How to deal with the delusional optimist

  • Can you think of a friend who haphazardly or even recklessly makes illogical decisions without first considering the consequences or potential outcomes?
  • Does your line manager or business partner easily sweep issues and concerns under the carpet with careless dismissal of the impact this would have on workforce morale or workload?
  • Is there a member in your family who is quite good at ignoring common apprehensiveness or unease, who may come across as a bad listener?

If there is someone in your personal or professional life showing these kinds of behaviours, it could be that you are having to deal with a delusional optimist.

During a week-long school trip to Shrewsbury in year 6 (ages 10-11), our year group were divided into smaller groups for a group activity. I really loved this group activity, and even now I tend to use it as a team-building exercise for already existing working groups (or families)! One at a time, we had to wait outside the room whilst the others discussed which animal he or she was most like, and to describe his or her qualities. When it came to my turn, I was described as a nightingale because I sang and because I was an optimist. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word optimist (to my recollection); and have felt close to it ever since! 

What is ‘optimism’?

We have all heard of optimism. Optimism’s root, called ‘hope’, is a foundational virtue for its rise in the human heart and provides its nourishment. Loss of hope results in a loss of optimism, for optimism cannot survive without hope. Judeo-Christianity defines hope as the ‘greatest of all God’s gifts’, together with the other theological virtues of faith and charity. One of the earliest use of the term ‘optimism’ is in the work of Leibniz in the early 1700’s, but in modern history, the scholarly works into mental health of Fromm (1955), Freud (1966), Taylor & Brown (1988) and Seligman (today looked up to as the father of positive psychology) bring us to the popular definition of ‘optimism’ as we know it today, which is ‘a generalised expectation that good things will happen’ (Carver & Scheier, 2009) and is regarded as an attributional style (Seligman, 2006), a trait (Carver & Scheier, 2009) and an inherent human characteristic (Sharot, Riccardi, Raio & Phelps, 2007). 

Excessive optimism

As with all things of nature or spirit, balance exists and must be attained. It’s one of my life’s missions, to acquire balance in myself, and to help others attain it too – not just physiological balance (what is called homeostasis), but in all things that ontologically touch a human’s personhood. What we need for optimal performance must be at the right amount. Otherwise, it’s not good for us. This is a truth as pertains to both natural and supernatural law. 

A helpful analogy for balance is our daily intake of vitamins. Let’s take vitamin C. We only need 40mg of this vitamin a day for optimal performance. A chronic deficiency in this vitamin will eventually cause problems. Likewise, too much of this vitamin will eventually cause different problems (you can check my vitamin C factfile for more info about this). Imagine… we only need 40mg of vitamin C a day, and yet, people take 1000mg daily of this vitamin daily, believing that the more it’s consumed, the better the body will be for it. This is, quite simply, delusional, and potentially dangerous or painful (as it can exacerbate issues like hemochromatosis or oxalate-formed kidney stones, etc.). In fact, as a water-soluble vitamin, our bodies have a very, very clever way of eliminating any excess or unmetabolized vitamin C through our urine, so that we don’t have too much of it in our system at any one time.

The same concept must also be applied to the amount of optimism we require for peak performance as human beings. Ironically, people tend to think of the opposite of optimism as pessimism. However, I would disagree with this. I would argue that the opposite of pessimism is something called acedia (a hopelessness or spiritual depression. In the Christian faith, it is a desolation of sorts). The scope of this blogpost isn’t to deal with acedia or even explore it. However, I have done a lot of reading on this state and would be happy to write about it if it’s of interest to readers. The scope of this blogpost is to develop thought and gain insight on how to deal with a ‘delusional optimist’, but what is that? In 1988/89, ground-breaking work by psychologists Taylor and Brown claimed that although optimism is normal and natural, positive illusions, as differentiated between ‘inflated positive self-perception’, ‘exaggerated assessments of personal control’ and ‘unrealistic optimism’ present an inaccurate view of reality. With this realisation came the warning that illusions can be taken to excess, and when the ‘margin of optimal illusion’ is surpassed, we end up battling with the costs of delusional optimism.

Actions, behaviours and attitudes of delusional optimists – and how to deal with them

Please note that this list of actions, behaviours and attitudes are not strictly limited to delusional optimists. They could be signs and symptoms of other issues, conditions or even be a regular trait in certain personality types. 

