Positively Pessimistic: confessions of a catastrophizer

glass

Trigger warnings: anxiety, depression, suicide

So there’s this thing called pessimism. It is “the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.” (Pessimism, 2018). We, the pessimists of the world, are the Debbie Downers…the-glass-is-half-empty-ers…the catastrophizers. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the optimists. They are the ones who bring joy into the world and remind us that life really is worth living. They are sometimes so positive it’s disgusting. Their cup is half full of vodka, while the pessimist holds a half empty glass of diet water. I love the following explanation of two vastly different perspectives:


“An optimistic person sees good things everywhere, is generally confident and hopeful of what the future holds. From the optimist’s point-of-view the world if full of potential opportunities. The pessimist, on the other hand, observes mainly the negative aspects of everything around. Thinking of all the potential dangers and pitfalls on the way, the pessimist is likely to have little hope for the future. Consequently, the pessimist tends to remain passive when encountered with a challenge, believing that his efforts are futile anyway” (Hecht, 2013).


I pulled the above descriptions from a 2013 article written by David Hecht about the biological and neurological factors that influence whether or not a person sees the glass as half empty. In the article, he discusses that pessimistic tendencies appear to stem from people who are right-brain dominant. These people tend to be more “intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective,” as opposed to the more “logical, analytical, and objective” left-brain dominant people (Cherry, 2018). I can definitely see this. Right-brained people are less likely to rationalize their way through a situation. Logic? What’s that? Don’t be silly…logic has no place in predicting outcomes or making decisions. Why apply objective reasoning when I can instead invent the most creative and catastrophic outcome possible?

There are some things you will never (or rarely) hear out of the a pessimist’s mouth. I suppose I should clarify that you will rarely hear them out of MY mouth. All pessimists are not created equal, so I can’t speak for everyone. I also don’t know if all pessimists have a closet optimist hiding inside them, but I definitely have one of those little things too. Sometimes she makes herself known.


It’s good enough…said no pessimist ever

That phrase is like nails on a chalk board. I don’t want anything I do or say to be “just” good enough. I want it to be perfect. But perfectionism isn’t particularly healthy. Hecht (2013) says research has shown “that unhappiness, low self-esteem, pessimism and depression are all linked to the chase after perfectness.” Reading this caused me to dig a little deeper into how pessimism and perfectionism relate to each other. According to Psychology Today, “what makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so there is a negative orientation” (2018). And there it is. Perfectionism is pessimistic because instead of striving for greatness, we strive for…ummm…non not-greatness? Sometimes wording makes a difference.

I had my first counseling appointment yesterday with a new therapist. At one point, I told her I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insignificance (the opposite of perfection). I told her, “I am never enough for anyone.” I quickly amended this by saying, “I don’t include my family and close friends in that statement.” The therapist said, “Ah. So you have been enough?” I said, “Yes. To my friends and family. Just not to a significant other.” She said, “Then maybe instead of saying you aren’t enough for some people, you should say you are enough for the people who really matter.” I didn’t go into my first therapy session thinking my mind would be blown. But wow. My mind was blown.

On this crazy, difficult journey, I am slowly starting to realize that being enough does not mean being perfect to all people at all times. Being enough means being who I am with the people who matter.

I am good enough. And that is perfect. The closet optimist in me agrees.


Everything will work out in the end…said no pessimist ever

I have an extremely difficult time believing in happy endings. My brain goes to the worst case scenario with everything…every time. I am a catastrophizer. Dr. John Grohol, a Doctor of Psychology, explains catastrophizing in this way: “an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is.” He goes on to say, “Falling prey to catastrophizing is like striking out in your mind before you even get to the plate… It can affect our entire outlook in life, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, disappointment, and underachievement” (2018). Doom and gloom much? Welcome to the entire premise for all my internal dialogue. It’s not pretty.

The most recent example that comes to mind is my hotel stay last night. I came home for Christmas and decided to stop at a cheap, pet friendly hotel so I didn’t have to drive all the way through. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot of a hotel that will remain unnamed, I began to question my decision. The parking lot was not well lit and the building looked like it had seen better days. While checking in, the front desk person recommended I access my room by going to the poorest lit section of the parking lot, entering a back hallway, and going through a small outdoor courtyard. I took the battered room key, gathered my belongings and my dog, Toby, and quickly came to terms with the fact that I would likely get mugged and murdered before I even located my room.

Somehow I found the room without suffering anything traumatic or life threatening. The room key worked on the first try (much to my surprise!) and I quickly deposited my things on the floor. I just as quickly picked my things back up from the floor, as it was questionable whether or not the room had been cleaned in the hotel’s history. I checked under the mattress protectors and sheets for bed bugs and was sure to remain as clothed as possible so my skin didn’t touch anything. I already have an irrational fear of contracting bed bugs from a hotel stay anyway, but as this was a pet friendly hotel, I  also assumed Toby and I would both come down with a bad case of fleas. Scabies and skin mites were also not out of the question. Oh. And probably ring worm from the shower.

As I tried to fall asleep in the strange, run down hotel, I texted my best friend, seeking reassurance that all would be well. She has worked in the hospitality/hotel industry for a long time, so she is a more than credible source of information. She encouraged me to check for hair on the bathroom ceiling to confirm that they clean thoroughly. What?! The bathroom had a popcorn ceiling. How am I supposed to check for hair and proper cleaning of a popcorn ceiling?! I pondered how many dogs has peed on the smelly carpet or the surprisingly comfortable beds. For that matter…how many humans had peed on the smelly carpet or the surprisingly comfortable beds?

I did finally get to sleep, but got up early this morning and high tailed it out of there as fast as I could. Needless to say, I skipped the continental breakfast. I’m sure there would have been cockroaches in the eggs and mold on the toast. Upon finally reaching my sister’s house, Toby began scratching behind his ears. I panicked and said, “See! We have fleas from the hotel room!” My sister said in her calm, cool, and collected way, “Or maybe he just has an itch.”

Looking back on the hotel, it really wasn’t that bad. The staff was nice and it looked much better in the light of day. My initial discomfort when pulling into the parking lot managed to kick start my irrational fear factory, which turned a mediocre hotel stay into a night of terror out of some horror flick. The moral of the story is this: an anxious, pessimistic catastrophizer should not travel alone or stay in cheap, pet-friendly hotels. And I should listen to John Lennon : “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay it’s not the end.”


It can’t get any worse…said no pessimist ever

I hate to break it to you, but it can always get worse. It can and it probably will at some point.

Recently, I had dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. During dinner, my aunt pulled out Garry Poole’s The Complete Book of Questions, and we proceeded to go around the table and answer random questions. There was a two-part question that I found to be particularly profound: “How hard is life? How does your life compare?” (Poole, 2003, p. 113). The order of the questions is important to note. The point is to first identify how bad things can really get, which then gives perspective while you answer part two. If the question was just “How bad is your life on a scale of 1 to 10,” the answer would probably be different since you hadn’t first considered how bad life could be.

My ex-husband is a paraplegic. He used to say, “It could always be worse. I could be a quadriplegic.” I heard his quadriplegic friend once say, “It could always be worse. I could be a quad and have a traumatic brain injury.” There is always someone out there who has it worse than you. Time out, though. As important as it is to maintain perspective at all times, I also think it’s important to make sure we aren’t completely downplaying our own pain or suffering by always comparing ourselves to others who are worse off. If you’re hurting or going through a rough time, acknowledging that someone else has it worse doesn’t mean that your pain doesn’t matter. The reason to keep your struggles in perspective is not to minimize what you are feeling, but instead to bring attention to the things for which you can be grateful. Life sucks. It’s going to get harder. But that closet optimist in me sees that I have a lot to be thankful for because I have a loving family, amazing friends, a good career, a roof over my head, and food on my table every day. As my cousin so eloquently put it to me the other day while we were discussing mental health experiences: “It might get more difficult and be worse next year compared to this year, but I will have more and better coping mechanisms because of what I went through this year. So, yes, it can get worse, but I will be ready for it.” (Note to my cousin: if I butchered that, please forgive me)


I won’t be disappointed…said no pessimist ever

This one is actually a big struggle for me. One of the few areas in which I actually am an optimist is my belief that people are innately good. I want to believe this. In fact, I need to believe this so I can function on a day-to-day basis. If I maintain that people are basically good, I can look beyond any mistakes or malicious behavior and see the light that shines beneath their words and actions. It makes forgiveness possible. This unwavering belief in the goodness of those around me can be a good quality. Until it’s not. Then it’s a very, very bad quality because I set myself up to be hurt over and over again.


 “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”

From The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1971)


I love this quote because it can be dissected in different ways. You can take it at face value and say the easiest way to lack disappointment in life is to lack expectations. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? However, I don’t actually believe it is humanly possible to have zero expectations in a relationship, whether it’s family, work, friends, or a romantic relationship. Declaring that you have no expectations is in itself establishing an expectation. The fact of the matter is this: people will always disappoint us. Is that pessimism or is that just being realistic and honest? Dr. Israel Charny (2018) says that, “like it or not, we will be the wiser and the better prepared to cope in life if we prepare ourselves in advance for the possibility – and ultimately the likelihood – of a certain degree of hurt, injustice, betrayal, and destructive acts against us from people…close to us.”

In my own personal life, I have been disappointed time and time again. I have also disappointed other people time and time again. I am certainly not innocent of this crime against others. The pessimist in me whole heartedly agrees with Dr. Charny – if I assume everyone is going to disappoint me, it takes a tiny bit of the sting out of it when they actually do. In fact, if I catastrophize and say they will disappoint me in the worst way possible, it will be a pleasant surprise when I am only faced with small disappointments. That being said, the closet optimist in me refuses to let go of the idea that, although this person is going to hurt me at some point, they are also good and worthy of my time, love, and forgiveness.

The following quote takes my breath away because it perfectly captures the dichotomy that is my pessimistic and optimistic view of those around me. I have the expectation that people are both good and destined to disappoint me. But that should never stop me from seeing their beauty.


“I would rather die, broken into a thousand pieces because I loved fierce, I gave of my heart, pursued my dreams and I believed in the goodness of humanity, than die as a whole, untouched and unbruised because I wanted to preserve myself from hurt, disappointment and things going wrong.” – S.C. Lourie


 Look on the bright side…said no pessimist ever

According to the oh so accurate Urban Dictionary (2003), a pessimist is “an optimist with experience.” In my own life and though my own experiences, I have determined that pessimism goes hand in hand with both my anxiety and my depression. In fact, according to Hecht, depression is “a pathological state of pessimism. Depression is characterized by overly pessimistic thoughts, a negative thinking style and a tendency to focus and ruminate on what is wrong and magnify it, while ignoring the good things in one’s life” (2013). On a bad day, looking on the bright side is the last thing on my mind. Just opening up my eyes to look at my bedroom ceiling can be a challenge.

Depression is the ultimate pessimism. A couple definitions of the word depressed are “being or measured below the standard or norm” and “pressed down, or situated lower than the general surface” (2018). To be depressed and pessimistic is to be pressed down, beaten down, to the point of being in the emotional negative. Lower than low. I had a recent conversation with a friend who described depression like the most constant and stubborn of rip tides – it pulls and pulls and pulls until it’s easier to just give in and let it carry you away. Then you reach the point of giving up. Amidst all the talk about pessimism and optimism, Hecht states that “suicide attempts reflect the ultimate pessimistic state and extreme hopelessness” (2013). Pessimism and optimism aren’t just about how we see the proverbial glass of water. It can be a matter of life and death.

Never dismiss someone as “just a pessimist.” Even some cheerful optimists are covering up the closet pessimist who is taking over their life. Pay attention to those around you. Check to make sure people are okay. Reach out to them and tell them that it’s okay to see the glass as half empty, just so long as the glass doesn’t fall to the ground and shatter.

One last quote from Hecht’s great article on optimism and pessimism: “Therapeutic methods for overcoming pessimism and unhappiness concentrate on setting realistically achievable goals for oneself, cultivating a non-judgemental attitude and practicing unconditional self-acceptance – applying compassion, generosity and love to oneself” (2013). It’s all about the self-love!

Namaste. I see you.

 

 

References

Charny, Israel W. (2018). The Nature of Man: Is Man by Nature Good, or Basically Bad?

Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/warrior-

life/201803/the-nature-man-is-man-nature-good-or-basically-bad

 

Cherry, Kendra. (2018). Left Brain vs. Right Brain Dominance: The Surprising Truth.

Verywellmind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/left-brain-vs-right-brain-2795005

 

Depressed. (2018). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/depressed?s=t

 

Greer, Daphne. It Could Always Be Worse: The power of gratitude and perspective. Tiny

Buddha. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/power-gratitude-perspective/

 

Grohol, J. (2018). What is Catastrophizing?. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-catastrophizing/

 

Hecht, David. (2013).The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism. Retrieved from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807005/

 

Pessimism. (2018). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pessimism

 

Pessimist. (2003). Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pessimist

 

Plath, Sylvia. (1971). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Poole, Garry. (2003). The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 conversation starters for any occasion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

 

Psychology Today. (2018). Perfectionism. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/perfectionism

 

Cover photo credit http://www.unsplash.com

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