On Pessimism

Pessimism I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been focused on my book about narcissism, plus I just completed another article for The Atlantic, which you can find here. It’s about bullying as a kind of narcissistic behavior, linking the Richie Incognito story with the suicide of Rebecca Sedgwick and further thoughts on Lance Armstrong. Anyway, I’ve now emerged from my research-and-proposal-writing cocoon; it feels good returning to the “outside” world!

So in my practice, I’ve lately been thinking about pessimism as a character trait. Selena, the client I described in my post about the importance of joy in psychotherapy, tends to be very pessimistic about her future. She believes that she blew her opportunity to launch a career right after college and that nobody will want to hire her now because newly-minted college graduates will be applying for the same positions. Not long after she graduated, Selena was fired from a job that didn’t particularly suit her, and she found the experience painfully humiliating. Most of us would feel the same way, but Selena has had a hard time recovering and moving on. She feels that getting fired has “tainted” her. Pessimism about her future keeps her immobilized.

In my earlier post, I described how Selena begins our sessions with an air of detachment, as if we don’t matter to each other; I suggested that she relied on this appearance of indifference to protect herself from the possibility that I might not be glad to see her. Pessimism about her future serves the same self-protective function: rather than run the risk of further rejection were she to apply for a job, Selena can’t allow herself to feel interested in or excited about her future, convincing herself that there’s no point in even trying. The possibility that her potential interest in a new job might be met with rejection feels unbearable; her pessimism represents a kind of psychological defense mechanism warding off that pain.

Cognitive therapy describes defensive pessmism as “a strategy to prepare for anxiety provoking events or performances.” Individuals who rely on defensive pessimism “set low expectations for their performance, regardless of how well they have done in the past. Defensive pessimists then think through specific negative events and setbacks that could adversely influence their goal pursuits. By envisioning possible negative outcomes, defensive pessimists can take action to avoid or prepare for them.” From the cognitive behavioral point of view, pessimism thus seems to be a kind of adaptive strategy that helps people pursue their goals.

In my experience, pessimism more often stops people like Selena from pursuing their goals. Or it causes them to pursue those goals half-heartedly, as if it makes no difference whether they succeed or fail. Clearly they can’t bear the prospect of unanticipated failure or disappointment. Pessimism/indifference gives them a sense of control and deflects the pain: I knew all along it wouldn’t work out. It’s no big deal because I don’t really care. My kids generally employ this strategy and tease me about my often unwarranted optimism. William has told me that it’s better to expect the worst than to be disappointed, accurately pointing out that I am often deeply disappointed when things don’t work out as I hope. I may have to write a further post on unrealistic optimism as a kind of denial.

Janine, another one of my clients, has begun to address some long-standing dissatisfactions in her marriage, talking to her husband about his self-absorption and neglect of her needs. When she describes their talks during session, she frequently expresses pessimism about the possibility of improvement. She thinks he can’t or won’t change, that she’ll inevitably be disappointed, and their marriage will remain in this unhappy rut. I’ve pointed out her pessimism and suggested she can’t bear to feel hopeful because the risk of disappointment in the face of hope feels unbearable. Janine, incidentally, is another client who rarely seems glad to see me; she usually greets me in a flat tone of voice with an expressionless face.

Both Janine and Selena had difficult mothers, putting it kindly. Selena recently showed me some photographs taken when Selena was an infant. Given that most families tend to snap and preserve photos of happy moments, it’s surprising how joyless her mother appears in those photos. In some of them, she appears to be angry. From other things I’ve heard, my impression is that she disliked the experience of being a mother and took no joy in her baby. Janine’s mother was a nightmare, utterly unsuited to motherhood. I feel quite certain that, at times, she hated baby Janine and often wished she would disappear.

In the language of affect theory, we might express it this way: when the mother consistently fails to reciprocate her infant’s experience of enjoyment-joy or interest-excitement, pessimism develops as a strategy for warding off further disappointment. Enjoyment-joy and interest-excitement are nipped in the bud. Allowing oneself to feel enthusiastic and optimistic about the future, or about one’s relationships, is far too threatening because it risks exposure to more pain. At the deepest level, this disappointment threatens to throw us back on feelings of being profoundly damaged and therefore unlovable. Pessimism helps to ward off the potential experience of shame.