Stubbornness

Delusional optimists are often very stubborn about the end to which they’re being optimistic about. This is just a result of their strong conviction that ‘things are going to be fine / work out the way they should’. This conviction can cause their ears and their hearts to disregard the genuine worries of others, which is why it’s important to remember that when dealing with someone operating in this mode, they are not purposely ignoring YOU. Also, it is understandable why one might become suspicious of their actions when they don’t openly communicate their intentions aloud. Don’t take their disinterest in your concerns personally. They are just highly convinced and are already committed in their hearts to a course of action that they fundamentally believe is best for everyone, and nothing but a crisis can wake them up from this delusional stupor. If the course of action leads to disaster, it may be easier to accept it as such, and to learn big lessons from it. However, if the course of action proves to be a success, then this delusional optimist deserves credit and praise for their dedication and commitment, as well as the courage it took to achieve the success (no matter how blind or ill-considered it was). 

Over-confidence

This behaviour makes sense if we ruminate on Taylor and Brown’s ground-breaking work as mentioned above. A delusional optimist may possess an inflated positive self-perception. This is when his/her subjective judgement signals self-possession of ‘better than average’, or maybe even ‘the best’, in quality or quantity: attributes, characteristics, skills, or abilities compared to others. They can tend to make exaggerated assessments of things they believe they have more control of or in, than they do in reality. This is due in part to the idea that what is objectively considered risky, may not be subjectively deemed so by the person. The phrase ‘throwing caution to the wind’ would ring bells here. A delusional optimist is a risk manager’s worst nightmare! In practice, the unrealistic optimism of such a person could cause an underestimation of resources and requirements to bring a project to success, or equally cause an overestimation of planned outcomes that would result in major losses (e.g. in money, relationships, time, reputation). However, being over-confident can have two distinct advantages. 1) Should a project work in favour of the delusional optimist, they’ll become a genius or somewhat of a hero figure among the pack, and 2) in the face of challenges, the delusional optimist has an uncanny ability to raise morale, motivation and performance, thereby increasing chances of success. Risk language doesn’t really work in convincing a delusional optimist to hit their pause button. If anything, it will only drive them further and more headstrong into their pursuit. In this situation, one must find a way to keep the motivation of the delusional optimist up whilst tactfully communicating the potential benefit or advantage of pulling back the reigns as attractive and positively aspirational. Killing their confidence wouldn’t be a good way to gain healthy results.

Irresponsibility

It might appear that the delusional optimist exhibits flagrantly irresponsible behaviour. The issue with this perspective is that, this would not be their perspective. When combining my points on stubbornness and over-confidence above, we are left with this: the unease of having to deal with decision-makers appearing to ignore responsibility. Where decisions have little to no impact on people, assets or liabilities, then objectively, responsibility lessens. If decisions have major impact on people, assets or liabilities, then responsibility understandably increases, and quite drastically. In a world where all things are equal, simple ‘what if’ questions may suffice for alerting someone to address their responsibility – however, this rarely works for the delusional optimist. The coaching style here would alter slightly to – in a way – work ‘backwards’. Helping them foresee any ‘fire-fighting’ activity that might come their way post-event, could be the best eye-opener for them.

Conclusion: Behaviour change through motivational interviewing

The best time to inspire behaviour change so that this optimist can continue to be an optimist, but a realistic one, is when they’re not focused on a project that they are already certain would be a crazy success! Working during a time of lull or when enthusiasm isn’t heightened would be helpful for bringing in some objectivity into their subjective reality. Motivational interviewing is a highly recognised technique for supporting clients see reality more clearly, and to make healthy life changes.


I’m Claz, a personal health, life & career coach as well as a massage therapist based in West London, accredited in the UK. You can book a session with me here or sign up to my workshops on my Eventbrite Page. Upcoming workshops include personal resiliency training.

February 2020 Newsletter

On Top 5 tips for weathering the storm called GRIEF

12

An Alternative to ‘New Year, New You!’

