We can kid ourselves otherwise, but there is a dark side to over-optimism. One that once noticed, can no longer go unnoticed.
These dark sides may look different to those experienced by the more pessimistically inclined. But they’re equivalent.Perma-optimism, as with any other habitual way of interacting with life, lacks freedom Click To Tweet
Optimism – or mechanical cheeriness – is a kind of mental escapism that can erode intimacy in relationships and produce frustrating results in our professional lives.
As far as fixations go, we have to work harder to notice this one in ourselves. That’s because unlike some other behaviour patterns, being upbeat to a fault doesn’t meet with too much resistance in the world.
This post isn’t about how unwarranted positivism affects us at a societal level (it does, but you can read about that in other places online). Instead, it is about how I think being overly positive has affected me in my life. I’ll also talk to you about a technique I do now to deal with this defense mechanism, and curb my enthusiasm (a bit anyway).
Before we zoom in, let’s take a birdseye view on this condition.
how common is it?
Being too upbeat might not be an issue for you. However, I bet you know someone for whom this is a thing.
The opposite – being overly negative – might be slightly more common. Being overly negative affects everyone at some time, including life’s optimists.
And that’s probably to do with our hard-wiring. The effect of negativity bias means we all tend to home in on the bad stuff – the times people let us down, compared to all the times they came through. This is a tendency we all need to be aware of, especially in our relationships.
Why are some of us dysfunctionally upbeat?
So some of us are very pain adverse in how we approach our emotions and experiences.
These are the people that seem to lack fortitude for the unpleasurable, monotonous or gritty. They are the same individuals that tend to give up on projects and ideas, and have difficulty confronting difficult conversations and issues in their relationships. (They genuinely have difficulty in admitting there is an issue.)Being cheery is a strategy some of us adopted from an early age to deal with life Click To Tweet
Why does that happen?
Being conflict avoidant and pain adverse is woven into some of our psyches. We all form ways of paying attention to life from an early age. For some of us, excessive cheerfulness was a coping strategy we developed in response to early childhood events.
I’ve written before about these strategies (we all have them). The important thing is figuring out what ours are and learning to observe their effects.
Gifts of optimism
For balance, let’s look at optimism’s upsides. They are probably obvious.
Optimists excel at making lemonade out of lemons. They help us to connect with what’s joyful about life. They can keep the mood up and have the energy (and often the belligerence!) to see possibility where others can’t. Steve Jobs was a infamous example of an unrelenting optimist.
It is often said that optimists get more done, whilst pessimists engage with a situation more realistically. Or as G.B. Stern said:
“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”
3 ways over-optimism is harmful
Okay, now the downsides.
Any fixated way of noticing and processing information lacks balance, and will produce results that reflect that.
For me, being magnetised towards the positive has led me to try a lot of different things others wouldn’t, in terms of my lifestyle and my creative efforts. My optimism undoubtedly helps me to take risks. I expect good things.My over-optimism has in the past made me a poor trouble-shooter and executor Click To Tweet
All this said, it hasn’t all been good. I have a history of not persevering to completion with things. Also, my romantic decisions have at times lacked the wisdom and discrimination that an even focus on the negative would enable.
Here’s a little more detail on how I think my over-ability to positively re-frame things has stalled progress in meaningful life areas.
Superficial relationships. All relationships rest on an ability to be able to argue well. Trying to get an optimist to look at a problem and explore it with you can be a lonely experience. They are too much in a rush to patch it up and make it all better, when sometimes a situation requires a bit more attention. That can leave the other person confused, frustrated, unsupported and invalidated.
I’ve ignored relationship red flags. Glossing over ‘negative’ aspects of others can be a blessing. It is a good thing to be able to see the best in people and give them the benefit of the doubt. What isn’t helpful is re-framing their poor behaviour or other concerns as ‘a great lesson’, or worse still an ‘ability to practice detachment'(!)
It set an unhelpful pattern in my career which has in the past undermined my confidence. For me, ideas come quite easily and I usually sustain momentum to get projects off the ground. However, doing the hard work that becomes necessary when you pursue something to fruition? That’s been another story.
I’ve also lacked skill and practice at properly troubleshooting or validating ideas. I used to feel quite agitated when my brother and other pessimistic friends would try to highlight the faults in my plans! That pattern of stopping when the going gets tough reduced my confidence in myself. And it has taken something to begin to break it.
Positive and negative re-framing
Re-framing, especially positive re-framing, is an important skill to develop.
Both positive and negative re-framing can lead you towards action to positive change. They help you to uncover new perspectives that had previously alluded you. Actually, re-framing is where intentional living begins.
Positive re-framing is choosing to see things from a more empowered perspective. It is a simple and effective brain training practice that you can use until it becomes habitual for you to take the stance.
You can use positive re-framing by applying it to situations and internal beliefs. It only targets the cognitive part of your brain (not the emotional one), so as a change strategy, it has its limits. But sometimes, intellectually re-framing something is enough to make a shift.
Here’s a simple example:
X hasn’t responded to me yet/has been standoffish. I’ve probably offended them by doing Y.
Re-frame: X has a lot on their plate right now. They probably haven’t had time to come back to me. Assuming that’s the case, I’ll drop them another message in a few days.
The process is basically one of looking at the meaning you have attached to a situation and then asking yourself, ‘What other meaning could apply here?’
Negative re-framing should be the go-to tool of life’s optimists.
If you’re open to it, sometimes those closest to you can act as your negative re-framers or at least help to model negativity. Provided they have the skills to approach it compassionately, these people can help you to see the flaws in your plans, and bring your attention around to the less sunny side. If you care about growth, then this is a welcome direction for you.If you're open to it, the people close to you can help you to attune to problems/challenges in your plans Click To Tweet
In any event, once you’re aware of your tendency towards excessive optimism, you can begin to untangle optimism. That starts with having compassion with yourself about why you do this to begin with (a coping strategy; see above). The next step is reflecting on how this has harmed you in life. The final step is paying more attention to the downsides.
The next time you are making a semi significant decision, look at what could go wrong. Emphasize the negatives. And then decide whether you still want to do it.
In your interpersonal relationships, when someone you love is upset, notice yourself about to cheer them up. Maybe just practice listening to them and not rushing in with a solution, instead. Certainly before prescribing a solution, we need to make sure we have heard what the problem is.
The first step in transformation is always observation.
If you can admit to yourself that your over positivity might be holding you back or keeping you stuck, then that’s great. Because we are all meaning-making, narrative machines, we get to exercise quite a lot of choice once we become aware of the stories we are telling ourselves.
Nobody enjoys the pain of feelings like regret. But it is more painful in the long run to re-frame every failure, setback and poor decision as a secretly successful ‘learning experience’!
I’m keeping my positivity. My practice is simply remembering to interject that with a little negativity sometimes. Give it a try. You should find, as I have, that your personal power improves.