I’m just going to believe I’m alone, unloved and that it will never get any better, because to hope it might turn out otherwise feels far too risky.

By Joseph Burgo

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.


  1. Again, another spot on post! I experience this: can’t bear to feel hopeful because the risk of disappointment in the face of hope feels unbearable.

    I’m positive for others, but not for myself. Because of my past experiences I seem to (in my distorted thinking) imagine only negative outcome for ‘here and now’ and ‘future’ events.


    1. My advice is to be brave. Learning to bear with disappointment is an important thing to do; by avoiding it, you deprive yourself of the joy that comes when your hopeful expectations are realized.

  2. It’s impossible to be an optimist when you grew up in a home where good things rarely (if ever) happened. I usually plan for the worst out of sheer habit, and talk myself down when things actually work out. It’s exhausting.

    I’m glad you are back, Dr. Burgo. I really have missed your posts.

  3. The affect theory certainly suits my experience of pessimism more than the cognitive one.

    I’d like to see post on unrealistic optimism as a form of denial. I note you didn’t talk about ‘unrealistic’ pessismism.

    1. Hi Evan,

      I think I was talking mostly about “unrealistic pessimism.” It’s usually unrealistic to believe that everything will always go wrong, and never to hope for anything good to come your way. I’m working on a new post about optimism.

  4. Hi Joe,
    thank you for this post and all the other articles in this blog. I enjoy very much reading it and have found a lot of helpful insights!!!!
    I’m a social worker, working with young offenders (12-16 years of age) in Berlin, Germany. When we meet them for the first time, they are also often full of pessimism, hate for grownups and without hope, that their life could change… “I’m a bad person, I do bad things , leave me alone!” Without optimism, that change is possible (and it realistically is!) we could not work with them. So optimism is important and there is seldom too much of it! So I would say, better keep it high, and then be disappointed, then aim lower and be not – our Motto is: “For making possible things happen, go for the impossible”.
    Best wishes to you, Susan

    1. Thanks, Susan. That’s an interesting perspective, and seems so true to me. If you believe nothing good will ever come your way, isn’t that a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

  5. Glad to see you back, Joe!
    I like to consider myself a realist who sees the cup at 50% capacity. But I’m actually quite pessimistic most of the time (there I go again trying to be a realist).
    Could pessimism be caused by not having had your needs fulfilled soon enough as an infant or is it caused only by a consistent lack of reciprocity of the mother?
    There seems to be a lot of pessimistic people around, but many seem to hide it behind irony. Like a hipster who uses a cassette player almost as a way to guarantee that he will be negatively judged, but then conveniently defended against the notion of his pessimism by talking about how it’s cool, edgy, etc.
    Another example is laughing at your own defects before anyone notices them, as to make the joke about yourself yourself before anyone else does. Kinda like I just did by making fun of me trying to be a realist. That way nobody can make fun of me by asking me if me saying I’m a pessimist is me being a realist or a pessimist. But does noticing this previously hidden pessimism of mine mean I’m a realist in my assessment that I’m mostly pessimistic? Seems paradoxical.
    Also, by mentioning that my joke about trying to be a realist is actually a way to protect myself from others making that joke, I protect myself from others making that discovery and “exposing me” by exposing myself. By mentioning this last bit I protect myself from others….. It seems like I can go on like this forever.

    1. “Could pessimism be caused by not having had your needs fulfilled soon enough as an infant or is it caused only by a consistent lack of reciprocity of the mother?”

      Yes, I believe that’s the root cause. I’ll talk more about this in my next post about optimism.

      I think that the process you describe — making fun of yourself before anyone else can do it — is a defense against shame. Better to take control of the experience and ridicule yourself than to be open and earnest and then find yourself rejected.

