Updated: Feb 27
There has been a long standing debate about the labels pessimistic, realistic, and optimistic. Many people who have been called pessimistic, often identify as realistic. However, their self-identified classification is typically dismissed or deemed as the same as pessimism. In general, it seems that pessimistic and realistic have been categorized as negative labels for people who express anything other than positive outcomes about a situation. You have likely been socialized to believe that optimism is the only thing that's healthy, and that you should stay away from people who can't always find the silver lining. But, is there room for flexibility in what's defined as healthy viewpoints? We'll explore supposed pessimism using a trauma lens.
Pessimistic can be a hurtful term
Framing from a mental health perspective, jumping to the term pessimistic is unhelpful when really anxious and perceptive seem to be more adaptive fits. Thinking about teenage development, most teens don't and can't think through potential consequences of their actions. Whether for anxiety, trauma, over parentification or some other reason, few teens can identify both the possible positive outcome and the not-so-positive ones as well. In other words, typically developing teenagers tend to only be able to predict that everything will work out the way that they plan. They have a belief of invincibility. Most neurotypical adults would call this a dangerous characteristic of child development at best and impulsive at the very least. Therefore, when a teen or young adult is able to think through situations, they may be labeled by peers as pessimistic. Sadly, the label may not change in adulthood.
Pessimism as a label doesn't seem to serve a helpful purpose. People who are called pessimistic are often left alienated and have their ideas dismissed as too negative regardless of how likely their ideas are to come true. In the rise of toxic positivity, pessimistic has been used as a verbal weapon. It causes division, isolation, and even negative self-talk.
Inaccuracies of the pessimistic label
The irony is that often the person, let's call this person Janae with they/them pronouns, being called pessimistic is hard working and continually trying for a different outcome than the one they may have predicted. Those traits are indicative of someone who is hopeful instead of hopeless, which pessimism suggests. There is no reason to work hard and strive for a positive outcome if you don't believe one is possible. Whether pessimistic or realistic, Janae is identifying all possible outcomes, but when people around them only see the perfectly idealized one. It's like Janae saying, "You don't see all of those potholes in your logic?" Janae then only has to express some of the outcomes that aren't so idealized. They may even be expressing outcomes that are statistically more likely than the picture perfect ending.
There are many reasons why Janae's brain is primed for seeking all of the possible
outcomes, a history of trauma seems to be the most obvious. People with a history of trauma, may develop hypervigilance or an over perception of danger. Depending on the type of trauma that Janae may have experienced, they could have had to predict possible outcomes in order to decrease the likelihood of repeat offenses of harm. Therefore, their supposed pessimism could be a well-established trauma response that has helped them stay cautious and safe.
Whereas it's always been such a hurtful term, part of the interesting thing is for many of the situations that someone like Janae is called pessimistic, others miss the opportunity to connect with Janae to settle their worries. There may be times when Janae is extremely anxious and their possible outcomes are too far-fetched, usually this is identifiable when the outcomes are too far in the future or when it seems that Janae would have had to read someone's mind to arrive at the conclusion. In this case, simply reflecting that Janae seems worried would be better than calling them a hurtful term like pessimistic.
The main message in this week's article is to think twice about calling someone a negative term. Explore what you hope to gain from using a term like pessimistic with people who are special to you. Consider what their ideas may be telling you about their lived experiences. Here are a few more takeaways.
Pessimism as a label probably causes more hurt than you intend.
Exploring realistic outcomes isn't the same as being pessimistic.
When someone identifies possible far-fetched ideas, they may be anxious and could use your support more than your criticism.
Positivity can come in a toxic form.
If you've been called pessimistic and the term doesn't sit right with you, that may be because you aren't. Trauma impacts humans in many ways. Learning how trauma may be showing up in you life and in the lives of your loved ones is a needed part of the healing journey. Be gentle with yourself. You deserve it. In the meantime, please wrap yourself in compassion, douse yourself with love, and make moments for play.
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