Thursday, October 12, 2017

Optimism, Hardship, and Pathways to Peace

Continuing the consideration of cognitive bias of optimism as a coping mechanism, this installment continues from this most recent one, and the whole series of posts can be found HERE. It explores how I am reconsidering optimism to make it my friend as opposed to my foe by finding a healthy balance between too much optimism and a life only half lived. It is a part of a broader discussion of how those in recovery from trauma can make safer choices in their relationships.

The Serenity Prayer encourages us to sort out what we can realistically change from that over which we have no power to change. Critical to serenity, however, is acceptance of those things which we don't really like all that much. It confronts our tendency to create unrealistic fantasies about what we want the world to be – “how I would have it” – and encourages us to focus on those things that are well within our grasp to change for the better. Wasting hope and energy in exercises of futility do no good for anyone, and they drain us of the energy we need for more reasonable, achievable aspirations.

As I noted regarding the use of the cognitive bias of halos (idealization) to cope with horns (objectification/vilification), such a strategy may work in our emotional survival in the short term, but we can find far better alternatives. In revisiting the Serenity Prayer this week, I saw anew the web of toxic thoughts that “the world as I would have it” created for me and the chain of consequences that resulted from a skewed view of life. Standing up for myself is contingent upon my own sense of worth, but the web doesn't stop with just assertiveness which stems from value.

Life Isn't a Bowl of Cherries

Life itself comes with enough hardships, in and of itself, but since I abandoned an unhealthy relationship that I fostered for a few years, I began to seethe consequences of my own naivety more clearly as well. None of us need to shop for opportunities for hardship. They find us and are a part of life. I realized in my process of healing from that toxic relationship that I've written about over the past year, it seemed like I spent far too much time living my life with the whole purpose of avoiding pain. It's true in terms of my physical health because of a chronic injury, but I started to realize that the web created by toxic beliefs left me vulnerable emotionally, too.

A friend of mine fell and broke their hip, and I found myself thinking, “but for grace, there go I.” I thought of the fear of walking that many women struggle with after a hip fracture as well as a bad fall I'd taken during my last winter in Michigan. (I became airborne after slipping on ice, found myself horizontal in the air for a moment, and then I hit the pavement with a thud, wondering if I'd lost consciousness and whether I might have a concussion.) When I considered how fragile we human creatures can be, I thought of just how much of a motivator that the avoidance of emotional pain created for me, too. At the time of the fall, I was spent two sessions a week with a trauma therapist, and I had enough healing to consider that too much of my life centered around the avoidance of pain. When I heard of my friend's misfortune, I decided that I was still engaged in too much surviving and not nearly enough thriving.

The Pain and Effort of Finding Balance

I found myself thinking about powerlessness again and the great emotional pain that I was still carrying with me, even though I'd abandoned that toxic relationship. I'd also thought again of the false idea that balance is a state of ease rather than the result of much effort. Physical pain makes that effort that much more difficult, and I found myself becoming acutely aware of my fantasy idea about the way ballerinas make balance look nearly effortless. When trudging through the grief that came in the wake of moving on from that bad relationship, I started to grasp new insight about the connection between fantasy and optimism.

Healthy optimism takes this world as it is, and it sets realistic expectations based on an accurate view of of reality. As I eased back into an exercise routine during the spring after that terrible fall, I found myself thinking that emotional balance may actually require more work than developing and maintaining physical balance. It is lovely to look at a ballerina and because of their superior skill believe that balance is an effortless, ephemeral mystery. It is entirely another matter to build one's abdominal core and tolerate a ballet stretch. I have a balance beam in my home, and I still struggle to position my leg on it – and I look absolutely nothing like a ballerina.

As I revisited these thoughts recently, I could see how the fibers of my web of thoughts affected one another. If one is without worth, they are not worth the effort of defending that worth. Likewise, making the choice to be healthy and work at physical balance requires effort, but what motivates a person to make that effort if they believe that they are not worth it? In that sense, worth also becomes an anchor for initiative and self-care. It is not easy to negotiate a relationship with optimism following a trauma, and it's that much harder for a person who had no healthy examples of a balanced life as a guide for them. They are learning as they go, just as I am.

Realistic Hope

That idea of initiative brought me back to the line in the Serenity Prayer about living each moment at a time and enjoying it fully. Somehow by fully embracing joy wherever it happens to show up, our optimism grows. It is that very optimism that gives us the ability to consider that hardships can become a pathway to peace for us. This doesn't emerge from a sick sense of martyrdom, but acceptance of self and love for self enable us to accept the world as it is. In turn, we human beings can avoid the traps created by unrealistic expectations that only result in feelings of disappointment, we waste less energy and find that far more of our hopes are fulfilled.

I've spent so much of my life trying to remain true to this unwritten contract that my family of origin seems to have assigned to me. Some of that had to do with circumstances, and some of it had to do with both illness that affected our family. In addition, with life already given to struggle and hardship, my family had been deeply wounded and changed by trauma. What all of that produced became more about survival than embracing life, and joy primarily came through fantasy. The trauma of the world, in its bitter reality, was just too much. Habits that are hard to break solidified into a script that my parents expected me to read and act. Love became duty. Entitlement made havoc of that duty. And I became weary of it all.

Optimism As Contingent Upon Love

When I first sought counsel for so many wounds, I spent years working on rooting out and hunting down those toxic beliefs about myself and the world and how I fit into it. I had to learn how to love myself, and I suppose like any other love relationship, loving and caring for myself in a healthy way requires some effort. It requires a degree of optimism which love nurtures within me. If I have intrinsic worth that is not dependent on anything else but who I am, I am lovable, and I am worth the effort.

I spent so much of my life and my effort trying desperately to make my family's own crazy way of coping by making me into a scapegoat. I came to the place where I had to continue in the self-destructive abandonment to optimism without credulity or choose to figure out this mystery of serenity. I could do none of that without self-love. And like a spider's web that anchors strands of silk to hold the remarkably strong network together, without love for myself first, I could not begin to approach serenity.

In counseling, my therapist used the analogy of the tensile strength ofa strand of spider's web as an analogy for the negative beliefs that kept me bound to dysfunction. Some of them were loathe to loosen and break away, but she diligently worked with me as I walked through so many toxic beliefs until they no longer held me captive.

What amazes me is that I honestly believed that when I sought therapy, I believed that the primary objective involved “fixing myself” so that I could “fix” the broken relationship with my parents. I could prove that I met that goal when I developed the ability to withstand the abuse that my parents heaped on me. I suddenly saw an image of love for self as the indelible and indispensable element necessary for acceptance, joy, patience, serenity, wisdom, and optimism to exist.

And that frenetic anxiety and fear melted away. I think that it came from some deep knowing that I could not be healthy without loving myself, anything I did would be futile. I ran out of energy and hope in the fantasy for the satisfaction of stable and predictable outcomes. Anxiety comes because I know from experience what “one-up-manship” feels like, even though I don't want to acknowledge it. It's even harder still to accept it, as I don't like to be that pessimistic. But it's not pessimism at all. It's wisdom.

I tell myself that I don't see it coming, but that's what that frenzied anxiety tells me. Out of love for myself, I've come to believe that I would do well to heed that sign and walk away. My heart of hearts knows when I'm dealing with someone who sees my needs and feelings as secondary. And I have to remain true to the love that I have for self by either challenging that kind of treatment or by walking away from those who would treat me as such.

(If I have to put up with such,
they'd better pay me a LOT of money to do so.)

Spiders are amazing creatures, and their webs and skill constitute nothing less than an engineering marvel. I am reminded of the analogy that my counselor drew that day when she likened beliefs to the strength of a strand of a spider's silk. I may continue to find aging cobwebs of toxic beliefs in my mind and heart for the rest of my life. Living is a process of growth and change, and that always requires work. Finding balance is a process of adapting to a host of changes and conditions to find that sweet spot of beautiful stability.

But I'm also reminded of that which Corrie ten Boom stated was the strongest force in the universe – It is love.

May love continue to hold my serenity, my ever-growing ability to accept the world as it is as well as my own limitations, my joy, and sense of piece with a strength that the strongest spider's silk can never rival. Spiders must maintain and repair their webs, so by analogy, maintaining what I've learned in this process will be some work to accomplish. But I am worth it. After all, love doesn't disappoint, and it never fails.

For Further Reading: