Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Getting Back to Biases (Self-Worth's Role in Optimism)

When I started this series of posts, I knew that it would be a deeply personal journey. I aspire to live up to and be accountable for what I learn, and I didn't think that I could take much more thought about optimism specifically, though I apparently think about it more often than not. For months, I've been ruminating on just how often I use a too glowing view of people and the world as a means of coping with the unpleasant aspects of life. I took some time off from the subject to do some soul searching, and I started to see many themes come together.
This post discusses the use of the cognitive bias of optimism as a coping mechanism, continued from Part I here. A whole series of posts continues HERE, exploring how I've aspired to make optimism my friend and not my foe. It is a part of a broader discussion of how those in recovery from trauma can make safer choices in their relationships.

Finding Serenity

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Many people are familiar with the first line of the Serenity Prayer, but fewer go on to read and consider the whole passage that the author wrote. It addresses the difficulties of figuring out personal responsibility, things that fall outside of one's sphere of control, and how to make peace with what is as opposed to the often fruitless effort of trying to control that which we cannot. I memorized it in my early twenties, and I found the latter elements of it to be just as helpful as the more commonly known, shorter version.

Why was too much optimism a problem for me? I grew up with the belief that my parents demanded: that I was somehow at fault for whatever it was that went wrong. That required me to be just a little less capable, honest, and aware than every other creature on the planet. My parents reduced all of my mistakes or allegedly “bad” outcomes into a moral failing on my part. I was so blind and “proud” and self-seeking in their estimation that if I couldn't remedy a relationship or mitigate an outcome, it had to be due to a moral moral failure.

Held by Habit?

I carried that moral element into my life, and until very recently, I've struggled against my tendency to put a moral tag on disagreements – whether they are moral in nature or not. What was the key that would liberate me from seeing everything as either good or bad, for I know that the Bard said that thinking is what makes it so? After thirty years, I'm finally beginning to understand the heart of the matter.

I didn't consider otherwise until after I'd graduated high school. Outside of my home and apart from my parents all day, I encountered none of the blaming and shaming about everything. I didn't feel like I fit in as well as I hoped, but people gave me fighting chance and the benefit of the doubt unless I gave them cause to think otherwise. I did so well in college and working as a nurse because of the structure and the consistency. I made mistakes, but I didn't ruin every situation. Once I had good experience under my belt, I was actually well respected, and people liked me. When I resigned an inpatient job that wasn't a good fit for me, I remember feeling awestruck when several other departments tried to recruit me. I even received cards from people from other departments when I left – people that I didn't even expect to know me well enough to regret my departure.

The Path of Least Resistance

Despite the affirmation and reward for a job well done, I found that I remained quite vulnerable to certain types of people. Unjust authorities sent me into obsession easily, and accompanying it was that familiar feeling of frenzy.

Not long before our third anniversary, my husband made an astute observation about my obsession with “fixing” certain kinds of relationships. He said, “It's as if you expect all of your relationship conflicts to be resolved so that you can put them in pretty boxes with bows on them.” Life rarely works out that way.

In addition to wrestling with them, I stayed in those places for far too long than other people would. It was also not uncommon for those who hired me to withhold critical details about the nature of the work, and I would learn that the position had a high rate of turnover. (They dangled the proverbial carrot before me, but all I would find was the stick.) Boundaries proved unhealthy and work objectives nearly impossible. Why did I cling so tenaciously to impossible jobs for so long? What was I trying to prove, above and beyond the fact that these situations seemed normal? Part of it involved finding day shift work, but the price that I would pay never seemed worth it.

Not as I Would Have It

I set unrealistic expectations for myself, for I was very willing to accept fault for all sorts of things, even if I had little involvement in the genesis of problems. I gave mental assent to the Serenity Prayer, but I just didn't know it in my heart and live it out in my habits. While I passionately hate to admit it, I now see that the moral tag on everything resulted from my willingness to own blame that wasn't mine. I'd learned as a young girl that advocating for myself resulted in punishment, and I absorbed it along with some weird ideas about how the world worked. 

I was willing because I lacked the respect and love for myself. Rather than finding my own value in love for myself, I could only understand worth as what I could do to earn my keep. I just don't understand why I never saw these elements and beliefs as so clearly connected as I see them today. I carried at least half of the drama along with with me and found a forum in which to repeat the familiar. I could be loving and good in this process, but I was also the martyred doormat when I didn't need to be, drawing self-worth from sacrifice. The problem is that it wasn't sacrifice as a choice of freedom. It was not sacrifice at all. It was forced abnegation as a means of survival when I was a child. But I'm not a child anymore, and there are far better ways by which to cope.

I shoulda/coulda protested and advocated for myself, but to do that, one has to have something valuable enough to suffer the risk of defending it. I first had to learn to love myself, and that came to me through a loving husband who really did love me for who I was, not what I could contribute.  And I wanted the ease of familiarity, but I didn't know how to get around the feelings that would ensue.  It was so deeply wrapped around who I am that it's taken me the better part of 50 years to see it all for what it is. And to see it, I had to abandon my fantasies about what this world should be before I could accept it as it is.  Even more of a challenge, I had to redefine myself in love.

The next post will explore
too much optimism
and how it thwarts the perception of
hardship as a pathway to peace.

For Further Reading: