Is Forced Optimism Still Optimism?

The most important lesson I learned the last time I was in therapy was to be kind to myself. Not in the #selfcare #treatyoself kind of way, per se, but in the setting-realistic-expectations-for-my-emotions kind of way.

I started to see my most recent therapist because, as these stories often go, I was depressed. I had just moved from a rural community in Massachusetts to Uptown Manhattan. I wasn’t interested in my graduate school classes that I had upended my life to attend, I wasn’t connecting with my peers as I had hoped to, and I was thinking a lot about my dysfunctional family. It scared me to feel so heavy in the chest.

That indomitable weight subsided after a few months of seeking treatment, but there were still — and are still — days when I felt very, very sad. Sometimes that sadness was triggered by something tangible — my grandmother growing ill, for example. But sometimes I just felt sad for what seemed like no reason at all. And then, after a few days, it went away. Sometimes, for weeks.

Both inside and outside of those depressive moments, I fixated on whether I was developing something more serious than I previously thought. I worried about being too sad to get work done, too sad to focus on my career. I worried that the next wave of depression would last longer than the last; that eventually, it would never go away.

“Well, what’s wrong with being sad sometimes?” my therapist asked me (many times). I stared at her (every time). I imagined all the different ways that feeling unable to get out of bed or respond to texts could ruin my life if I lived that way forever.

“Nothing, I guess,” I said.
“So, you feel sad sometimes, and it goes away,” she’d repeat.
Yep, that was it.

Blame it on my Virgo sun or my position as the eldest child in my family, but I feel best when I have my sh*t together. When I can’t get my sh*t together, I ignore it. A room full of unfolded laundry? Shut the door. A fight with a friend that I don’t know how to solve? Find another friend. But I couldn’t close the door on feeling depressed, on all the sadness that writing about my family for my MFA program was triggering. It was in me, I was it. Very quickly, I started to feel guilty for feeling so sad, for wanting to sink right into the center of my bed.

I thought about when I was sixteen. About when cliche phrases like “life is short” and “live every day as if it were your last” seemed to reveal Big Truths about the world. Those half-hearted catch-phrases used to pull me out of my unhappiness — about moving all the time, about feeling hopelessly trapped in unhealthy relationships with my parents, about all the loneliness that those two situations produced. “I should be grateful for all of my privileges,” I told myself like a prayer. “If you’re sad, you literally lose time.”

When I was a teenager, being happy felt like a rebellion. But as I got older, the beast that I was rebelling against diversified its portfolio; it became structural. I grew sad about my family’s poverty, our insular religious conservatism, about the misogynistic hegemony that made me a second-class citizen by way of being a woman — things I did not understand as a teenager. I could tell myself to smile or to make every minute count, but those problems still loomed, still influenced my life.

Looking on the bright side of a situation may be a balm, but is it really optimism if you have to force yourself to find it? Or is optimism more scientific, like serotonin?

Some psychologists study this question — of whether or not optimism can be learned, or re-learned. They posit that, with some patients, learning to identify the positive aspects of their lives, or in themselves, can redirect their negative thought patterns and help them cope with depression. There’s a lot of research that indicates this approach can be incredibly effective.

It’s not a foolproof response, for me. Sometimes, when I’m sad, I count my blessings. But more often than not, the sum just doesn’t cut it, and I start to feel guilty all over again. I think of all the tasks I could have completed had I the emotional capacity to begin them, of all the places I could have gone and photos I could have taken. And then I remember that, alternatively, I could be compassionate toward my inner monologue. That this phase will probably, hopefully, pass, if I give it the time to do so — that I am more than my unpredictable emotions.

That gentle reminder has taken place of guidance counselor platitudes, but it’s not a catch-all. It doesn’t make the moment easier, necessarily, but does carry the promise of lighter moments to come. I certainly don’t know if that’s optimism in the truest sense of the definition. I don’t know if it counts. I do know that I give myself space and time to feel sad as best I can, not because it’s a solution, exactly, but because it’s the only course of action that seems fair. I still feel guilty, but I try to make room for that, too.

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