On Optimism

OptimismOver the course of my practice, I’ve come to know a few men and women who emerged from families so toxic and dysfunctional that I often wondered how they managed to survive, emotionally speaking, and why they hadn’t long ago surrendered to despair. Given how little goodness they encountered in their post-uterine world, why did they continue to believe in and keep looking for something better? What was the source of the ongoing hope that brought them to my office in the belief that someone could help? I think of these clients from truly awful families as optimists; this piece serves as a bookend to my last post on pessimism but maybe I’m misuing the word optimism. In this case, I mean that my optimistic clients, encountering a world without love, almost entirely bereft of goodness, nonetheless believed in the possibility of good and kept on searching for it. Hopeful might be a better adjective to describe these people.

One of my clients who I’ll call Celia told me the following story, related to her by her own mother many years after the fact. When Celia was an infant, this “mother” (using the term in a strictly biological sense) was giving her a bath and felt so overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood that she let go of Celia, allowing her head to slip beneath the water. She was going to let Celia drown, and if Grandma hadn’t entered the bathroom at that moment, Celia wouldn’t have lived to recount this story to her (frankly appalled) therapist nearly 40 years later. When Celia was eight or nine, her divorced mother repeatedly handed her over to a male friend with more than a suspicion that he was sexually molesting her. She let the man take Celia, this mother explained, “so that he would leave me alone.”

Why did Celia continue to hope for something better than her earliest life had offered? With this nightmare of a mother, why didn’t she simply give in to despair? Why did she seek me out, hoping that I might alleviate her pain, hoping (on some unacknowledged level) that someone might actually care about her? Why do some people continue to believe in the possibility of good without actually experiencing it? Maybe the grandmother who saved her life offered a small experience of goodness, just enough so that Celia knew it existed. It’s out there somewhere. I’ll keep looking for it. I’ll recognize it when I find it.

As I’ve begun to focus more on the importance of joy in the mother-infant relationship, I’ve wondered whether such joy forms the basis of optimism. If you have enough of this good experience, you feel confident that it exists and that you can get more of it. But in those cases where shame predominates — that is, (the repeated experience of unrequited love), then pessimism takes hold. This theory helps me explain several of my clients, men with distant, rejecting mothers who were bullied as children and grew into resolute pessimists, but it can’t account for Celia. I don’t have an adequate explanation. Maybe it’s genetic. Celia might have come into this world biologically geared to hope. Maybe it’s a powerful instinct for survival no matter what.

I’m an optimist, sometimes a cock-eyed one. Though my mother didn’t try to drown me, she was a depressed and woefully inadequate parent, but I believe she took just enough joy in me as her infant that it gave me hope. Lately, I’ve also come to see that I “inherited” some of my father’s optimism, his continuing belief in and pursuit of something better in life. He never finished high school and had no formal training in any profession, but after serving in World War II, he moved to California, first opening a gas station with his brother, then a radiator shop in a small town in Central California. One day he came across a book that changed his life: Your Dream Home: How to Build it for Less Than $3500. I just found it on Amazon and ordered myself a copy.

On weekends and evenings after work, Dad actually built his own home with the occasional help of two neighbors who became life-long friends. He enjoyed the experience so much he built another house, and then another — all in the small town where I was born. He finally decided to pursue building as a career. He acquired a real estate sales license and moved his entire family to Los Angeles, where he sold houses with his brother while obtaining a contractor’s license. At the time, he had three children aged nine, six and two (that would be me). Not only does it require courage and self-confidence to make such a big move, it also takes a certain optimistic belief in your future. My Dad was a genial optimist most of the time. Despite many setbacks over the years, he did well for himself and had a comfortable retirement in Santa Barbara.

The older I get, the more I see the ways I am like my father. Before me, nobody in my family went to college. With a lot of hard work, I earned a PhD and built a practice. In search of a better life, I left Los Angeles and moved my family to North Carolina. I’ve had some major setbacks and painful disappointments. My life has not always turned out as I had planned but I continue hoping for better. Three years ago, I launched this website, developed an audience and began working by Skype with clients all over the world; I’m still building my professional reputation, still promoting myself as a writer but I believe good things lie ahead. I’m optimistic that 2014 will be a very good year for me.

Despite my optimistic nature, I wouldn’t have achieved anything in life without the help of my analyst. When I was 19, the first day I entered his office, I knew I had found someone good, someone who could help me, but I had a hard time holding on to that goodness. During the early years, I frequently wanted to quit, was often angry about having to pay for my sessions, always on the verge of chucking it all in a fit of rage. Sometimes, in my more troubled states of mind, my analyst became very bad. But he proved his goodness over the years by sticking with me, enduring the emotional vicissitudes of our relationship and continuing to offer his insights, wisdom and warmth no matter how badly I treated him. He was, and is, a good man.

I see myself in Celia. Though her optimistic nature led her to hope for something better and seek me out, she has a hard time holding on. She often wants to give up trying and abandon our work. On more than one occasion, she actually has quit for very brief periods of time. I continue to do the best I can and I believe she’ll hang in there. I’m optimistic about our work and believe that better things lie ahead for Celia.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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39 Responses to On Optimism

  1. Jane says:

    Thanks Joe. After being hopeful for 50 years I finally found my wonderful therapist. At last the sadness is starting to fade and I am feeling comfort. It is hard to trust him, but it is so worth it.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      It’s hard to believe that goodness will last, isn’t it? I expect that your early experience of goodness (like Celia’s, like mine) was so fleeting that you’ve come to expect it will always slip away.

  2. J. says:

    This may sound like a sophomoric question, but I have wondered it a few times and haven’t yet asked my therapist about it. And it kind of relates to what you just wrote about.

    I had a dad who alternatively put me up high on a pedestal (“You can do anything you set your mind out to do,” “you’re a knockout,” “You are the smartest thing ever”) and then quickly shifted to devaluing me (“You are not the Queen of F-ing Sheeba”, “The world does not revolve around you!”, “I chose your mother, I did not choose you and your brother!”). This combined with several other things is why I have Borderline Personality Disorder.

    My dad threw me in a pool as an 18 month old, just grabbed me out my mom’s arms at a swimming lesson and threw me in, claiming that I should know instinctively how to swim. I have had varying levels of fear of the water ever since. Your story of Celia reminds me of this story. I wonder who pulled me out.

    Anyway, I have optimism and hope and bravery. I have no idea why. I wonder if my therapist has wondered the same things you have wondered about Celia about how she holds on to hope or optimism; which brings me to my question:

    Is it possible that Celia’s mom might have alternatively put her up on a pedestal from time to time and that is what she still hangs on to from her past, the times when she was looked upon favorably? Is it possible that when a parent alternatively devalues a child and puts the child up on the pedestal, that the part about being put up on the pedestal is what leaves the grown up child with sometimes an aspect of positive self-image or grasping onto that hopeful feeling, even if the person overall feels like the most worthless piece of sh- -? Am I misunderstanding the dynamics of splitting and the effects on the child? I just know I have often wondered why I escaped that situation the way I did – overall feeling so worthless, but once in awhile feeling so brave and being a risk taker with such confidence, when the situation would otherwise indicate that everyone else is feeling not so brave or confident? Could that be an artifact of the splitting that I experienced? Did Celia experience splitting by her mom? Was she occasionally the good child?

    Thanks for your time. I learn SO much from your blog (I am in a grad program to be a therapist).

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I think your description of why you’re an optimist (at times) makes perfect sense, but as far as I can tell, Celia never had that experience. Whatever parental goodness she knew (at least what she can remember) came from her father and step-father, but she doesn’t ever recall being idealized (or anything like it) by anyone.

      • MJ says:

        This question and comment helped me too. My mom always was (and remains) enraged, and I got the same pedestal treatment from my family. “You’re so incredible and brilliant and you can do anything” – followed by “and we spent so damn much money on you that you better be a doctor or lawyer and not some loser, etc.” At least with the pedestal you get “some” positive interaction.

  3. Tony says:

    Thank you for your recent article about optimism. I enjoyed reading it as I have enjoyed reading many of your other articles. If I may, I have a question with regard to how you see shame as unrequited love? Does it have something to do with introjection? Also, I assume a lot of this happens at the preverbal stage? The child wanting its sense of joy and elation mirrored back by its caretaker–mother–instead is met with indifference. Rather than seeing mother as being damaged, as that would be too destabilizing, the child internalizes the indifference, rejection as something that is basically wrong with him or herself. This then sets up, if you will, a pattern where the child and then the adult keeps on seeking love from individuals that are not able to provide love. Hence shame as unrequited love?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      That’s close to what I think. I see it in terms of affect theory, where enjoyment-joy is not reciprocated (met with indifference) and the interruption of positive affect is, by definition, the experience of shame.

