How to be positive without being toxic: realistic optimism

Realistc optimism

On LinkedIn the other day I posted about toxic positivity. It horrifies me because it is so harmful.

All the people commenting also saw it as problematic. One person said it makes them want to barf. Me too!

But here’s the problem: difficulty and distress are intrinsic to the experience of women entrepreneurs.

  • You did the math wrong and now you’re overdrawn.
  • Your VA is off for the week (which you totally support) and suddenly your inbox blows up.
  • Half your clients cancelled this week and now your gross for the month is up in the air.
  • You updated your website and now it’s broken.

The list of things that can and do go wrong is endless.

How do you keep on going?

Realistic optimism is the answer

How do you deal with adversity and keep your spirits up without bypassing your mental and spiritual health?

A healthy entrepreneurial mindset acknowledges these challenges.

In addition, a healthy entrepreneurial mindset includes encouraging self-talk.

Together, these two components form the realistic optimism, a key component of the healthy mindset that helps women entrepreneurs be resilient so they can advance despite adversity.

What is realistic optimism?

Realistic optimism means having accurate expectations of what you can achieveRealistic Optimism.  

Overly optimistic expectations (toxic positivity raises its head) will lead to discouragement when you run into reality. 

Toxic positivity says, “Keep the vibe high. Tell yourself: this will be easy. If you stay positive, everything will come to you effortlessly.”

If you work hard and things don’t work out, the corollary of “negative attracts negative” is that you blame yourself for your failures when the truth is that entrepreneurship is hard work and there are many factors at play in success.

Nothing is more disappointing than dashed hopes.

And honestly, isn’t entrepreneurship hard enough without them? When we set realistic expectations, we are more likely to meet—or even exceed—them.

Realistic optimism is protective in another way.

Research has shown that being overly optimistic leads to incorrect assumptions about risk, and this is particularly dangerous for entrepreneurs.

We need to be prepared and ready to address and mitigate the risks inherent in entrepreneurship. Being overly optimistic makes you vulnerable to taking inappropriate risks.

Realistic optimism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but a balanced view. There are risks and benefits.

Living in the both/and is key. 

Living in the “both/and” fosters a healthy entrepreneurial mindset

Exercising realistic optimism means you hold both the good and the bad as part of your healthy entrepreneurial mindset. 

They don’t cancel each other out. Both experiences are true. 

Looking back at your experience as a woman entrepreneur, you can most likely see that the good doesn’t erase the experience of the negative. 

Expecting the good to erase the bad falls into the realm of toxic positivity. (Maybe you have noticed the exact opposite is what actually happens? The bad seems to outweigh and erase the good.)

Sadly, toxic positivity also leads to self-blame when it “doesn’t work,” and you end up still experiencing so-called negative thoughts and feelings. What woman entrepreneur needs more of that? 

Self-criticism does not foster a healthy entrepreneurial mindset, makes you feel like crap, and adds to your stress.

Let’s call it like it is: entrepreneurship is tough. It’s not for the faint of heart. It helps to recognize that. 

If you’re feeling stressed right now, try taking a mindful breath and saying to yourself, “Yes. What I’m trying to do here is challenging.”

How to use encouraging self-talk

Challenges aren’t the whole story. 

While it’s tough, being a woman entrepreneur, you must have been hopeful about the future and confident about your ability to succeed, or you wouldn’t have embarked on this journey in the first place. 

Toxic positivity and encouraging self-talk aren’t the same thing.

Often women entrepreneurs attempt to encourage themselves with overly optimistic positive affirmations that are more like magical thinking and just don’t ring true. Then the inner critic raises its head and your self-esteem plummets.

It’s more realistic—and therefore more helpful—to make a conscious decision to keep on going, even though it’s tough. This is the other half of the realistic optimism that makes up a healthy entrepreneurial mindset.

This is where encouraging self-talk comes in. It acknowledges the reality at the same time as it cheers you to keep going. 

Hands on chest breathingTry this self-talk exercise for an immediate shift

If you’re feeling stressed and discouraged right now, try this encouraging self-talk exercise.

First of all, take a moment to notice how you’re doing. You might like to rate your distress on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being not stressed at all and 5 being very stressed.

  •       Place your attention on your breath.
  •       Without changing your breath, keep your attention on it as you take a breath or two.
  •       If it feels right, place a gentle hand on your heart area.
  •       Say to yourself,
    • Yes, this is hard. I knew it would be hard. (take a breath)
    • Even though it’s hard, I’m going to keep at it because I think hard work usually pays off. (take a breath)

You might like to notice now how you’re feeling. You can maybe rate your distress a second time.

This is a tactic you can use any time to help ground and re-centre, so you can keep going.

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About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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