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Ditch Toxic Positivity for Tragic Optimism

Tragic optimism is about owning your life story, not letting your story own you.

Key points

  • Some suffering in life is inevitable, and some are better at handling it than others.
  • Toxic positivity compels us to pretend that heartache and suffering don't exist, but tragic optimism uses these as tools for growth.
  • Tragic optimism allows you to acknowledge the power of hope even when amid deep sorrow.

When we hear the term tragic optimism, it sounds oxymoronic, but it may be the best way to approach our complex lives in a world that seems to present itself in an as contradictory and confusing way as it could be. Not only that, but it reflects the truth that life has the power to delight and distress in the beat of a heart.

What Is Tragic Optimism?

Tragic optimism describes the ability to experience optimism even in times of significant tragedy. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl described tragic optimism as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life, despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.”

Tragic optimism is situated in a position that is the polar opposite of toxic positivity. While toxic positivity is designed to pretend like negative experiences or unpleasant emotions simply do not exist, tragic optimism is all about acknowledging that there is tragedy, heartache, and sorrow in our lives. However, to be tragically optimistic is not to ignore these negative experiences, but to accept that they exist and to still recognize that there is meaning in our lives and that there is always hope to be found in life.

Where there is a “why,” there is a “how.”

Victor Frankl’s belief in the value of tragic optimism grew from his experiences in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. He noted that his ability to keep his mind on the reasons for surviving this harrowing ordeal – returning to his wife and to a life beyond the prison camp – he was able to maintain the wherewithal and the “how” of surviving. It is not the presence of struggle and heartache that keep us from surviving, it is the absence of hope.

It's helpful when we are able to seek out the meaning in the tragedy or chaotic circumstances that might appear in life. When able to use the struggles and the trauma as learning opportunities, rather than trying to pretend they did not exist, we are much more likely to learn and grow and cope with the situation. We cannot allow tragic events to be viewed as endpoints; they are merely markers in our lives.

By finding a way to weave traumatic events you have experienced into your overall life story, you are able to place them in context and be in position to make sense of them. When tragic events are viewed in perspective, it allows us to use them as growth points rather than end points or reasons to stop in our tracks and give up. Trying to pretend the “bad stuff” didn’t happen won’t allow you to process or make sense of it; you are merely keeping yourself stuck in a space where unhelpful complications can arise.

Tragedies tend to create new markers in time, the “before” and the “after.” Tragedies can seem like “time stamps” on video recordings, but unlike digital recordings, we cannot splice out the “bad takes” in life, unlike the marking and splicing that can be done on digital recordings. Further, suppressing emotions doesn’t contribute to our psychological well-being. In fact, taking a toxically positive attitude towards life can lead to compromised mental and physical wellness.

Find Meaning in Tragedy

It is important to seek the meaning of a tragic event, to find the growth points it presents. Suffering and grief are not things to be avoided or brush aside, we cannot get “past” these feelings, we must move through them. Avoid any inclination you might feel to pretend things aren’t as bad as they may seem . . . even when things are as dire as you could ever imagine them being. Allowing yourself to acknowledge the suffering you are experiencing can spur you on to feel hope that things can be better.

Despair takes us down a scary road, but hope allows us to believe that we can find our way to a clearing where we can make meaning of the path our life has taken. Frankl believed that tragic optimism allowed us to turn our suffering into a sense of achievement and accomplishment. He also felt that tragedy awoke in us an awareness of the transitory nature of life, this awareness in turn spurs us to engage in responsible actions. We are encouraged to respond, not react, to tragic events. Even traumatic experiences can lead to post-traumatic growth.

Strategies for Meaning Making

  1. Emotion suppression doesn’t help us in the long run, those negative feelings are going to show up sometime and somewhere, and likely in highly inappropriate ways.
  2. Recognize that each event, or tragic nonevent, is part of a bigger story, your life story.
  3. Take a new perspective – allow yourself to step back and recognize how the puzzle pieces of your life fit together.
  4. Ask yourself, “How did this event change my life? What doors might it have closed? What doors might it be able to open?”
  5. Remind yourself that if you can make sense of the “why,” you will be able to manage the “how.”

Tragic optimism is about owning your life story, not letting your story own you. Perhaps the saying, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst; that way, you’ll never be disappointed,” might be the “folksy way” of summing up the practice of tragic optimism.

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