A Personal Story: When Optimism Is A Liability, Not An Asset

No self-respecting positive psychologist will tell you that optimism can hold you hostage. But it can, and often times, it will.

This is most apparent in careers and marriages. We hold out hope that one day things will spontaneously get better, accepting mediocrity in the short-run (in ourselves and others). 

If you were to follow this hope all the way to its source, you'd find that all that's left is: fear. Fear often disguises itself as optimism.

Our minds have tricked us into believing it's better to hope than invest.

The most profound example of this whole 'fear disguised as optimism' phenomenon in my life has a fatal end. One I'm not proud of, but feel obliged to share.

My mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (stage 4) for the second time in 2011. The doctors found ‘spots’ of cancer all over her lymph nodes and a tumor in her lung. 

There was a degree of shock that paralyzed me, but I drove through it with positive psychology principles, even yelling at my own mom to “suck it up” and “be more positive.” 

I never did any research (not even on WebMD) on how long she might live or what revolutionary new treatments might be available.

Yet, with each new negative revelation (first diagnosis, then a nasty-looking brain scan), my mom would call me to ask for advice about which treatment to choose. The first time she called, it was a choice between an at-home pill that wouldn’t cause hair loss or hospital-administered chemotherapy. Blindly (well, with only my mom’s regurgitation of her doctor’s suggestions), I voted for the chemo. In part because, like most Americans, I was convinced that when it comes to beating cancer: short-term baldness = long-term health. 

My mom tried ‘alternative therapies’ alongside her ‘traditional treatments.’ Acupuncture. Tong Ren. Among a few others. She thanked these therapies for her ability to get three hours of sleep per night instead of zero. I thanked them for opening my eyes to what was possible outside of sterilized needles.

Still, I never once looked at ‘the statistics.’ I didn’t want to know what might happen to her, and she begged me not to. I was hyper-aware of what I’d later learn scientists call “the nocebo effect.”

There is a belief in part of the medical community (if even a contrarian one) that sharing statistics can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if you tell someone they have a 90% chance of dying in the next 6 months, you may actually reinforce that reality and cause them to die.

I did, and still do, abide by this belief to some extent.

Yet, like an ignorant accomplice in a murder, I hid behind it. I wanted to be able to stand in front of authorities and say I knew nothing. “Sure, officer. I might have drove the runaway car, but I didn’t know what we were running from.”

She called - over and over again - to ask for advice and I gave it to her blindly.

In retrospect, I was driving with fear as my GPS. I could have spent some time looking into the science, reading up on the newest alternative therapies, talking to her doctors.

I could have set down my devotion to optimism for a second, and dove into the reality unfolding in front of me.

Until my mom died, I believed that if you were just “positive” about things, they would always work out the way you wanted. I believed that optimism was the secret ingredient in cancer recovery that doctors couldn’t inject.

I have my mom to thank for that.

But now I see that there is a dark side to optimism. 

It can act as a cover, an excuse for failing to do the hard work.

My optimism blinded me from doing what was necessary, from doing what could have kept my mom alive. I believed everything would work out, and that I needed to do nothing other than believe it to make it true.

This has proved fatal.

While it’s not the cause of my mom’s death, blind optimism (see: fear) was an accomplice.

Now, I see no reason to rehash the past other than to learn from it. 

Before you feel bad for me, or try to justify my behavior, know that I don’t hold myself in contempt for these choices. Instead, I have chosen to learn from them, to understand that the world is more complex than I once believed it to be. 

My 20 year-old self was a positive psychologist, through and through. My 26 year-old self is more along the lines of a “rational optimist.” To me, this means backing up positivity with rightful action. 

More than anything now, I am interested in doing what’s right--irrespective of my ideological backings. Today, that means sharing this story with you.

Positivity alone cannot change the world because it is a tricky little bugger. Like one of those monsters disguised as agents in Men In Black, it’s often just fear underneath. 

In your life, it’s important to beware of where fear is disguising itself as optimism. Don’t fall in the trap of believing that your situation will spontaneously improve or that your dream career will fall in your lap. Neither is true or false, necessarily.

Life will always require action on your part.

The goal is not to be the most positive person in the room, but rather to have a reason to be positive. It’s not to be fearless, but rather to fear less.

It’s to do the right thing when given the opportunity to do it.

Sometimes this means loosening your grip on optimism in commitment to a cause greater than self. 

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This article was originally published on Thought Catalog.

Kate WardComment