You may have heard that the majority of us believe we are better than the average driver and that the risk of something happening to us is minimal. This brings us to the phenomenon of unrealistic optimism.

In 1980 this belief that we are somehow better than average was coined as “unrealistic optimism”. One of the reasons for this belief is a pursuit for comfort, we believe that it is better to be positive and optimistic than negative; another reason is that we don’t really know other people as we know ourselves.

While on the surface it might seem like a good approach, it can cost us in the long run. We might delay giving up smoking – because we believe that we will not get cancer, we don’t exercise because we believe we will be ok, we don’t study enough for our exams as we believe that we will be ok. Interestingly, a recent study demonstrated that unrealistic optimism has led to a decline in self-esteem and overall wellbeing in students rather than helping them to feel better and more confident about themselves.

Some other consequences of unrealistic optimism might include a misplacement of hope, disappointment and regret. When you are dealing with illness, getting information about treatments, having honest discussions with doctors, being realistic about the recovery time is essential for you to manage stress, prepare and organise support. Temporary comfort of telling yourself “I will be fine” will only create further problems down the road.

Another issue that we might experience is toxic positivity. As the term itself suggests, it can not only be unhelpful but often actively damaging to express or be on the receiving end of such positivity.

One of the definitions of toxic positivity previously used is excessive and ineffective overgeneralising or a happy and optimistic state in all situations. It often results in:

  1. Denial of the experience
  2. Minimization and invalidating of feelings and human experiences
  3. Hiding true feelings
  4. Pretending “everything is awesome”
  5. Feeling guilty for experiencing difficult emotions.

In a nutshell, toxic positivity dismisses the reality of a situation. It can fail to value the diversity of human experience through the use of mindless platitudes, like: “You will be alright” or “don’t worry too much it will work out”. It could be far more helpful to make decisions and suggestions that consider all the factors involved.

For example, in the case of COVID, instead of opting for blind toxic positivity and unrealistic optimism, try to be realistically optimistic or simply supportive and ask what the person needs.

When your friend shares their pain with you don’t just say “everything will be fine”. Instead, listen attentively to understand their concerns and ask what they need to feel supported.

When your friend says “I think my husband might be cheating on me, I found a receipt for flowers, which I didn’t get and he started deleting all his messages from his phone” if you reply with: “Come on, don’t be silly, Dave is a great guy, he wouldn’t do that to you”, it could come across as if you are shutting the conversation down, ignoring your friend’s concerns and even humiliating her for worrying.

When someone says “I feel dead inside, I don’t know how I can continue with this COVID lockdown” instead of saying “Yes it will be ok, it’s hard for everyone” you can say “I am here for you, tell me what you are struggling with the most”.

If your friend says “I don’t know how to spend another day in a lockdown” you can say “Talk to me… I can see that it really exhausted you… why don’t we try to figure it out together, or let’s see what we haven’t tried yet”.

I think with every person there might be a slightly different approach, but the common elements of realistic positivity should include:

  1. Don’t dismiss your feeling and the person you are talking to, especially if they express difficult feelings.
  2. Listen to understand, not to judge.
  3. Give them time to express themselves and don’t shut them down too quickly because you heard the story before.
  4. Brainstorm solutions together.
  5. Offer practical support.

If you struggle with expressing your true feelings or you feel that other people focus only on positive experiences and make you feel guilty for feeling sadness, shame, grief or feeling stuck, or any other difficult emotion we can help. Give us a call or email us and we will schedule a session to help you to address your concerns.