Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Is It Possible to Be Too Optimistic?

Threading a path through life

Is it possible to be too optimistic? Well, sure. It is possible to be too fat and too thin. It is possible to be too aggressive, or too passive. It is even possible for someone to be too smart for his own good, or so it is said. It is possible to be too much of all sorts of things. In principle, one would reasonably think that it is possible also to be too optimistic. It is certainly possible to be too pessimistic. Most of the anxious people who come to my office are worrying about things that are very unlikely. If there is a one in a million chance of some particular bad thing happening, they tell me, “With my luck, it’ll be me.” Here is an example of someone who expected the worst:

A middle-aged man came to see me a few years ago worrying, as many of my patients do, about the possibility of a calamitous disease striking him suddenly. On this occasion, he had dropped a brick on his big toe, which then began to hurt. “Do you think it could be cancer?” he asked me.  I think deep down he knew he did not have cancer; but even further down, he thought it was just possible he did. The brick falling on his toe may have just been a coincidence, he thought.

Another man worried that the police might discover that ten years previously he had taken a ten dollar bill from the cash register at a place where he worked as a clerk. This is an example, by the way, of the inadvisability of some people bending the rules, or out and out breaking them, as this man did. Some people worry too much when they do anything improper.

Another example of such a person was a young man who used to buy about a pound of marijuana at a time. In order to hide it, he buried it in his backyard. But in the middle of the night, he would awaken and find himself suddenly overcome by the thought that someone may have seen where he buried it. Then he would get up, get dressed, and go off with a spade to dig up the marijuana and bury it some other place. He did this repeatedly. One night he frightened himself by forgetting exactly where he had buried it. After this happened three or four times, I suggested to him that he was not suited by temperament for buying marijuana in bulk, and that he should stop.

Another man set up a system of surveillance cameras because he thought the neighbors were in the habit of stealing things from his garbage. I told him I thought that was very unlikely, and still less likely that someone setting out to rob his garbage would approach from the front of the house, which is where he had the surveillance camera installed. He immediately set up another camera in the back yard.

 In some cases some pessimistic people worry about things that are out and out impossible, such as developing a cancer today as the result of something that person ate yesterday.

Of course, these fears, which seem outlandish and ridiculous to others, are very painful. Such fears are characteristic of a wide variety of conditions, not just the anxiety disorders, but depression and paranoid states, and other serious conditions also. But there are many others who are less strikingly fearful, but who are pessimistic nevertheless, sometimes to the point that that quality becomes a defining feature of their personality. The persistent inclination to expect something awful to happen makes everything joyless and undermines the ability to deal realistically and effectively with the various real challenges of life. And some people have a knack for making these unhappy expectations come true.

I know of a woman—no, fifty women—who are so discouraged about their next date working out, they do not bother to dress  properly or make any other attempt to make themselves attractive. More important, on the date itself, they may be sullen and unfriendly.  Of course, this date, also, proves unsatisfactory and conditions them to become still more pessimistic.  

I treated a woman once who thought very little of herself. Like many people with low self-esteem, she had been brought up to think that she was unattractive and ugly. That message can be communicated in a number of subtle ways by parents; but in this case her parents explicitly informed her she was ugly and stupid. Sitting opposite her and talking to her over a period of time, I thought she was neither. But it is pointless for a therapist to try to reassure a patient about such things. Patients discount their therapists’ good opinion as they would not believe a similar opinion expressed by friends or anyone else close to them.

This woman, whom I will call Denise, had dropped out before graduating high school and then held a number of low-paying and unsatisfactory jobs. She dreamed of becoming a nurse, but she knew she was not smart enough to function at so high a level. I disagreed strongly. I told her she should give it a try.  But first, she had to have a high school diploma. It took me some time to convince her to take her high school equivalency exam. When she did, she left half-way through in tears, thinking that she was failing the test. At that point she wanted to give up forever the idea of a high school diploma or a career. This is an example of how a pessimistic point of view leads to failure. But, as it happened, the administrators of the test marked the first half of the exam she took separately from the second half. And. to her surprise, she got a B plus.

She went back a second time and took the entire test and passed. Then she took a college course and got an A. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she told me. “It was an easy course.” Then she took harder courses and did well “It’s an easy school,” she said, discounting all her successes because they did not fit in with her view of herself.

She became a practical nurse, then went back to put herself through the rest of a good four year college. At every step along the way, she was dismissive of her successes; but, in the end, she became a nurse.

Her story illustrates how deadly a pessimistic point of view can be—and, how that prejudice can be overcome. A little at a time

Being optimistic, on the other hand, makes success more likely. Simply being optimistic makes it more likely: that someone will do well on a job interview, that someone will come across as more appealing on a date, that someone will be willing to risk starting a new business, and so on.  Being hopeful and enthusiastic, such a person is less likely to come to a psychiatrist for help. So, I know only a few of these individuals.

But there are, indeed, times when it is disadvantageous to be too optimistic.

I had a woman friend who thought every man she dated was falling in love with her. But judging from the fact that some of them did not call from one week to the next, I thought she was likely to be wrong—and usually she was. Nevertheless, because she was implacably optimistic, she was usually in a good mood; but she felt disappointed in the end. She could not effectively plan her life because she did not see herself and her circumstances realistically.

And, the same people who are sufficiently optimistic to start a business may be too optimistic, since the commonest reason that new businesses fail is that they are undercapitalized. Successful  entrepreneurs anticipate that things may not go right right from the beginning.

Manic patients are probably the best example of how people who are enthusiastic and excited (overly excited) by a project they have thought up can enlist the backing of otherwise perfectly sensible people. I knew a man who got his friends to invest in building a set of bungalows on the seashore despite their being below sea level much of the time.  Another young man, at the time of the Columbia student riots, became the leader of a group of students who invaded the dean’s office at his urging. He was not even a student at Columbia.  “Didn’t they know I was crazy?” he asked me after he got out of the hospital.

The following is an account of a man who was very successful, largely because of an optimistic attitude, but was capable of being dangerously over-optimistic:

Paul was a man who talked his way into the restaurant business by pretending to know about the company’s computer accounting system. He worked hard and did well, and then started his own food business. But, for various reasons, he was always in debt to his bank.  On more than one occasion the bank called in his loan, which usually stood at more than a million dollars. He went to the bank each time and managed to talk them out of wanting their money bank. On one occasion he was so enthusiastic and confident about his plans to expand, they agreed to lend him an additional two million dollars! He was able to get them to believe in him because he believed in himself. But one day he came to my office and…

“I’m going to move some heroin for a friend of mine,” he told me in a calm voice.

“WHAT?”

“No big deal.  I know the person who is giving it to me and the person I have to deliver it to.”

“You’re kidding. Why do you want to get involved in something risky like that? You have your own business.”

“You always worry too much,” he told me. “This is easy.”

“If it’s so easy, why do they need you?  And why would you risk everything for something like this?””

“It’s just a short ride down to the Bronx. And it is $5000,” he added, a little sheepishly.

It turned out he was being set up, for reasons he never discovered. The police were waiting for him in the Bronx and found the drug in his car. He was carrying enough heroin to justify a sentence of about twenty years. The arrest made the front pages of the local newspapers. Luckily, the police acted without a proper search warrant, and the case was dismissed 6 months later.  During that six months, I was more worried than he was!

So, yes. It is possible to be too optimistic—although, on balance, it is better to be optimistic than pessimistic.(c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

more...

Subscribe to Fighting Fear

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.