How can naïve optimists learn to be more realistic?

Optimistic red and yellow smiley faces on balloons

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Expecting everything to always work out for the best may seem a pleasant way to live. Naïve optimists trust that all will be well without their input, regardless of the circumstances. But if your beliefs about life are too rosy, you can be shocked when problems occur. Improve your emotional resilience as a naïve optimist by learning to be more realistic. 

If you’re a naïve optimist, unfortunately some beliefs you hold can cause distress in the long run. And yet that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid.

So let’s look more closely at some of these beliefs. Find out how always being so positive can actually backfire on you. 

Belief 1: Most people have your values

If you’re a naïve optimist, you tend to think most people have the same values as you. So you find it hard to understand that others can behave badly. You may then miss or even deny obvious signs of underhand behaviour.

Unfortunately, this can leave you open to manipulation by others.

Unaware of manipulation

For instance, you don’t realise a friend is undermining you to make herself look better. Or you don’t realise your partner blames you for their mistakes. At work, you don’t recognise subtle sexism or racism.

Believing that others live by your values blinds you to people who put themselves first.

Some are selfish because of temporary stress in their lives. But others have little empathy or remorse at the best of times. They won’t hesitate to harm you to further their own interests.

To them, anyone who doesn’t look out for themselves is fair game. And you don’t want to be caught in their trap.

So don’t assume that everyone follows the same standards that you do. Naïve optimists can learn to be more realistic in how they view others’ intentions. 

Belief 2: Intuition is the best guide in life

In theory, relying on intuition to guide you through life sounds wonderful. However, it can lead to some impulsive decisions.

If your intuition tells you a situation looks great, you may not consider the negative side. Not noticing warning signs of problems, you may overestimate how easily you’ll manage.

Sadly, your sense of security and competence will be shattered if things go haywire. Surprised and puzzled, you ask yourself how that could have happened.

Risk of exploitation

Relying on your intuition about other people may also lead you astray. If you believe you can tell how trustworthy others are, you may not realise you’re mistaken.

Again, this makes it easy for devious people to exploit you.

For example, let’s say that you live alone. You’re strongly attracted to a new acquaintance who seems caring and trustworthy. This person tells you that their “crazy ex-partner” made them lose their job, house and children.

Now, they may well be telling the truth. On the other hand, perhaps they’re not.

If you’re a naïve optimist, you may be filled with sympathy for this person. You’re so affected by their story that you don’t consider it’s one-sided. You may even feel flattered when this person moves in with you after only a few weeks. But you’re sure it’ll work out for you both.

However, allowing a relative stranger into your life on a whim can lead to issues. You may be stunned when they later demand control of your finances, or treat your property as theirs.

Of course, being mistrustful of everyone isn’t helpful. But neither are decisions based solely on intuition. Far better to have concrete evidence to back up your hunches. As a naïve optimist, being more realistic in the way you make decisions is vital. 

Belief 3: You should always be positive

In the above example, you may have made excuses at first for this person’s behaviour. Being a naïve optimist, you hoped they’d change without the need for confrontation. Your wish to stay positive made you overlook what was happening.

Because there’s a pay-off for avoiding reality.

If you stay quiet and keep everyone happy, you don’t have to admit your fears. You avoid angry scenes that could lead to criticism, or even rejection and loss. It’s easier to remain “unaware.” That way, you can keep hoping that everything will be fine.

Neglecting your own interests

Sometimes you may give in to others, because you want to be kind. You want to think the best of everyone. And that’s admirable – up to a point. Just make sure in the process you don’t overlook your own interests.

For example, you may welcome back into your life people who’ve behaved badly. Because your intuition tells you that they’ve changed, you give them another chance. And you’re certain they’ll treat you well this time.

But how do you know they’ve changed? And changed not for a few days or weeks, but over a long period of time.

Their telling you that they’ve changed isn’t enough. Anyone can say that. It’s how they behave that’s important.

Have they made amends to those they hurt? Or have they flicked aside their past actions, made excuses and blamed others?

