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Originally published Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 6:20 AM

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How to get along with a pessimist — or optimist

People who see the glass as “half-full” may have a hard time seeing eye to eye with those who see it “half-empty.” But each of these perspectives can temper the other. When taken together we make better, more realistic decisions.


Special to The Seattle Times

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On health

On a trip to Asia, Todd and Annie get lost driving their rental car through a strange town. Their reactions could not be more different. Annie, worried they will not reach their hotel before dark, is anticipating how dangerous that could be. Todd, on the other hand, loves the excitement of the adventure and feels confident that if they don’t find their hotel, they can always find a place to stay.

Todd tends to see the glass as half-full. He experiences life’s challenges as opportunities to master. Annie, on the other hand, tends to view the glass as half-empty. She sees those very same challenges as problems to overcome.

Neither view is true — both are merely different ways of perceiving the world, filters that become part of our personalities, formed as a result of biology and the environment we grew up in.

The complex attribute of anticipating things either with enthusiasm or anxiety affects how we live — how we approach our work, what gives us pleasure and relaxation and the quality of the relationships we have with others. The way these different views of the world affect our relationships is what I focus on here.

The match between people with respect to this half-full/half-empty quality is an important element of getting along with others. In my work with individuals and couples, I have found there is an optimum range of difference between people that makes it more likely that situations between them will work out.

A person who sees most everything with optimism may need the “brake” of skepticism from another in order to promote more realistic outcomes. Conversely, someone who anxiously anticipates the worst requires the balance of someone who helps them see beyond all that can go wrong.

One challenge for people who have differences anticipating how things will turn out is to help each other temper the anticipated outcomes in an understanding and empathic way. This builds trust.

Although Annie does not like Todd’s too-optimistic approach, Todd knows how nervous she gets. Annie feels Todd understands this. This helps her trust him. Todd does not get angry that Annie “is just a worrywart”; instead, he says they should just “find a place and everything will be fine.”

For her part, Annie knows how unrealistic Todd can be. Todd’s saying “everything will be fine” isn’t concrete enough to be reassuring. She tells him she needs more specifics. Hearing this, Todd says more clearly how they will handle the situation: “We’ll take 20 minutes to get back to that landmark we passed, and from there we should be able to see the hill our hotel is on.”

Todd also agrees that if they have not found the landmark in 20 minutes, he will stop and ask for directions at another hotel where someone likely speaks English.

Because each of us anticipates the world differently, we need others to help balance our expectations so they do not become too one-sided.

Tony Hacker, Ph.D. is a Seattle-area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Reach him at tahackerphd@gmail.com.



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