The Optimism Challenge

 

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A friend sent me a link to an article in Time magazine, The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot.  The article, based on the book by the same name, discusses how people tend to be more optimistic than realistic about their personal futures.  In matters of health, finances, and success, people tend to expect things to work out in their favor over the long run.

However, this is often not the case for people who have been traumatized.  Having had their lives fatally threatened or witnessed the life of another threatened or taken, hope can be lost.

Optimism is particularly challenging for someone who has experienced either repeated trauma exposure or an especially severe single episode.  Either occurrence can take place in the cases of childhood abuse, rape, domestic violence or being in war zones.  Such experiences test the individual’s ability to trust themselves, other people, and life in general.  A constant state of fear develops that leads to a feeling of impending danger.

Living life with an expectation of danger lurking in the background contributes to one becoming a pessimist.  Pessimism can be experienced as a tendency to expect things to go badly, excessive worry or over focusing on things gone wrong in life or the world.  To avoid being caught off guard, pessimism becomes a means of survival.

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Hence, a persistent belief develops.  Thoughts go something like:  “I can’t risk fully relaxing, trusting, engaging or being in the moment as I could be overwhelmed by an unexpected situation.  This would give rise to a painful loss that I fear I am not capable of handling.”  Some describe it as being “realistic.”

Maintaining such a belief (consciously or unconsciously) can contribute to a false sense of control, while the joy of living is minimized at best.

Clinical depression sets in when one no longer experiences joy, which over time contributes to a loss of hope (often experienced as pessimism).  Research supports that people who are depressed are more likely to identify and remember the negative details in their lives, and not recognize or acknowledge the positive elements.  Even when the clinical depression is treated, the pervasive negativism can remain.

As Sharot writes, and research further supports

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.

For myself, abuse began as a baby, and increased exponentially until I left home at seventeen.  Depression had set in long before I left home.  Because my depression was chronic, I did not recognize feeling depressed until something went wrong and sent my depression deeper.  Nor did I recognize the persistent fear of everything.  I had learned to suppress it long ago.

However, the signs of fear were all around me:  severe stomach cramps during semester finals, push-pull relationships with men, insecurities that I was not normal, smart enough, or capable, and the persistent pessimism.  I responded to fear by overcompensating in work, school and relationships.  This worked for a time, but ultimately ignoring the fear stood in the way of the intimacy, satisfaction and joy.

So focused on the NO, you miss all the YESes? © robertosch – Fotolia.com

Although pessimism still shows up occasionally, optimism far outweighs the negativity that controlled a significant portion of my past.

Therapy helped me to recognize the fear and find more effective ways to cope with the daily stressors of life.  Unfortunately, therapy did not alleviate the deeply felt pessimism.

Cultivating optimism is a journey that affects every aspect of life.   My persistence paid off.

Given the essential nature of a positive attitude in attaining what we desire most in life, how do you develop or maintain optimism in your lives?

Please share your ideas and experiences and in the next entry I will present strategies I find helpful in addressing this issue in the healing process.

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