Stop Trying To Be An Optimist
You’re only making things harder for yourself
I’ve had my fair share of trauma to deal with as a twenty-something, and through it all, I’ve always been encouraged by my well-meaning friends to stay positive.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like such bad advice. Sure, we should all try and look at the bright side of bad situations. Life isn’t all bad, and there are usually a lot of things to be happy about in the face of pain.
But when our efforts in struggle are geared towards trying to be positive all of the time, we’re only really distracting ourselves and making things worse.
My fiancé has brain cancer. Some days, I wake up feeling totally fine, and others are tortuously difficult. On those difficult days, most of my friends and family members encourage me to stay positive.
And as much as I welcome their support, I’m here to tell you that trying to be an optimist when you’re faced with extreme emotional stress is a terrible idea.
Optimism is Over-Hyped
I’m an optimist. I always have been. For the vast majority of my life, I’ve been that guy on the receiving end of the phone, listening to my friends’ problems and telling them that everything will be okay.
That was, until, I became those friends. And no matter how much other people tell you that everything will be okay when you’re hurting, it never really seems to soothe your pain.
Everybody wants to be an optimist, but optimism doesn’t really help when our lives take a turn for the worst. Trying to see everything through rose-colored glasses, even when your entire life is falling apart, rarely helps.
It’s easy to stay positive when our lives are on track, but when they’re not, it isn’t a great idea to tell ourselves that everything is all fine and dandy. Deep down, we know they aren’t. We’re not fooling anybody — including ourselves.
Optimism is over-hyped. It isn’t a coping mechanism, and often, it only makes difficult situations harder to deal with. Why? Because when we’re expecting everything to go well, a surprise curveball will hit us like a tonne of bricks.
A Note on Stoicism
Since my fianceé was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my entire attitude towards struggle has changed dramatically.
In the beginning, I was hopeful. But unrealistically hopeful. I was clinging to the belief that someday soon, everything would return to normal — that her tumor would miraculously vanish overnight and she’d be cured.
Alas, every scan that revealed signs of the cancer lodged inside of her temporal lobe crushed my spirits over and over again. I was endlessly reverting back to square one, never really adjusting to the situation and hopelessly refusing to accept it.
In a sense, optimism is often like denial. We tell ourselves that everything is going to be fine when actually, it might not. What we should really be telling ourselves is that even though life might take some really difficult turns, we’ll be okay.
It’s what the Stoics taught us thousands of years ago. Instead of pretending that our pain isn’t there, that our fears will never come true, we should become well-acquainted with them.
One of the reasons that we suffer so much is because we aren’t prepared for bad things to occur. We don’t expect them. That’ll never happen to us, we say.
And as a result, pain catches us off guard. Optimism teaches us to expect the best-case scenario in every situation, but when our hopes and dreams are inevitably crushed, that only makes pain more difficult to deal with.
Get Comfortable With Your Worst-Case Scenario
The thing is, your worst-case scenario could always happen. Mine was losing my fiancé, and here I am, despite all of my expectations and optimistic dreams. It’s happening.
As much as we should cultivate gratitude for all that we have now, we have to come to terms with the fact that we might not have it forever.
Whereas before I was swept up in fantasies about wonder cures and overnight miracles, now I understand that that probably isn’t going to happen. It might. But if I sit and wait for it, I’ll only make things more difficult for myself in the long-run if things take a turn for the worst.
Rather than shying away from our worst-case scenario, we have to become comfortable with it. That starts with accepting that it may indeed materialize, and understanding that if it did, we could cope.
Pain Demands to Be Felt
John Green was right. Pain demands to be felt. We can’t avoid it, and we can’t coat it in positivity and optimism and expect that it’ll just go away.
No, when we’re unhappy, we have to feel that unhappiness. And that’ll mean very different things for different people.
For me, when I’m having a bad day, it means just having a bad day. I won’t work, I’ll cry, I’ll embrace the pain. Rather than telling myself just to suck it up and be positive, which, frankly, never works, I allow myself to just experience what my mind wants to experience.
Get support. Talk to your friends. Admit that you’re suffering — even if you’re a man. It’s okay to feel pain, and pretending that you’re doing just fine when your insides are being torn apart isn’t good for anybody.
Emotions never last. They’re momentary, but for them to fade, we have to allow them to take their natural course rather than resisting them. It’s exactly as Matt Haig said,
Nothing lasts forever. This pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies, ignore it. Pain is a debt paid off with time.
We have to learn to go with the flow; to let the wind carry us; to turn into the slide and regain our control.
And, like a piece of driftwood lost at sea, eventually, we’ll wash back up on the shore. But only when we learn to move with the waves.