  4. Gordon says:

    How can someone tell if they are pessimists/optimists and not realists? If both pessimism and optimism are biases placed on reality, shouldn’t we aim to remove these biases?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I see your point, although there is some evidence to suggest that optimists tend to be more successful simply because they believe success is possible. There’s a slight advantage to being “unrealistic” in your hopes. It makes me think of the lyrics from the song “Impossible” from Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella:

      Because those daft and dewy-eyed dopes
      Keep building up impossible hopes,
      Impossible things are happening every day.

      I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish about it, but there is something to be said for pursuing “impossible” dreams.

  5. Deb Scott says:

    Love this!! Thank you!!

  6. Kim says:

    Yes all of this makes sense to me. Sometimes I find it hard to judge how bad my parents were. They were pretty bad emotionally. My mom was just always ashamed and angry and self loathing. Totally emotionally abusive. Incapable of love really. My dad was just passive and uninterested. But never physical or sexual abuse. I think of myself as an optimist. I was always the Pollyanna in the family, trying to make everyone feel better. I have always had hope. I do feel like my recent therapy has actually made me a little more pessimistic because it has revealed all of the damage and shame I experienced as a kid. I have been more angry at my family over the last couple of years because of this. They don’t like that! The sentence you wrote about Celia still hoping that she could find some goodness someday rings true to me. It’s interesting the next thing you say-”I’ll recognize it when I find it”. This has proved a little more difficult. I am pretty sure my therapist cares but he really has had to prove it to me over and over and over again. It’s like I forget all of the good things he does and the little mistakes he makes feel like the apocalypse is about to rain down! Like you with your therapist and Celia with you, I have contemplated quitting many times but he always manages to calm the frightened child in me and help me come back in. These episodes are very revealing though and make crystal clear the defenses I have around not letting anyone care about me. I wrote a poem about the most recent attempt at flight.

    I do feel differently about it now 11/8/13
    Then
    Through my lens of shame and damage
    All I could see was your lack of
    Urgency, lack of time
    Certain that you are finally sick of me
    Maybe you think I did this deed for purposes of manipulation
    Not desperation and sorrow
    I start to wonder myself
    Doubt my need
    Hate my want
    You do not seem to have time for me
    At all
    I don’t deserve it anyway
    I picture you rolling your eyes
    When you finally call
    She will take it the wrong way
    Again
    And I did
    I start to think you hate me
    Want to get rid of me
    Suddenly I feel backed into a corner
    All I can think of to do
    Is slam the door shut
    Preemptively
    Before you shut it on me
    I brace myself for the appointment
    I truly think
    You will passively accept
    My resignation
    But you were not passive
    At all
    You fought
    Fought for me
    Fought
    Passionately
    Intensely (kind of desperately)
    For this odd and mysterious
    And crazy journey
    We have undertaken
    Trying to reengage me
    In the battle
    No one has ever fought for me
    Quite the way you do
    You won’t give up on this
    And now I feel like I don’t want to give up either

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      Thanks for your lovely poem, Kim. I think the problem for Celia (and for you and the younger me) is the instability of goodness. We might recognize it but it so easily slips away. This is understandable, given how little goodness we experienced growing up. Whatever goodness we knew was fleeting and so we always doubt it can last.

      • Kim says:

        Yes. So true. It is now easy for me to see why therapy sometimes does take so long. And I am astounded (when I am clear minded) how patient and strong therapists are. Do you guys ever really get pissed off enough to throw in the towel?

        • Joseph Burgo says:

          I’ve never gotten to that point, but it may be because some extremely difficult clients quit before I got fed up. I don’t want to sound like I have super-human patience. I don’t, but when someone trusts me enough to let me help them, I find I can endure an awful lot.

      • Leveret says:

        I agree- however painful the bad points and calamaties are- somehow their instability and emotionally intensity is more comforting than a period of calm and goodness that you just can’t trust and makes you so on edge with nerves. But why is this the persistent pattern? I am certain that the disastrous endings i refer to have not all been engineered by me however subconsciously. Some are definitely down to external factors out of my control but still hurtful nontheless. How to break this cycle?

        The most recent example i am thinking of includes a job i had for 4 weeks in TX after 5 years of no job. I loved that job, worked really hard at it and at last it gave me a sense of purpose, pride and fulfillment. They gave me huge positive feedback that made my pride and esteem soar. I was teleworking so it was remote and suited me perfectly, i couldn’t have worked harder for them and there was nothing i wouldn’t have done for them. Then out of the blue something happened that made them drop me on the spot amid a storm of hurtful recriminations and personal insults. No of the team were allowed to speak to me and i was totally blacknamed and dropped . It was hugely hurtful and bitterly painful and really set me back. But now , one year later and still jobless, looking back i see that the fleeting good period could never have lasted for long and sooner or later something calamatous would have happened to have ruptured the relationship and once again as always i’d have been dropped in a personally hurtful, unfair and misunderstood way. It put be back to my state of familiarity and comfort- in which i’m perpetually on the outside, isolated, desperate, feel worthless and hopeless and personally wounded and unfairly treated. How to break this chronic cycle?

