Am I a Pessimist or Just Fed Up!?
Updated: Feb 12
I often hear people commenting about how a particular viewpoint or their "general personality" is either optimistic or pessimistic. For example, Sally views every cloudy day as an opportunity for everything to go wrong, while Jim sees the brighter side of every encounter. So, does that make Sally a pessimist and Jim the optimist? In general, our world is made of up optimists and pessimists—and sprinkled with a healthy dose of realists in between (aka: myself!) In general, optimists expect good things to happen, and pessimists expect negative things to come their way. Sometimes pessimists consider themselves to be realists more so than optimists do, but that often depends on who you are speaking with on the matter and how their personality types differ.
A number of theories propose that optimistic and pessimistic personalities are shaped through early childhood experiences. In his theories on personality, developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, explained that those with “predictable” childhoods usually ended up with a basic sense of trust, whereas those with “unpredictable” childhoods were less inclined to trust people and circumstances. As a result, how people handle life experiences often depends on whether they have these two differing personality structures. During my younger years, I always thought it was healthier to be an optimist than a pessimist. However, if my life experiences have taught me anything thus far, it would be that a good balance of the two views lead to more realistic and well thought-through expectations. Nonetheless, we all want to be optimistic and look towards the good, while also being prepared for the "not so good" to come knocking at our doors.
However, this healthy balance between optimism and pessimism isn't necessarily easy to find. If we find ourselves too optimistic, we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable to information that can be hurtful or emotionally damaging in some way. On the flip side, if we are too pessimistic, are we closing ourselves off to potential opportunity and the small doses of happiness that we may gain throughout any given day. I'd like to say that I'm an eternal optimist but that would be a lie. Most who know me well would say that first things first, I'm a realist (ps. funny little song lyric from "I'm so Fancy" that has been playing nonstop in my head for no given reason). I like to view situations as they present, understand the inner-workings of the problem, and make my deductions from the situation itself and what my experience is telling me. If you are a realist like me, then you know how challenging it can sometimes become to realize that you are slowly but surely putting on your pessimism hat over your optimistic one. In these events, I often query whether all this experiential knowledge is blurring my ability to see through the small lens of optimism that I have left. With that, comes the question about whether too much pessimism is unhealthy. Are we becoming less tolerant because we intrinsically know what to expect because our experience has told us this? Are we losing faith and belief that things will pan out because we're just fed up or bored? Some may say that this may be a contributing factor, and I tend to agree. In my work as a psychotherapist, I have learned the art of self-reflection and how daily check-in's with myself has allowed me to get to know my situations on a more present level, rather than one that is based on the past. If a situation is bothering me, I can sometimes let my emotions take control and totally dismiss my emotion regulation entirely. Instead, taking a moment to contemplate the situation as it presents, allows more room for that healthy optimism-pessimism blend to be created.
The concept of “Defensive Pessimism” can also be the answer to this conundrum and can be employed when you don't get that call for an interview for that job you were hoping for or when you get disappointing news three times for what seems like an eternity. This is a psychological stance that involves accepting the fact that things can go drastically wrong and being able to defensively prepare yourself for any eventuality. For example, research has shown that optimism is an invaluable tool in coping with rejection and failure. Continual disappointment can result in individuals being reluctant to put themselves out there in their communities and advocate for themselves. But often, optimism keeps individuals like you and me going through difficult times. However, those in the know recommend that we don’t get too elated when things finally go right. In this way, there’s less of a chance for an emotional letdown; in other words, having a tinge of pessimism can be the most optimistic way to go about life!
"Your Everyday Therapist!"