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When Positivity Feels Forced, Try Possibilities Instead

Message 2, January, 2021

Dear Guest,

Back in high school, I had a reputation as an optimist. But I couldn't understand why people thought of me that way. So I was relieved not to win the "optimist" award our senior year - that honor went to my friend Meghan, who was the ultimate optimist. As in, the opposite of pessimist.

I have never seen myself as a "positive" thinker. I guess we could get into a discussion about the differences between optimism and positive thinking, but in my head, they are just about the same thing.

Fast forward all these years, to being a family caregiver (and wife, mom to two teenagers, and entrepreneur), when my days are often filled with juggling more tasks and details than I ever could have pictured. And especially when I am tired and at my most vulnerable, what I hear a lot is that I’m getting it all wrong because I need to “harvest the power of positive thinking," "count my blessings," and "just learn to be grateful."

I actually do believe fully in the research and teachings on positivity and gratitude. That stuff works, friends! It's just, well, it doesn’t seem to fit me very well. This feels really weird to admit, but most days, I can't bring myself to grind out a gratitude list. It feels too far out of my reach.

And that's because it turns out that, unlike sweet Meghan, I don't see positivity when I hop out of bed in the morning. (To be fair to Meghan, she probably didn't either, except in comparison to most of the rest of humanity).

What I can see from the moment I hop out of bed is possibilities, which to me is very far from positivity. I think it falls somewhere in the vast middle between negative and positive thinking, but even so, it's enough for me. Seeing possibilities will yank me out of being stuck in a thought funk or self-pity loop, or even some pretty hefty doubts and fears about just exactly what I think I’m doing trying to be an entrepreneur AND a wife AND a mom AND a caregiver.

The point is, I think the skill I actually have - which has always been misinterpreted as optimism - is seeing possibilities, even when I’m facing very tough challenges. I literally ask myself, “What else could be possible here?” (I don’t ask myself, “What do I believe right now?” or “What is possible?” or even “What do I want?”). The good news is, it’s a skill I think anybody can learn and use, even on those days when positive thinking feels painfully forced and gratitude seems just too far away.

So that’s what I want to offer you today. When you take your five minutes to think about yourself (see message 1), ask yourself this exact question: “What else could be possible?”

This question isn't about analyzing whether or not you can do it, or figuring out how. Don’t try to convince yourself of anything, don’t try to force yourself to believe in something new, and for goodness’ sake, don’t try to talk yourself out of seeing a new possibility. Just think about what’s possible and stop there. Let that be enough. And allow the simple act of seeing possibilities to shift your thinking to a place where you can see something else - anything else - instead of dwelling on whatever you're stuck on.

This skill of seeing possibilities - instead of forcing ourselves to make the leap into positivity or gratitude - has made a big difference for me and for many of my clients.

Please give it a try for yourself, even if you think you might not be doing it right. Trust me, this isn’t something that needs to be done perfectly, and honestly, you don’t even have to do it very well. The goal of seeing possibilities is to bump you out of a cycle of thinking that probably isn’t helping you very much, and nobody is going to grade you on what your possibilities list looks like. You don’t even have to write it down if that doesn’t work for you (although sometimes, when I am really stuck, I have to write my possibilities out so that I can use more of my senses to give myself enough of a boost to get out of my stuckness).

In the next message, I am going to suggest a very, very quick and easy way to remind yourself to think about possibilities.

I want to hear from you! Reply to this email if you have questions, or if you give this a try and it works (or even if you try it and it doesn’t work).

As family caregivers, we have as many possibilities as everyone else. We just have to learn to see them.

Here’s to being willing to try to see possibilities, and doing it together,

Kay Coughlin


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