        • Leveret says:

          Just to add- although the trigger to the job termination was external they insisted i contributed to it by my poor handling of it in response and tthey questioned my ‘judgement’ and ‘tone’. I suppose i got a bit defensive and paniced, but still i thought i was calm, polite, reasonable . Its true i have a very very fragile sense of self and at any time of pressure i panic and have no idea of a sound or right way to respond . What do you think Dr Burgo?

  7. Andi says:

    I’ve been following you on Twitter/blog for a couple of years now. Always insightful and candid content, Doc. Thank you so much for this inspiring post.

    Andi

  8. gail pierson says:

    As stated in your previous post about pessimism, I tend to see the glass half full/cheer lead for others, but never give myself that same type of nurturing. I nurture others very well, however I am not kind to myself. According to Karen Horney I need to validate myself, not look to others for that. Easier said than done! :)

    I grew up with a ‘fend for yourself/buck up/you figure it out’ environment. Not very many pats on my back or not a strong support system.

    The fear comes from ‘the joy will feel good, but it won’t last, therefore it’s easier to stay mired in the negative zone’.

    It seems your father was a good role model and you were able to pick up on some of his ways, which has served you well!

    • Terry Gallant says:

      I grew up in a similar environment, more of a “you are on your own” type, with dashes of emotional (I wish I’d never had you, why couldn’t you have been smarter-type), physical, and sexual abuse. However, I’ve tried to see the world as a great place, and had thought that good people were out there somewhere.

      I’m 52 now and still feel that way. People at work tell me I’m optimistic, nurturing, and kind. With all I’ve been through, one would think I would be mean, hateful, spiteful and super negative. But I’m not. I just get a little blue from time to time (doesn’t almost everyone?)

  9. Evan says:

    People like Celian often had someone else or somewhere else – where they weren’t abused in the same way. Perhaps a relative, friend or authority figure (like a teacher).

    Sometimes (rare but possible) this is an imaginary person or place.

    I think hope and optimism are quite different. For me optimism has more the feel of choosing to look at the positive while hope has more feeling of being able to fully acknowledge the negative and respond positively to it.

  10. Sheila A says:

    Sometimes hope is all we have.

  11. Fiona says:

    My best wishes to Celia. I hope that she manages to continue with her journey. It’s very hard at times but worth it in the end. In my own case there was idealization involved in seeking out therapy and in the prospects for my recovery. I thought that therapy would change me into a different person and give me everything I wanted. That didn’t happen. Instead I came alive (as opposed to being emotionally dead) but there’s a lot of pain involved in being alive, for me in any case. So optimism…good in some ways but can also be a delusion, IMO.

    • J. says:

      I like Fiona’s line above “Instead I came alive, but there’s a lot of pain involved in being alive” (in reference to making these discoveries in therapy). I agree. I am trying to find meaning in this pain.

  12. Chris says:

    Oops! I recently left therapy and I am wondering if this discussion explains it? I felt inexplicably angry and distrustful of my therapist even though I know she does care. I struggle with the idea “wasting” the money on therapy and feeling ashamed of needing it. I had one session where I suddenly felt this overwhelming warmth and feeling of being nurtured. My therapist was showing emotion like sadness for me and it freaked me out. I convinced myself I was much better and didn’t need to go any more…….

  13. Y says:

    I’m so touched by the indignant tone in your post, Dr. Burgo. I’m nowhere near expressing anger towards my parents, but my analyst often does so on my behalf. Not so much with words, but in a way that I can intrinsically feel. It makes me feel heard, understood, and cared for in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

    Celia is strong, and she is lucky to have you, Dr. Burgo.

  14. LittleBlue says:

    I read your article with great interest (as I do all your posts). You’ve covered so many thoughts, issues and problems I’ve faced and had noone to ask so thank you.

    Like you and Celia, I am to my therapist that client, the soul who it seems shouldn’t have been able to survive such horrific abuse, punishment and active hatred by family, bullying by friends and continuous tragic life events. I can’t look at the whole picture as it overwhelms but were someone to write down the events of my life noone would believe it possible for one person to survive such heartache and trauma.