Where’s the evidence that they’re acting differently? Your intuition isn’t enough.

Learn to strike a sensible balance between caring for others and for yourself.

Belief 4: Life should run smoothly

Naïve optimists want life to run smoothly, with no inconveniences. But just wishing can’t make this happen. Life is messy and unpredictable. So why cling to this demand?

Fear of negative emotions

If you don’t like negative emotions such as fear, sadness and anger, you may believe these emotions will overwhelm you. So naïve optimists may worry they won’t be able to tolerate these feelings if something goes wrong. You may also dislike the uncertainty of not knowing the future for sure.

This makes you want everything to turn out well all the time.

But here’s the irony. Expecting life to be perfect dooms naïve optimists to disappointment. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Relying solely on hope that everything will be fine doesn’t provide a plan to follow if events turn sour.

So having the belief that life should run smoothly causes naïve optimists to be thrown by any problem, large or small.

Misjudging effort needed

Naïve optimists may also be taken aback if it’s harder to reach their goals than they expected.

For example, when you see others succeeding easily, you assume you’ll do the same. So when a task is harder than expected, you’re puzzled. And so you may assume that you’ve failed, and give up.

One reason for this may be that you misjudge the effort needed to succeed. You may not realise how much and how hard high achievers work behind the scenes. Or that even small tasks sometimes take a long time to finish.

Having such unrealistic expectations can therefore reduce your ability to persist in the face of difficulties. Naïve optimists benefit by making more realistic assessments ahead of time for tasks they undertake. 

Belief 5: It’s better to avoid reality

As mentioned, naïve optimists dislike negative emotions and suppress thoughts of bad events. Ironically, suppressing unpleasant thoughts causes them to come back more often. And they’ll be more intense than before.

Therefore, trying to eliminate worry has the opposite effect. That makes it even harder for naïve optimists to preserve their relentless positivity. And of course, the negative thoughts keep popping back, and need to be suppressed even more.

Denial of reality

So it takes a lot of energy to deny reality. After all, the media constantly provides examples of liars, cheats, thieves, petty scammers and violent criminals. Reports of natural disasters and man-made catastrophes permeate our lives.

Of course, it’s not healthy to worry about bad things that might happen. However, it’s also not helpful to assume you’ll never be affected. A false sense of security can also distance you from other people’s traumatic experiences. You don’t want to be reminded of the worst aspects of life, and so gloss over their stories.

Perhaps as a naïve optimist, you feel helpless when you hear of bad things happening. Your belief that everything should turn out for the best may be shaken. Suppressing these thoughts lets you tell yourself it’s nothing to do with you. That keeps your positive expectations intact for the time being.

Not learning from experience

Naïve optimists don’t seem to notice the way others deal with difficulties. It’s as if you don’t see these issues as relating to you. Perhaps this is also due to a wish to deny reality.

Not wanting advice

So naïve optimists don’t always welcome advice, even if it’s sensible. Warnings about potential problems seem too annoying or depressing. You’d prefer that others help preserve your positive world view.

However, naïve optimists may then have trouble adapting to fast-moving situations like the COVID pandemic. Instead of taking action to deal with the situation, you focus more on your emotions.

Your strong sense of unfairness at the disruption can stop you making the best of the situation.

Unfortunately, pushing aside reality also has a way of backfiring on you. Unacknowledged problems start to pile up, and soon you’re having trouble keeping your head above water.

Being a realistic optimist

As the above shows, there are many disadvantages to being a naïve optimist.

If you’re an naïve optimist, see if you can move your thinking away from simply hoping for the best. Review your beliefs and move from being a naïve optimist to a realistic optimist if you can. 

But to do this, you’ll need to learn to tolerate the negative emotions that come with facing life as it is. Not as you want it to be.

Learning to notice warning signs of impending problems will also help. Watch how others who seem to cope successfully plan ahead to manage life’s unpredictability. Consider issues you may face, rather than dismissing them. Then you’ll be more likely to take effective action where needed.

Far better to trust your ability to solve problems, than rely on luck and intuition. Are you ready to change how you think and act?

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