Can a person ever be too optimistic?
As someone that has suffered the effects of their over optimism, I’d have to say that there is a dark side to optimism. For example, being too optimistic can mean that you under emphasize the drawbacks of any given course of action, which leads to weaker decisions.
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 being too optimistic affects us at a societal level (it does, but you can read about that in other places online).
It is more of a subjective account of how I think being too optimistic has been detrimental in my life. I’ll also talk to you about a technique I do now to deal with this specific defence mechanism, and curb my enthusiasm (a bit anyway).
How do we become too optimistic?
Being too optimistic might not be an issue for you. However, I bet you know someone for whom this is a thing.
The trait is more common in extroverted people, who are just more naturally optimistic. Otherwise, and like everything you do, it comes back to your personality and fundamental wiring.
You’re more likely to be too optimistic if you are an Enneagram type 7 or 9 or even 2, for instance, as these personality types prioritise harmony and tend to avoid and/or gloss over conflict. (Don’t know your Enneagram type yet? Read this.)Being cheery is a strategy some of us adopted from an early age to deal with life Click To Tweet
For those types, excessive cheerfulness/pain avoidance are coping strategies they developed in response to early childhood events.
Gifts of optimism
Being highly optimistic has its upsides, which 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
For me, my optimism 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.
But there are several clear ways that being too optimistic has inhibited me too, which is what I am going to talk about now.My over-optimism has in the past made me a poor trouble-shooter and executor Click To Tweet
Here’s a little more detail on how I think being too optimistic has stalled progress in meaningful life areas.
Superficial relationships/ inability to create intimacy. Trying to get an optimist to deal with 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. The opportunities for genuine repair and intimacy get lost when you do that.
Flawed character judgments. 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 reframing poor behaviour, as it’ll eventually result in your resentment and unhappiness.
It set an unhelpful pattern in my career which has in the past undermined my confidence. For me, ideas come quite easily. However, doing the hard work that becomes necessary to bring ideas to life? That’s been another story. I’ve lacked skill and practice at properly troubleshooting or validating ideas. That pattern of stopping when the going gets tough reduced my confidence in myself. And it has taken something to begin to break it.
A solution – reframing
Cognitive reframing, especially positive reframing, is an important skill to develop. Both positive and negative reframing help you to uncover new perspectives that had previously alluded you. It is used a lot in therapy for the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Positive reframing 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 reframing 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 reframing should be the go-to tool of life’s optimists. It is doing the exact opposite of the above, and asking yourself ‘what could go wrong here?’
If you’re open to it, sometimes those closest to you can act as your negative reframers. 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.
In any event, once you’re aware of your tendency of being too optimistic, you can integrate a bit more realism into your decision-making. 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 relationships, when someone you love is upset or a rift has happened, notice yourself about to cheer them up or paper over the cracks. It’s oppressive when you do that too much. Practice just listening or biding your time before you act.
Being optimistic is great. Being too optimistic though probably ultimately won’t serve your health and happiness. This is what I have found anyway.
The first step in transformation is always observation. If you can admit to yourself that being too optimistic might be holding you back, then that’s great.
Nobody enjoys the pain of feelings like regret. But it is more painful in the long run to reframe 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 decision-making becomes more balanced and your relationships become more honest and real.