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Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal with Life's Problems

Looking at crap and calling it candy has become a growth industry. But experts say there are better ways to deal with crisis.

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Next in Dr. Sharp's PERL acronym is Respect, which is praise for what your troubled friend is doing right. Acknowledge the courage it took to talk about the problem, Dr. Sharp says. Make plans to talk about it again, and remind your friend to get a decent meal and a good night's sleep. (Indeed, my BFF once said to me, when I was running on empty, "Do NOT make ANY decisions until you eat.")

Basic self-care like that often gets forgotten, even by professionals. If you tell someone you've lost your job he might think, "How secure is my job?" and then he's not even hearing the client, says Dr. Sophy. The advice he gives to combat getting worn down from such thoughts is the SWEEP technique: Sleep, Work, Eating, Emotional Expression and Play. Getting those things in balance is important and whether it's the person with the problem or the helper, "the better intact their SWEEP is before the crisis the better equipped they are to handle it."

Cristina Nehring also points out to people what they're doing right -- even if it's their suffering: "It's wonderful that you can love as strongly as you can. And can suffer as much as you can. Because pain is a measure of love, whether we like to think so or not. But realize, also, that you will get through and beyond this." Remind the person that she has not lost any of herself or her gifts: "All that you were when X fell in love with you, you are today."

You can probably shuffle these steps around a little bit, tailoring to meet the individual situation; but with PERL in mind, the last step is Legitimization, a reminder that this bum steer is not the person's fault.

Part of the positive thinking dogma is that negative thoughts attract negative events, which, Sheri Winston says, can get turned around on people who feel they got sick because of their attitude. So now, on top of being sick they feel guilty. "It really pisses me off when people minimize other people's pain," she says. "When something is hurting it's scary...those things are important to acknowledge."

"If someone has a major depression," Dr. Sharp says, remind them it's not their fault. "It's a medical problem, it could happen to anybody. Let's just see what we can do about it."

Cristina Nehring feels like it's okay to acknowledge pitfalls in the lost relationship (personally, I think a little deflation of the other party is an excellent notion). "You know yourself," she writes, "that while you loved X to pieces, it wasn't a perfect relationship for you." She even evokes a little Casablanca: "You can have something -- MAKE something -- even more beautiful. Not today, not tomorrow, not immediately. But keep your heart open and your beautiful spirit up and it will come, I promise you." She says it's important to help your friend find some "foothold, however fragile, from which to pounce again into the future, for pounce we must."

"They know the sun is going to shine. They know that in their head," Dr. Sophy says, citing a patient who lost his job, went through his savings and his pension and ended up selling bottled water out of a cooler at an intersection -- and was ultimately the better for it.

"He's found a whole other side of himself and a better way to connect to his family and community," Sophy says, but at first it was almost like withdrawal from a drug. Get through that and "you're in a better place and can make better choices, otherwise you're running on anxiety and perception."

 
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