    I’ve always seen life as precious in whatever format but after the latest traumatic event I feel like I’m done. I’ve attempted suicide twice, both times being in such a dark pit and having had all the hope and want of better things to come squashed out of me.

    My question is, will I get that hope back? Is it possible or have I now become a pessimist? I’ve never ever been in such a dark place before, no matter how hard things got but now I’m past my capacity to endure, to hope.

    I also really resonated with what you said about good things lasting, if things go well I am always waiting for it to go badly again and in fact this has continuously been my very real experience. I got into a debate with a friend once about it that if you expect things to go wrong they will or you will at least find evidence to support your feelings? I do agree to a point but the things that have happened to me would have happened whether I had a positive mental attitude or not so now do not know what think.

    Is there a point where there is no longer a capacity to endure/cope/thrive? And if so where can I go from here? Therapy has come to a stand still as I cannot promise to keep myself safe between sessions so noone will work with me. I don’t know what to do. I do want to live but not in this pain.

    Thank you for your time

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I don’t know what to say about the fact that nobody will work with you. On the one hand, it makes me angry because people like you aren’t getting the help you need. I have a client now who self-injures — she has been terminated by other therapists because she was unable to adhere to a “no SI contract.” I think most therapists are afraid of losing a client to suicide and also afraid of a malpractice lawsuit, so they stay away. I suppose because I’ve worked with others who self-injure, I’m not afraid. You need to find a therapist who isn’t afraid, but you will probably need to go more than once a week to sustain a relationship strong enough to help you eventually transcend your despair.

  15. bobdick says:

    Good post – Martin Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism” started as an academic book about his research with rats on learned pessimism, but I’ve heard his agent suggested he turn the concept around and apply it to people instead. The result was a classic self-help book which began the Positive Psychology movement. I had a well known teacher who used to say he was an optimist because it was realistic, I think, because plenty of good things happen to most of us, once out of whatever dismal family pain. He lived the suggestion as well, tho his pain was not crazy family, but a couple of bouts of polio with significant sequalae both times, dyslexia, color blindness, and more. He went on a long solo canoe trip paralyzed from the waist down at 16 and returned with the same amount of money in his pocket he’d left with, $17. He’d pull himself out to the road with his great, farm-boy arm strength, to the top of a telephone pole at roadside and sat up there till someone came by & asked what he was doing up there. Then things usually evolved to his being asked to spend the night, with meals — an extraordinary man, he became a world recognized physician and psychologist who changed the world of psychotherapy. Jay Haley was his most prominent student, among many other
    strong healers.
    Dr Bob

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      Thanks, Bob. That’s one of those books I’ve known about for years and never read. I should probably remedy that because it sounds like a fascinating (and uplifting) book.

  16. Mand says:

    Your website has been a lifeline for me. I have been in therapy for 6 months. I have agonised over staying with my therapist who has managed to withstand some incredibly intense and (from my perspective) disturbing erotic transference. I constantly worry that I am too needy, too dependent on her. That I will in some way damage or harm her. I try to make her angry, reject me, and have massive abandonment fears. Lately I have felt really angry that she makes me feel so vulnerable and needy. I find myself telling her what I thinks she wants to hear so that she believes me when I tell her I don’t feel I need to see her anymore. I am beginning to realise that this behaviour might be a self destructive – one stemming from the belief that I don’t deserve to be happy, to have help. I don’t deserve her attention and time. I am not important. My history is one of paternal physical abuse and then, once that stopped in my early teens, I was groomed and repeatedly sexually abused by a teacher. My repression of this meant that when I objectively looked and explored this as an adult , it has nearly destroyed me. I would say it is only my inherent optimisim that has helped me forge a strong marriage and love for my husband and kids. And is what has kept me alive.

    On rereading this- several hours after I first typed it (something my excellent therapist has taught me to do, so I can learn to hold things myself) I am surprised by how much I have revealed. I believe this comes from an inherent belief that by sharing myself in an open and honest way, I might help someone else who might face the same struggles and to tell them that it’s ok, we have survived and we will continue to do so. That I am better than my upbringing might suggest. Because I am an optimist and believe that we will strive to be the best we can be. We do not have to be defined by our past, rather we can forge a strong, positive future.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      Yes, what you have shared will help other people. If you don’t mind my offering you some advice, if I were you I’d stop telling your therapist what you believe she wants to hear. Tell her the truth and don’t terminate!

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