There are so many things I’m excited about entering into 2019. I can’t wait to be meeting and working with amazing clientele who are full of potential and I’m totally looking forward to the ways in which my business will be an opportunity for many others. But one thing I want to do differently right now is suggest an alternative to ‘New Year, New You!’ – a notion that serves as a popular up-sell strategy for life coaches around this time of year. The idea of ‘new year, new you’ is to start anew, with a fresh outlook and fresh new ways of doing things, or even a brand new way of ‘being’. Life coaches support clients to come up with new year’s resolutions, targets, and promises which they make both to themselves and where appropriate, to loved ones. We also support them to follow through with the resolution by holding them accountable. Often however, no matter who we are, or what our experiences of the past have been, we can potentially set ourselves unrealistic objectives that we not only become disillusioned by, but even become rebellious toward after a certain time. The thing is, I don’t often find an issue with the resolution itself. More often, it’s the approach to the resolution that is badly managed, and sometimes life coaches can fall into the trap of promoting an unsustainable approach to human behavioural change over the new year period. Here’s a solution to the folly of the ‘New Year, New You’ ideal, which proposes an altogether healthier approach to ‘A Transformed You’. The solution is itself, transformation. The approach: to enact three fundamentally healthy actions that drive and sustain the transformation.

 

Action #1: Don’t ignore your past – use it to your advantage!

Yesterday, Disney’s The Lion King was on the TV, and I was struck by this particular scene. It presents a very healthy life lesson for all of humanity. Our past, no matter what it was like for us, became a promise of increased knowledge and learning at the very moment that it became a reality of a present moment for us. That learning extends as much to ourselves – our intellects and inner world from where our behaviour and responses stem, as to our external world – our environments and circumstances that influence, inform and evoke our behaviour and responses.

As Rafiki the baboon says, “we can either run from the past, or learn from it”. The former does not help us to grow or to transform into freer human beings. People who run from the past tend to use it as an excuse for behaviour that is not conducive to transformation into a more mature being. A refusal to confront the past imprisons them to a moment of the past that shaped their attitude, behaviour and responses, resulting in present decisions formed by experiences that hold them captive. This prevents progress in maturity. It is easy enough to make plans and set goals, but when we are triggered by negative emotion, attitude, or experiences associated with the past, the person who runs from the past will refuse to overcome the barrier. This same barrier will return time and again if it is not addressed.

The person who learns from their past and brings it with them into the present moment from a reconciled position is liberated from the captivity of the past. Their decisions are formed and made with the future in mind. They are able to use their past to know ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’. They have been changed from a deeper place within themselves, that their actions are informed by this knowledge gained from their previous experiences.

The point here is that interior change caused as a result of our past is the safest way of sustaining the journey toward the end goal or resolution. The notion of ‘new year, new you’ tends toward an attitude of ignoring past experiences which configures and informs our current self-knowledge – a vital key to setting and achieving realistic goals. The folly of ‘new year, new you’ is that at the stroke of midnight on 01/01/2019, you didn’t become a whole new person, and your history was not voided as if some man in the cloud with a giant computer deleted your mental and emotional cache! We didn’t just enter into the new year a brand new person, no matter how much we might want that to be so. We bring with us into the new year all our old habits, fears, discouragements, resentments, as well as capacities and capabilities. Don’t forget to include your own ability to bring into 2019 all that was positive and successful from your past! Use your past as an advantage for the decisions you make along this journey of achieving your new year’s resolutions, and you’ll find yourself more encouraged and committed to the change you’re putting into action.

 

Action #2: Accept change as a journey and not as an immediate reaction

The purpose of you setting a resolution is because you want something to change in your life. What I have learned, however, in the many years that I have been journeying with people, is that the last thing many of us human beings want to change, is ourselves. We believe it’s much easier to change our external world – our circumstances, environments, states, the people in our lives – than our understanding, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. As a change management practitioner, it’s my job and joy to bring to light the journey of change in every human being. The journey is often a difficult one, but is ultimately a very liberating one! In fact, the greatest joy of reaching our goals ought not be the goal itself, but how much we have grown and changed along the journey.

