn more about her TEDx Talk and positive psychology workshops.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The individuals depicted are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.