My Calm Optimism Makes Others Cry

Apparently, two seemingly decent personality traits can become harmful when combined – the ability to stay calm and the ability to remain positive. For me personally, these two traits are excellent coping mechanisms that prove useful in getting through the day. For those around me, I wonder if they sometimes perceive that I don’t care about their issues, problems, or thoughts. Let me explain.

As part of a preplanning workshop on design thinking, I showed our middle school teachers this video on the power of empathy:

Suddenly I realized I was an “at leaster.” Typically in the past, rather than listening sympathetically to a friend or colleague’s problems, I would silver-line the issue, pointing out the positive:

“At least that you’ll know how to do this differently next year.”

“At least you can spend time with your awesome friends while your (ex?)boyfriend figures out what he’s doing with this life.”

But I’ve learned that pointing out the positive is not enough, especially without even acknowledging the negative. Sometimes people need to hear the words, “Oh no. I am so sorry. I know that is stressful/frustrating/uncomfortable/painful/sucky/not fun. It’s going to be ok.”

So this summer, in two different encounters with two different people, my best intentions backfired. Each person approached me with an urgent need that was causing them stress. I responded in a way that I assumed was calm and reassuring and optimistic, but the next thing I knew, they had burst into tears. Not exactly the response I was hoping for. Apparently me cheerfully saying “Oh ok, we’ll take care of it” or “Let me know how I can help” wasn’t enough. While I thought I was exuding calm, they perceived a lack of understanding on my part because I showed little emotion in my response to them. Their tears were signs of frustration, stemming from my lack of sympathy in my response. My counterparts did not perceive that I understood the urgency/magnitude of their problem.

One of the two people came to me later and explained her perspective on our interaction, and I am so thankful she did. I genuinely had no idea that my calm optimistic nature could sometimes come across as flippant or insensitive. That’s the total opposite of how I want to be known! I am grateful for her feedback and the opportunity to learn and grow from these experiences.

Now the challenge is balancing my natural buoyant optimism with empathetic listening when others approach me for help with a frustrating situation or stressful need. At least I’m doing better than before.


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