We can’t escape change – it’s necessary for our survival and good for our human faculties (by this I mean body, soul and spirit). It happens not only outside ourselves, but the most precious place that change happens is within ourselves. Attitudinal and behavioural change doesn’t happen instantaneously – it is a process that requires self-knowledge (as addressed above) and time (addressed here). Due to many varying factors, we tend to want to speed things up and if possible, skip parts of the process required to achieve the goal. If I were to set a goal of praising God from the top of a mountain, the temptation is to imagine myself singing from the top of the mountain. However, a zoomed-in image of the goal ignores the rest of the picture, and I would then forget or ignore the reality that is the climb that would get me there. Embracing the bigger picture, and gaining knowledge from maps means that I can assess the valleys, mountains, deserts and oceans on the journey in between where I am at now, and that goal. They inform me of what needs to happen for me to get to the top of the mountain and to make decisions on whether that need must be met to achieve the goal. For example, I don’t need a good singing voice to get up to the top of the mountain, but I need a sturdy pair of legs that are fit for climbing, and I will need lots of courage! There’s lots of other things that would need to be added to this list. In essence, it would be folly to commit to the goal without perceiving the journey that will get us there a sustainably changed person without giving up. In other words, it’s not the things around me that ought to change, but my approach to change that takes into account the reality of my humanity.

The point here is that for the change in us to be sustainable, we have to undergo a journey of behavioural change to move us into the future, as painful or difficult that may at first seem. It’s the most foolproof way of tackling barriers and remaining committed to the goal. We need to let go of old ‘vicious’ habits, and form new ‘virtuous’ habits. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, back in 1969, upon observing the process of overcoming grief and bereavement, identified a characteristic pattern of responses that human beings needed to go through to ‘let go’ of the past and begin to embrace and engage with a different future. It is a model that applies as much to objects, circumstances and situations as to ourselves and other people in our lives. If practiced, the increase in the probability of a change being successful is really quite noticeable. Kübler-Ross’ 7 stages of the process of human change are: 1) shock; 2) denial; 3) anger or blame at others; 4) self-blame, bargaining or guilt; 5) depression or confusion; 6) deep acceptance; and 7) problem-solving. A graphical representation of the change curve can be found here. Undergoing this process is the most natural and harmless way of accepting the present moment and forming new habits and connections in our psyche and heart.

 

Action #3: Form new habits for your new beginnings

Once a change has taken root within ourselves, we’ll find that our lives begin to change, in huge and small ways. That’s partly because the change has cost us. A lot. We were so dissatisfied with the way things were, we found the benefit of the change outweighed the cost, and the long-term change is now here to stay. So what must a person do, if say for example, his or her approach to life has changed, but s/he misses the positive aspects of what s/he used to have and s/he discovers a longing in his/her heart for this aspect of his/her past? This re-visit or return to fond memories happens often, and my experiences with other people tend to show that the majority of these are relational (contact with certain persons of value in the heart or any subconscious establishment of a relationship to objects, circumstances, environment or states). A preventative measure to the ‘re-visit’ or ‘return’ lies in 3 important questions:

1)     Do I have an attachment of any kind (most especially emotional attachments as these are the hardest to detach from) to this person/object/circumstance/environment/state?

2)     What boundaries can I set to ensure that I go into the future avoiding old habits associated with this person/object/circumstance/environment/state?

3)     How can my own ability and capacity to live with this person/object/circumstance/environment/state be strengthened and improved?

Answering these questions once the initial change has happened but before one has reached that point of re-visit/return could be very useful to the next part of the process.

 

The pre-condition to transformation

The irony of finding freedom in these actions that focus your capacities on remaining committed to that journey will paradoxically invoke change in the life that is external to you, because the change will ultimately happen in you yourself. There is one pre-condition to this taking full effect. The three actions, to be successful together, require your readiness to change. I encourage starting 2019 and our new year resolution(s), not with ‘New Year, New You’ in mind, but with long-term sustainable transformation in mind. If you like, you can call it: ‘new year for new beginnings’. Only with readiness to change will we find ourselves:

a) letting go of the past’s bad habits, attitudes, behaviours and misunderstandings

b) living the present moment of transition by developing new habits, attitudes, behaviours and understandings.

c) putting a plan in place to ensure the sustainability of the changed ‘me’, having new habits, attitudes, behaviours and understanding embedded in my daily life for the future.

May the changes that are to happen in your life and your readiness for that change bring you to an encounter with the truth of who you are and what your mission in this world is to be for this year. I would love to hear how this has been helpful for you! Likewise, please do share it – especially if you find someone you know is encountering disillusionment and difficulty progressing toward their goal or new year’s resolutions further down the line!

 

Every blessing!

C.

Copyright © 2018 Claz Gomez.

Photo credit to Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash