Tragic optimism anyone?

Sunday morning ramblings…

Is it just me or does it feel like everyone is on the ‘stop the toxic positivity’ bandwagon at the moment? ok ok I agree that toxic positivity needs to stop but… It came up again the other day for me when a friend shared a post about feeling angry and someone posted a comment about how toxic positivity is on the rampage. I think she meant to be supportive, to say that it’s ok to have ‘negative’ feelings. Why not just say that then? Seriously, how irritating! If you’re feeling angry, you don’t need a lecture on toxic positivity. Cold comfort.

My Scottish granny always used to say with a laugh, ‘better out than in!’ She was usually referring to farts but it extends to feelings as well. So, while I totally agree that blind positivity, ignoring or repressing feelings, is utterly harmful to our mental health in the long run- toxic in fact – I find myself somewhat annoyed by the harping on about toxic positivity at the faintest whiff of any positive comment. As a rather more positive minded person, perhaps my North American upbringing, I feel not all positivity is toxic. I have to believe that whatever I’m going through will be temporary and everything will be ok in the end. My granny was also of the school of if you fall down, have a good cry then pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get on with it. Can’t go through life wallowing in self-pity. Is there such a thing as positive positivity? Healthy positivity?

Anyway, got me thinking… and researching. I came across this article in Psychology Today about ‘tragic optimism’. Unfortunate name in my view but I quite like what’s behind it. According to the article, tragic optimism is the opposite of toxic positivity and is about owning your life story, not letting your story own you. I guess it’s about feeling your feelings, letting them out, acknowledging and respecting them and then picking yourself up and moving forward with meaning and purpose. Reminded me of my granny of course! Dr Frankl who came up with the term and concept was a Holocaust survivor and comes with lived experience. In fact, it’s resonated quite strongly with me after having worked in international development for many years in the area of resilience and refugee contexts. There are a few other interesting articles on this including these two from Rewriting the Rules and The Atlantic


The tragic triad is a term used in logotherapy, coined by Dr. Viktor Frankl. The tragic triad refers to three experiences which often lead to existential crisis, namely, guilt,  suffering  or death. The concept of the tragic triad is used in identifying the life meanings of patients, or the relatives of patients, experiencing guilt, suffering or death. These life meanings are analyzed using logotherapy’s existential analysis with the intent of assisting the patient overcome their existential crisis by discovering meaning or purpose in the experience. Frankl argued that all human beings at one point in their lives will encounter the tragic triad.

After my stroke, almost 2 years ago now, brought on by a stressful personal emotional event, I cried a lot. I couldn’t seem to stop the flow – tears escaped me at any excess of emotion whether happy, sad, or angry. For many months I was emotionally fragile. I think it was both a form of release and a breaker, in the sense that my body had set up a kind of short circuit mechanism for whenever emotional stress started to elevate or become too intense.

A lot of reflection went into my emotional fragility and the source of my suffering. I realised that I had been angry, which on closer inspection turned out to be mostly related to feeling hurt. Hurt from disappointment or rather expectations not met, betrayal of trust, hurt at having my values trampled – my sense of right, fairness and compassion. But most of all angry, angry at my own stupidity. It’s possible it all boils down to ego at the end of the day – a bruised ego perhaps? In any case, I had been angry, angry for a very long time and was utterly exhausted by it all – at the limit, at the tipping point. I had suppressed the anger, bottled it up, tried to ignore my feelings in support of others, tried to ‘stay positive’ until I couldn’t cope any longer et voila the stroke took the decision for me. I was forced to face the impact of long-held silent suffering in a very real and physical way.

As with any emotions, and grief is often cited as an example, you do not ‘get over’ the feeling of anger or hurt but learn to live with it or through it, learn from it and grow. In my case, I’ve learned to recognise and respect my feelings and limits, learned to prioritise my own well-being and set boundaries, learned ways to release tensions in a healthy way, and most of all learned to forgive myself. You can only be hurt if you make yourself vulnerable, if you love with an open heart. In forgiving myself, I stopped being angry with me for being ‘stupid’, allowing myself to be vulnerable to being hurt, and at the same time recognised that I have a great capacity to love… and that I too am deserving of my own love for myself. This is a beautiful thing.

Along a similar vein, Buddhist teachers talk about how to deal with or take care of your anger. They say anger is not something pleasant; it’s like mud but without mud you can’t grow the lotus flower. It’s useful and you mustn’t throw out your anger. You can make good use of your anger to grow the lotus of peace, joy, and forgiveness.

Recovery has been about about growing peace, joy, and forgiveness, about finding meaning and purpose, about regaining my optimism I suppose one could say through the experience. I use the word optimism here intentionally. As a friend recently commented, there is a significant difference between hope and optimism. Being hopeful is about surrendering your will to whatever might happen whereas optimism implies that you invest yourself, your energy, in achieving the desired outcome. Perhaps the reason Dr Frankl chose the word too? I’m still working on it of course. It’s an ongoing journey but things feel a lot more balanced. I cry a lot less, feel happy much more. Life goes on, in fact, life is very good and for this I feel grateful.

Recently, I developed some self-care tips based on my experience and recovery process – a whole person approach to well-being – for anyone needing a bit of support on a self-care journey.

Feel your feels folks! You don’t have to bottle them up and soldier on. Don’t wait till the effort of trying to carry on takes you to the tipping point of exhaustion, illness, unhealthy behaviours or addictions. Listen to your feelings and release the tensions in healthy ways. Whatever works for you! Scream into a pillow, climb a hill and howl at the moon, take a kick-boxing lesson or two, have a good cry, nourish yourself with a long soak in a fragrant bath, go for long walks and reconnect with nature, get creative and express yourself through writing or painting, reach out to your tribe and have a laugh with friends, chop those veggies harder if it helps and reach out to a therapist or a coach if you need more structured support – take time to feel and take time to think… about your feelings, your values, what matters to you! And, when you’re restored and ready, set your boundaries and get back on your horse with meaning and purpose!

Take care of you. Live well!

F ox

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