When you know too much

Published on May 30, 2012 by      Print
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By Leslie Munday

My therapist and I got into a fight the other day. This is actually a frequent occurrence because we are completely different people with very different belief systems. The fight itself is less relevant than the cause: she’s a glass half full kind of gal whereas I tend to think things are more half empty.

That’s not to say that I mope around hating life all day every day, because I don’t. There are few things that bring me more joy in life than the sweet smell of eucalyptus outside of my house, the luxurious ritual of bath salts and reading in my nightly bath, or of two-stepping with one of my elderly clients. Christ, I freaking love old people.

But, there is also an ever-present, uncomfortable, and heavy angst that lingers just below the surface. Part of me feels ashamed to admit that; I worry people will judge me, feel sorry for me, or check me into the nearest mental hospital for observation to be sure I’m not having suicidal ideations or something dramatic like that. And the people I am most hesitant to admit this to are my old yoga pals, because thinking positively, or more accurately, speaking positively, is paramount in the yoga world.

I grew up in a family that was, as many families are, dysfunctional. We’ve all got our stories. My particular story sent me spiraling into an existential crisis at the age of three. Throughout the years, I’ve coped with the calamity in various ways: in middle school I was super uptight and tried to control everything, in high school I drank hella Budweiser, in college I drank more, and in graduate school and the ten years following, I did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga.

During my tenure as a yoga student, teacher, worshipper, and studio owner, I learned and then repeated every possible platitude ad nauseum. But no matter how many times I said them — and I really believed them! — they didn’t actually change anything for me.

Yes, they may have made me feel better in the moment, which has its merits, but I didn’t actually become a millionaire (Manifest abundance!), master handstand in the middle of the room (Mind over matter!), or write a New York Times best selling novel (Think positively!). Regardless, I convinced myself that if I said them enough, if I only believed them enough, things would somehow change. There’s a part of me now that feels like during those years of countless mantra chanting, I was just lying to myself. And perhaps to be happy and keep going, I had to.

I recently heard a Radiolab podcast about a study on self-deception from a bio/psycho/social perspective. The study suggests that people who self-deceive are happier than those that don’t. Conversely, people who are more realistic and actually see the world exactly how it is tend to be slightly more depressed than others. Ironically, upon hearing the conclusion of the study, I felt relieved because I fall into that category of “slightly more depressed” people. When I stop, look around, and honestly inventory the world around me, I see lots and lots of suffering and I feel really sad. In the past, I’ve wished I could be one of those people capable of convincing themselves otherwise, but denying that it’s out there just doesn’t work for me.

The older I get, the broader my awareness becomes, and the more honest I am about the realities of the world we live in – good and bad. And pretending that everything is “as it should be,” when some things just so obviously aren’t, feels like a big fat lie to me. And maybe honesty is more important than happiness.

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  1. Alice Riccardi says:

    I can relate to what you have written Leslie. I’ve come to realize over the years that too much positivity is unrealistic and only reinforces what is really underneath which is the fear that things are really as bad as we think and feel they are!

    Being with everything as it is without a positive spin is incredibly healthy, at least from where I stand. No matter who you are or who you know, you will wind up with some shit to deal with at some point, even if it is just your inevitable death. Maybe slightly depressed should be change to incredibly realistic and able to be OK with life not being perfect but always real.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and share your thoughts! See you on the flip side.

    • Leslie Munday says:

      Hi Alice! Slightly depressed = incredibly realistic = awesome. I can’t wait to say that one in therapy next week. She’s gonna love it. Thank you.

  2. Bob B. says:

    “Half of life sucks, chose to focus on the other half”~Bob’s Axiom #1. Once you accept this truth for as it is, depression seems so very trivial and life becomes what you make it.

  3. Matthew says:

    Nice writing and very good points. I think there is such a thing as a hopeful pessimist and you do a great job of describing that delicate balance.
    Side note: I find if I drink fast enough, it doesn’t matter how full my wine glass is.

  4. Max says:

    This is a very thoughtful article. I agree that self-deception and forced optimism isn’t a very healthy approach to life. That said, being realistic and accepting the world as it is has nothing to do with things being the way they “should” or “shouldn’t” be. In order to live in harmony with the world and really accept, you must stop imposing these ideals that come from a need for control and order. Life isn’t supposed to be a fair, and people aren’t just given happiness. There will always be a lot of suffering in the world, because most people, like Leslie, are seeking to find joy externally, with their senses and experiences (smelling the eucalyptus and taking a warm bath are wonderful, but transient pleasures).

    In the end, remember that Yoga is a tool, not an ideal world, and it guarantees nothing. More than anything, it requires discipline, and it can be misconstrued. Try another path in life, if you think it will work better, but in the end, it’s ENTIRELY UP TO YOU to make a difference in your life. Doing poses and reciting mantra is all a joke if you don’t have the will to actually make the change in your own life, and if you do, you don’t need those anyway.

  5. Julia says:

    The Tao says that: “A vessel is moulded from solid clay; its inner emptiness makes it useful (trans. by Brian Browne Walker)” Perhaps the glass as half-empty implies that one is aware of the vessel’s unused usefulness and the glass as half-full implies that one is unaware of the unused usefulness. Anne Carson said that “the poet is someone who… is provoked by a perception of absence within what others regard as a full and satisfactory present.” Being aware of emptiness, of absence is actually the perception of possibility. An empty glass can only be filled, with whatever you choose, but a full glass must first be emptied to become a possibility again.

  6. swami nobodhi says:

    It,s like this…. Before enlightenment, you are a dickhead. After enlightenment, you are still a dickhead……… but you know it.

  7. tecumseh says:

    YES YES YES! Thank you

    When we take human actions to be an inevitable part of “what is” we throw ethics, politics, justice, social contract and mercy all out the window.

    Human actions are open to criticism and resistance. They are not the same as rain and asteroids and cold viruses.

    Throwing out politics to become “spiritual” is a form of intellectual – and spiritual – death. It’s kitsch of the most profound kind. And, sadly, it is the essence of many west coast liberal new ageist attitudes.

    Good for you! Be strong in your reality perspective, and don’t be fooled by the Pollyannas and airheads.

  8. Laura says:

    Interesting. I’m in the latter category too. Though I must be a weird mixture, because I often find myself looking and hoping for the best in an idealistic way, then being disappointed and weirdly “told you so” about the whole thing when it’s over.

    As my dad would say, “That’s just life. You only have about 60 more years of it.”

    Seriously though, the abundance mantras never did it for me. Good friends tell me to do this and I just can’t get behind it.

  9. Cathy L says:

    Whoa! Great article. I, too, love old people! I see the glass half full. I feel that I am good-natured, and mostly happy, by choice. I love this site, and reflecting on everyone’s posts.

  10. Barb says:

    Bravo for you, Leslie, for admitting to being in therapy and having a different version of reality. In this stigma ridden society that took courage.

    My greatest concern about so called new age approaches to ‘mental health’ issues is the simplistic, “just believe hard enough, eat this not that, follow a guru, do your yoga/tai chi/meditation” and you will change and all will be well. And when this doesn’t work it leaves countless people blaming/shaming themselves because they ‘failed’.

    There are great variations in peoples intelligence, talents, ability to cope, body shape, physical health, and in their emotional responses. And that’s OK. We don’t have to be all happy happy, (or all bendy/twisty) to be content and accepting of ourselves and others.

  11. Laura says:

    Well-said. Pessimists do yoga! One doesn’t need to conform to a norm (Be happy to the point of self-delusion) to recognize the wisdom of yoga. Pessimism and optimism are character traits, one is no better than the other, we just have to work with what we’ve got.
    Unfortunately the valuable contribution of pessimism to the health of social groups is not acknowledged and i suspect that an excessive emphasis on optimism is alienating a large number of people who are made to feel there is something wrong with them. Pessimists do not stop at face value, they are inquisitive by nature. The majority of philosophers, poets, novelists and artists are pessimists and introverts. Our present economic crisis was caused by overconfident optimists in the financial sector. The glut of consumer goods and its correlate, environmental destruction, are created by the Pollyannas in suits. Cassandras tend to be pessimists but pessimism has no currency in our society. What is to be done? I sincerely hope that for every optimist out there there is at least an unrepentant pessimist who offers a different angle to the story..
    Do not ever let them tell you that there is something wrong with you for seeing the glass half empty. You are doing them a service for pointing out something optimists cannot see.

  12. @Vanessa__Bailey says:


    I recognise your words, and appreciate the sentiment. With the glass thing, I say: the 500ml glass contains 250ml water. If I’m thirsty, I’ll drink it; if not, it’s probably of no use to me now, but may be later. If I’m really really thirsty, it’s probably not enough water, in which case I expect I’ll get some more, or if there’s none availalble, I’ll quench my thirst a little before going on the hunt for more water. I reckon that makes me a realistic pragmatist.

    *happy crinkly eyed smile*

  13. J. Brown says:

    I too have always grappled with the notion that everything is “as it should be” or as the classical adage goes: “no steps need to be taken.” Sure feels like things are kind of messed up and some steps should be taken. Frankly, your therapist is paid to see the glass half full while she is in session with you. We have no idea how she see’s things when she is not working. I have a number of therapists who attend my class regularly and they got stuff to work through just like everyone else.

    However, from one cynic to another, I think we may be missing something here. The principle is not about everything being perfect or that we are feeling fantastic, only that we are OK with how things are. I always say to myself:

    There is nowhere you need to get to.
    Nothing needs to be done.
    Then, continue doing what you’re doing.

    The concept of “contentment” is more about an overarching perspective than the events on our daily planners.

    There is nothing naive or deluded about accepting that my pain and difficulty is not an indication that I am lacking or that something is wrong, but par for the course of human experience. Personal and financial responsibilities notwithstanding, the fickle nature of events makes struggling and worrying largely for naught. More importantly, pain and confusion can never fully eclipse the miracle of our own existence.

    Thanks for your honesty.

  14. C init says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned this. The optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist as half empty the realist discerns whether they even care about what’s in the glass, and the opportunist drinks it.
    Thanks for the posts and comments. Very interesting.
    I am a Cassandra by the way. My parents must have known something when they named me.

  15. Loren says:

    Optimism and pessimism are both engagements in speculation about the future. While speculation is fun and socially encouraged, it is not the same as accurate thinking.

    • Jenifer says:

      I have to agree with this, Loren.

      In general, I feel content/happy. But, what everyone has noted about me (professional therapists or average janes) is that i’m simply realistic and pragmatic.

      It’s more like “The 500 ml glass of water has 250 ml of water.” It has no meaning, it’s just factual. As another commenter posted, the practical application and “meaning” of this information is simply context dependent.

      Lots of terrible things are happening in the world. So are lots of good things. I have impact and the ability to act to aid toward some (to help the terrible, to participate in the good), and of course, I also cause suffering too, so I need to pay attention to that.

      But where I don’t have that power, I can only watch myself, my reactions. Can I simply observe it and be with that observation (that’s the buddhist compassion/wisdom thingy)? Or am I going to get caught in my own emotions, contextualizations — it’s full! it’s empty!?

      This is neither optimism nor pessimism. It’s just observing, and then acting as best one can in that situation (aka “right action”).

  16. Dana says:

    I can relate!

  17. Badyogi says:

    I recall a discussion during a teacher training many years ago in which the instructor was waxing eloquent on his Panglossian view of this as the “Best of all Possible Worlds.” I think we were reading an excerpt from Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha,” which I had read without understanding one word (along with everyone else in my high school) in 1971. (Yes, I’m an old person. I’m glad you like us.)

    Anyway, as an inveterate pessimist who grew up with relatives who had a series of numbers tattooed on their arms, I asked if, after a cataclysm like the Holocaust, one could comfortably assert that everything is just as it should be in the world. You would have thought that I had just told a particularly offensive, racist joke to judge by the reaction in the room. I particularly remember one woman saying, in such a cold fury that she couldn’t make eye contact with me, “Why do some people insist on holding onto the past?” That was followed by an unwittingly anti-semitic “explanation” of the Holocaust – from the instructor, no less – as the inevitable result of understandable resentment in Germany toward an overly-successful Jewish minority.

    Have a Nice Day!

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