Tales From The Therapist's Couch: 'Looking on the bright side is naive, but not life-threatening. Pessimism, however, can be fatal'

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The woman sitting opposite me has a look of surprise on her face. She's been telling me about a dinner party she went to, and the unexpected excitement in her voice reveals the pleasure she got from the occasion. Usually, her descriptions of life events are delivered in a tone of bleak resignation and pessimism, and this new perkiness in her tone is at odds with her longstanding habit of looking at life through a very dark lens.

The woman sitting opposite me has a look of surprise on her face. She's been telling me about a dinner party she went to, and the unexpected excitement in her voice reveals the pleasure she got from the occasion. Usually, her descriptions of life events are delivered in a tone of bleak resignation and pessimism, and this new perkiness in her tone is at odds with her longstanding habit of looking at life through a very dark lens.

Pessimism. Most of us know moments of it, but most of us seesaw between moods of bleakness, when we feel overwhelmed by all that is tragic in life, and moods of optimism, when life sings, the sky is blue and all seems worth striving for. Freud described this vacillating struggle between hope and despair as springing from a fundamental conflict within each of us: the battle between the force towards life and the drive towards death. Borrowing from Greek mythology, he termed it the conflict between Eros and Thanatos. Eros is the life instinct in us and usually the more dominant of the two, embracing the flow and flux of the new and unknown with a confident and healthy appetite. It fills us with the desire to form loving, lasting relationships and to make the world we inhabit a better place. We experience Thanatos when this optimism becomes overshadowed by the recognition of how hard it is to form relationships and how much destructiveness lies within and around us.

For some people, such as the woman above, an extreme imbalance between these forces has developed. Instead of there being a natural, if painful, conflict between hope and despair, a mood of pessimism predominates. In this woman's case, the reasons for her feelings of futility and hopelessness were rooted in her childhood. When she was about 10 years old, her parents died in a car accident. A few years later, her adoptive parents went through an acrimonious divorce. Life had dealt her some very bleak cards: the message that something bad was around the corner and that loving relationships couldn't be trusted had been etched deep. Ever so slowly, she was re-learning to trust the world of relationships and to give up her lopsided dependence upon pessimism.

For most people, the habit of looking at life through a bleak and dark glass is triggered by a less tragic backdrop. Pessimism often predominates at particular times in life, such as during adolescence, when states of mind fluctuate wildly from extremes of hope to despair.

There is, however, an essential difference between moods of extreme optimism and pessimism. Optimism involves reaching out to others with a love of, and trust in, life. Always looking on the bright side may be naive, but it is not life-threatening. An overdose of pessimism can, however, be fatal. By its very nature, pessimism cuts people off from others. In its most worrying and lonely form, this longing to disengage can lead to a desire for death.

As with any psychic extreme, this one-sidedness can be shifted. Once this woman had become aware of how suppressed her capacity for optimism had become, she was surprised and at times daunted by how difficult the pessimism was to challenge. But today, often surprised by joy, she is firmly on the winning side.

Once we understand why we see ourselves and our world in the way that we do, it becomes possible both to challenge and to change the lens. We all need knowledge of both Eros and Thanatos to make sense of our inner and outer wars and worlds. If pessimism is too dominant in our way of relating to the world, it is important to remember that we can redress the balance. The life force, or Eros, is robustly rooted in all our psyches, waiting to be tapped.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

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