  6. Pretty sure I have successfully employed “defensive pessimism” in my academic pursuits. Going back to school again after 35 years is an odd experience of seeing that same strategy successfully resurrected! But what is different THIS time is that I am also acknowledging some of my longings for a broader and richer experience of life that I feared were not possible for me. Scary unpredictable stuff involving people. I have not thought of myself as being “pessimistic”, but Janine and Selena seem familiar. The possibility of pain/rejection/disappointment from people I could not control felt unbearable, and the choices I made were surely unconsciously calculated to make that risk absolutely small as possible. Preemptive rejection of myself by myself so that others could never get close enough to do it.

    Reading your post this morning, after a difficult visit with my elderly mother yesterday, has been very insightful. Her pessimism is legendary. I wouldn’t have connected “pessimism” with what happened yesterday, but what you wrote has really made me think about its trickle-down effects. It started because I ventured to share with her that I felt hurt by an interaction we’d recently had. That is new for me – to be vulnerable in a non-accusatory way. In years past I reacted angrily to her by throwing metaphorical bricks. As she has aged, building a “wall” has seemed kinder and more “adult”. But in the interest of relationship and beginning to be able to tolerate my own uncomfortable feelings, I wanted to move toward her this time by revealing more of myself. It did not go down well. Apparently I can’t feel hurt in our relationship, because that would be too painful a thing for HER to bear. She experienced my admission of hurt yesterday as needs. Needs that are apparently too great, too demanding, too MUCH. Her response stunned me, and I later apologized for my triggered reaction. But I don’t think this is admission of hurt was borne of “neediness” as she claims, but out of a reclaimed hopeful desire I have for real relationship with her, as her real daughter.

    My mother the pessimist, who taught me well out of her own wounds. Somewhere in there, I learned that I should hide away because my needs and desires were too much. That joy in relationships is laced with such disappointment as to be the cause of great suffering. And that there are 101 ways to keep life and people out without even realizing it. I honestly think she is uncomfortable with some of the small ways in which I’m beginning to take up my life again because it somehow impinges upon her. I still hope for small steps toward a more real relationship with her, as her real daughter. She would say the same, but I think there are sensitivities due to her age and issues that complicate this for us both. But at last I am beginning to have a more real relationship with myself and exercising small moments of courage to move toward others in a way that isn’t so mired in the pessimistic stew of my upbringing. Thank you for your post that connected some generational dots for me today.

    1. This all sounds so good and hopeful in the best sense of the word. I suppose the lesson here is that yes, it’s possible to have better, more authentic relationships with other people … just not your mother. I’m sorry, but it’s better to face the hard facts that to have “unrealistic optimism” that you might actually be able to have a better relationship with her.

  7. A shorter reply this time, but in reading over what I wrote, I can see that I felt shamed with the way my mother interpreted my desire (the longing I felt for real connection with her after the hurt I’d experienced) as being needs that are “too much”. So much so, that it’s difficult for me to even acknowledge my legitimate human need for connection, the need behind the desire – even in writing about it later! *Sigh* What a familiar theme. Thanks for your writing and this place to interact with it. It continues to be very helpful to me.

  8. I’ve been labeled as a pessimist since I can remember. I would even dare to say I’m a fatalist. I see myself reflected in this article. My mother too was to put it nicely, difficult… She has been the main focus on my therapy. However, I had never made a connection between my pessimism and her. Reading this did give me an “aha” moment. Now, she passed away 10 days ago, and without giving too many details, left me with horrible guilt and pain I never thought I would feel. Getting to the point: Is there a way to overcome this pessimism? Or is this something one just has to learn to live with? Thank you. Love reading your articles.

    1. Yes, it’s possible. I think the path involves being brave and opening yourself to hope in carefully selected situations, with carefully selected people who might actually be capable of care and concern for you.

  9. I recognise myself in this. It is easier to tell yourself it doesn’t matter and half do something rather than giving it 100% and face the disappointment of failure. Something I need to watch out for. I’ve also suffered from unwarranted optimism.

    Sometimes it’s hard to know when one is being realistic as opposed to being too pessmistic or too optimistic. I mean like in the case of Janine – she thinks her husband won’t change. I think she may be correct as people usually don’t change (unless they get significant help). This could be her being rationally realistic, don’t you think?

  10. “I’m just going to believe I’m alone, unloved and that it will never get any better, because to hope it might turn out otherwise feels far too risky.”
    It is strange to read these words because this is the exact issue I am working on in therapy right now. It has just become crystal clear in my therapy that it is excruciatingly hard for me to feel someone caring for me. It feels like such and odd revelation but it is completely obvious. I have been in therapy for several years and my therapist cares for me and I can’t feel it. I guess this is progress because before I didn’t even believe he cared for me. Now I believe he does but literally can’t accept it or bask in it or whatever one does with caring from someone else. It has also become clear, once this revelation got into my brain, that this dynamic has implications in my real life. I have been a step-mom for 13 years and my kids are now all older and out of the house. This is a hard situation to begin with but with my difficulties in feeling cared for and connected it has turned into kind of a nightmare for me. My step kids are really sweet people and I feel completely sad that I don’t have a better relationship with all of them. I don’t know if they even want that. But they are contemplating starting families and I feel that I need to be courageous and at least start a conversation about how I can fit into their lives in a more meaningful way and feel like a part of the family. My therapist wondered aloud in our last session if my step kids may care more about me than I think (like him) but I just can’t see it or accept it. He has lovingly and amazingly offered to see myself, my husband and my step kids and their spouses just to help me start the conversation and get a clue as to how they feel about me. They live out of state and will be here Christmas and he has offered to see us during Christmas week if they are willing. I am astounded by this offer. It is so CARING. Anyway I am terrified of asking because who wants to do a family session with your step mom but my heart yearns for an opportunity to really have a honest, conversation with them. It will take courage for me to ask, and more courage to accept whatever answer I get but I feel I must try. So I will try something new – to be optimistic. And take the leap. Surely one of them will accept. Oh God. Thanks as always for the post Dr. Burgo. This therapy thing really is crazy but I feel some healing going on. Amazing.

    1. Sounds as if it is going to be a memorable Christmas! I think you’re right, you should open yourself with guarded optimism and approach your step-children about a family session. You run the risk of rejection, of course, but the potential rewards seem great.

      1. Guess what? I did it, it happened and it was awesome! All of my kids (and their spouses) were totally willing and happy to do this with me. Which was the first clue that I had some mistaken assumptions (pessimism) about how much they care about me. Who knew? The last thing my therapist said was “this is not that”, meaning this new family does not at all resemble my family of origin. I can have a completely different role and experience here if I can work at it. It is a fascinating thing bringing so many outside forces into my private therapy after 3 years. I could only have done it knowing I have a rock solid therapy relationship. WOW. Thanks again for your encouragement, it actually really helped this happen! No question a Christmas to remember…

  11. Wow. Sometimes reading thru these comments, I feel like I’m in a group therapy session.
    I do hope Kim lets us know how the Christmas session goes..good luck with that.
    Missed you also Joe.
    Mothers who don’t reflect love back. Or recognition.
    My story. My life… Now, at 62, I do feel like I’ve given up expecting . My kids love me. My beautiful 4 yr old granddaughter adores me.. But I don’t see it/ feel it.
    Though I am doing one of the things you suggested above Joe. Carefully choosing situations .. I look back on my life and see yrs and yrs of not being seen or recognised.
    My husband of 30 yrs, has moved on.. Like those yrs and experiences we shared didn’t happen. The feeling of not being seen. .. Just keeps surfacing..
    You guys, though, sharing similar pain.. It keeps giving that little boost.

  12. I wanted to write to you, going to what I think is your latest post. Then I read about Selena’s experience when being fired from a job, maybe her first “career”-type job, and her feelings of being busted, humiliated, hopeless.
    I have never been fired from a job, thankfully, but I have recently had a two year job as a “contract worker” ended, which has come on the back of getting on for ten years of turbulence, upset, hard work and emotional strain.
    Just now I was doing what I have so often done before, negative self-regard, nipping hope with contempt for myself – the voice is my successful father’s condescension towards my efforts (what experience must a person have of themselves that can give them to feel they can speak condescendingly of just about anything anyone does?) – rage at the failures I have had trying to make myself into the “all-good” thing I seemed to need to be in order not to feel completely rubbish.
    The need to feel special is what has driven my mum’s life and relationships. It has been all through association of one sort or another, possessing things she thinks others will desire or admire, including her kids, and preserving around her the feeling of actual specialness she could entertain for herself in her teens and early twenties.
    In my earlier life, falling short of specialness (secret specialness, not boastful-grandiose but grandiose nevertheless) was part of what I experienced as depression. In my case a perfect relationship was part of what was coming apart because of my failures.
    I wanted help, left an unhappy relationship and sought help. In therapy I discovered how it can be that a person’s entire inner world is dominated by thoughts of how they imagine others feel about them. One has become acutely attuned to others so that one can effectively mirror them, adapt oneself to them, in order to elicit some sort of “love”, only for that to never alleviate the feeling of complete isolation. Alongside that, an entire spectrum of ways to preserve some sort of all-good self-image, placing one’s actual helplessness, fear, spite, attacking stuff in others and the world.
    My question is coming.
    A therapeutic relationship happened for me. But there was no way my therapist or I could have anticipated how deep was my need and desire for a bond with someone, in spite of having been in a loving relationship for fifteen years. I was able to show, and have held, every last bit of depression and helplessness in me, as well as the grandiose side that had been hidden in me, for fear of something. This was having a mum, a confidant. To be able to know and trust that there is some one in the world who is aware of my emotional life, who is for me, and to grow because of that bond.
    The sheer, profound revelation that someone is there who can take one’s despair, take one’s neediness, take one’s “look at me mum!”, take one’s desire, take one’s everything. One can learn to risk being accepted for who one is, even when one does not know who that is.
    And that does bring me to my question.
    So many online resources convey an impression that pathological narcissism is something being done by a conscious homunculus. But if “false self” means anything, it is that an entire person has evolved for whom any existence at all has been found in doing whatever is necessary to be pleasing to mum (i.e. the whole world) with nothingness as an alternative. There is no other “self”, or what there is are just fragments, with great big gaps in between. Gaps in mind and in personality. Emotions that ought to have had full rein in very early years are now in full vent but to be met only in massive frustration and disillusionment, because one is an adult. It is no use yearning for mummy love in the real world, or shock full of never-before-felt jealousy, even if the therapeutic setting has allowed such feelings to emerge.
    One knows oneself to be a partial self, bit and pieces not joined up. One has worked as hard as one has ever worked trying to out-grow all the dependencies, the reflexes, the defensiveness, the bloody awfulness of the environment one has survived by virtue of that “false self”; the love one still has for parents who are like oneself, only who have never hit the buffers.
    There is nothing underneath the “false self”. One copes without hope to have the parts joined up. Therapy has spared one from a worse fate (taking one’s illusions to the grave) and spared those who were one’s love from more hurt.
    One looks for a job. One can’t put these things on the CV.
    What is one to do?

    1. There’s so much in here, I don’t know how to respond. I don’t really understand your question. I guess I would disagree with your statement that “There is nothing underneath the ‘false self.'” I think the way out of narcissism is to find a therapist who can tolerate all the rage and jealousy and defensiveness and help the client tolerate what lies beneath — shame, despair, loneliness. The whole point of transference-based therapy is to allow a person to re-experience all those infantile emotions in the context of a relationship where they can be tolerated and understood. To an important degree, this also means experiencing the love of your therapist in the face of all this emotional chaos — as close as you can get to the type of early experience you should have had.

  13. Please excuse a long, ranting sort of post. Your website is one place that I return to because it offers realism and compassion. I do have frightening moments when those gaps appear. I have seen it in my mum, who is 74 now, caught out by her age, and when I’m not actively, silently correcting things when in her company, I am very sad about it!

  14. This post rings so true for me. Ever since I was young I have never been able to get excited about things like going on holiday or Christmas, probably because so often they didn’t live up to my hopeful expectations. Somehow my father always managed to ruin any family or social occasion that ought to be happy. It would be so nice to be able to look forward to something, but I am usually working out all the things that could go wrong (the flight is cancelled, I get ill, other people in the family don’t enjoy themselves…) I only start enjoying a holiday a few days in when I have got used to where I am staying and how things “work” (like what to do when going to dinner in the hotel) Even though I have worked really hard on positive thinking, goal setting and visioning, I still find that voice of pessimism warning me not to get too excited in case I am disappointed. And even when something is going brilliantly, right in the middle of it the same voice says “well it’s going well so far, but …..”

    1. I’m so sorry. I wonder if you anticipate disappointment being much more painful than it really would be, based on past experience. You’re probably stronger than you think and could weather the disappointment more easily than you did as a child.

  15. Like most shrinks, you over-analyze things. What you describe as ‘pessimism’ is just ‘realism’ for most people. The majority of people are not particularly talented, intelligent, ambitious, attractive, or charming. Only a minority of people possess such traits. There is nothing wrong with being ordinary. If ‘Selena’ feels incompetent, most likely she IS incompetent and has a realistic view of her own self-worth. Of course if the person is a perfectionist and is driven to self-hatred that is a different story. But what you describe as pessimism seems to be the norm for most people.

  16. Hi Joe,

    In line with your new book, if you would like some more insight on what it is like to be bullied at work by narcissists, have I got a doozie. In short, it took 4.5 years to mob me out, leaving me with PTSD to try and recover from, and being falsely accused and run out of my career as a threat to health care, and the unit I so compassionately worked on for over 10 years. The constant lies, power plays, and unbelievable aggression, gaslighting in particular, (from what started as a group of 7 bullies; two I consider narcissistic, one a psychopath, the rest, just your standard bully until other narcissists joined in) and the level of denial and group-think… all because I spoke up against the actions of one. I will elaborate privately if you are interested. Best regards.

    1. I believe that I was bullied at work by narcissists as well. The company was a government contractor. I also lived in Santa Barbara another affluent city (much like Ellen), where working situations were impossible. The situation involved sexual harassment/sexual assault. I started to cope by drinking, which was something that I never had an issue with. Eventually I wound up being diagnosed with clinical depressed. I was dismissed as being too sensitive by most people that I turned to for help–as if the behaviors that I experienced with common and to be expected. I was the one who was pathologized. I felt that even therapy was deficient. I spied a newsletter from the Rape Crisis Center in the mail room at the facility where I worked featuring an article about sexual harassment. I then contacted the Rape Crisis Center hotline and met with volunteers. One of the volunteers and I went through a few recognized the signs of depression and helped me–she recognized that I wasn’t getting the emotional support that I needed. That is the main reason that I sought counseling to begin with, but then that always turns to personal discussions about your upbringing and childhood.

      I wound up going through many different channels to fight back and to find some relief, but bullies stick together. Legal actions, even in a litigious climate don’t always go as people may anticipate and they are not without consequence.

      It altered my career path and work life and also left me with much to recover from. I think I may have had the symptoms of PTSD as well.

      The only reason I am commenting is Riste’s comment re-stimulated it and it really altered my life.

      1. Bullying, even later in life, can lead to a kind of shame-based depression like yours, even if you feel you’ve been wronged. While it might be helpful to go back and link it to childhood, it’s important to get support for recovering from the present-day narcissistic injury that is bullying.

        1. I was very wronged. I saw it that way, but people’s responses were so lacking in empathy and compassion as if I was making a big deal out of it as if those behaviors are commonplace and normal. I haven’t heard the expression of shame-based depression. I’ve been slowly reading your site (back articles). Are there some articles which you would point me too more than others?

          I was basically told that there is a genetic predispostion towards depression. I’ve suffered some pretty severe episodes of clinical depression as well–nothing quite a severe as what followed that situation–I felt intense anger and at times rage (which was never acted on). However I did funnel that anger towards seeking litigation for justice. Also one psychiatrist referred to the depression as episodic and situational.

          I don’t feel that the therapy I received was adequate. I’ve attempted to mitigate much of that by reading, which I’ve done quite a lot of.

          I don’t understand why they spend so much time linking everything to childhood. That is not always helpful. In fact, I think it was somewhat destructive. It’s hard to describe but in some ways it made me feel as if how I reacted was defective.

          Thank you for responding. I can’t even begin to describe how impacting that situation was for me.

  17. I’m curious and wonder if you feel that cynicism is a form of pessimism? I’ve had people label me as pessimistic and cynical, although that isn’t a self label. I feel that I’m a realist PERIOD.

    I tend to feel pessimistic and cynical towards and around certain types of people. The same kinds of people who make such comments are people who used to tell me that I was “too sensitive” and “naive” etc. It always rears its ugly head–those irksome labels when I’m being open and honest about my feelings and observations. For instance when I make observations about people’s need to help such as offering advice, especially when one really isn’t asking for their advice. I’ve made the observation that I believe this “unhelpful” help is really masking a motivation to feel good about themselves by giving advice. It’s certainly not about the person on the receiving end of it, which they refuse to hear or see or even acknowledge.

    I had a sister who was always giving advice, but never empathy and she doesn’t seem able to discern the difference. She was always attempting to “FIX” me. I’ve met a ton of women who are the same. When I gently challenged her (and these other women) they get all huffy and don’t take responsibility. I recall my sister stating, “You’re just too proud to take it.” Needless to say we haven’t spoken in years and are ESTRANGED.

    1. If you’re a cynic then so am I because I’ve made the same observation about those advice-givers. We live in a world where we’re encouraged to be endlessly positive, to look on the bright side, and if yours is a more realistic world view, with a more balanced view of human nature, other people will often attempt to disqualify you by labeling you a “cynic,” or saying you’re just “too proud” to accept the unwanted advice.

      1. Thank you. I’m heartened by your candor and us cynics need to stick together. This be “endlessly positive” feels almost cult-like and phony. For the longest time I wondered if there were people like myself who examined such mindsets and not only questioned it, but dared to attempt to talk about it. It just seems like it only encourages people to deny reality and to submit cheerfully to misfortune or blame ourselves for our fate. I started to conduct my own research–about critical thinking versus positive thinking and the positivity mindset. Awhile ago, I came across a food blog — the author had been diagnosed with cancer and they discussed how they’d watched an interview with an author of a book, so I checked it out. Even people diagnosed with cancer were apparently being admonished to focus on the bright side. I was at least happy that some people were starting this conversation. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but the book is called Bright-Sided and the author is Barbara Ehrenreich, who was also diagnosed with cancer. I found someone described it as brilliant exposé of our smiley-faced culture and hearing that made me laugh. Then again, I’ve always been labeled and dismissed as cynical, “too sensitive”, idealistic and “negative” or pessimistic and at one time “too innocent”. It’s made me regret being open and honest with anyone.

        Thank you–it helps me to not feel so alone.

  18. The amount of damage done to a family by narcissistic behavior(s) is a tiger with a very, very long tail.

    My husband was raised in a household with a father who traveled M-F, staying in first-rate hotels, eating and drinking expensively while his wife/mother of 5 children tried to scrape by on whatever was left of her husband’s check after he’d treated himself royally to clothes, new autos, haircuts every 3 weeks, etc. etc. etc.

    His mother used verbal discouragement to stop her children from ‘showing off,’ making too much noise, bringing guests into their home, drawing any attention at all to themselves. “Nobody wants to see/hear/be around that,” she’d tell them. (!!!!!) Dysfunctional, much? Yikes.

    No doubt this is a boilerplate model for an adult with narcissistic tendencies and extreme emotional disconnect – plus other impediments to healthy emotional development. I was raised in a happy, family-centric household where celebrations were lovely and frequent, and my parents taught us to share, care, and dare to be outstanding in whatever endeavors we took up.

    It’s taken me a very long time to own the idea that basically, I am married to damaged goods.
    He is a sensitive, extremely intelligent (cerebral narcissist) gentle person who was effectively ruined by a jackass of a father.

    I thank you, Dr. Burgo, for sharing what you do on this website. You do a great service, allowing your readers to make sense of the Gaslight Funhouse Ride of Narcissism in the Family. (joke, but not really.) You are a generous and kind person. Thank you again.

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