Optimism, Pessimism, Pragmatism — A Kaleidoscope of Coping Skills for MS

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When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 13 years ago, I didn’t know what to expect or how to feel. I do remember crying a lot out of fear and uncertainty about what MS meant for my future. But what I wasn’t thinking about at the time was how I wanted to approach that future — what type of attitude would best suit me in the “fight” against MS.

Four attitudes about MS

1. “I have MS, but MS doesn’t have me!”

Attitude makes a huge difference in how we view situations. I don’t remember the first time I heard this phrase — “I have MS, but MS doesn’t have me!” — but for some people, these words represent a way of thinking that focuses on not letting MS get the better of you -- not letting it take over your world or keep you in a stranglehold. The phrase seems to be popular with people who have not lived with MS for many years or who haven’t experienced significant disability. I think that an optimist might use this phrase as part of their arsenal in their fight against MS.

2. “MS sucks!”

Now this is a phrase I remember encountering early on as I ventured into the online MS community. “MS sucks!” seems to be everywhere — T-shirts, memes, hashtags, social media profiles, dedicated MS groups, and more. On the surface, “MS sucks!” seems to represent a pessimistic view on the disease that is fueled by anger and disappointment. But it could also be part of the acceptance stage to acknowledge that, yes, sometimes the effects of MS are unfair and undeserved.

3. “MS is the best thing that ever happened to me!”

Ok, so that quote is fabricated, but I have heard stories from people with MS who made lifestyle changes after their diagnosis that actually did improve their lives. Perhaps they began to eat better and exercise regularly, which resulted in a healthier, stronger body. Maybe they got their financial matters in order and made investments or economic changes that will pay off during retirement (even if it is an early retirement due to disability). This optimistic view seems to be one made in hindsight after someone’s been prompted to take action to change the trajectory of their life. It puts a positive spin on how one copes when faced with challenges.

4. “It is what it is!”

This phrase seems so simple when taken at face value, but I think it has many subtle or implied meanings. “It is what it is” might be a recognition that sometimes life is difficult, but we have to cope as best we can and move forward. It might be the equivalent of a shrug, sense of ambivalence, or resignation of fate that the current situation cannot be changed. But “it is what it is” might also spark a challenge to the status quo and encourage someone to imagine the potential of what could be, particularly in a world that is never static and always ever changing.

Optimism, pessimism, pragmatism

I was recently thinking about whether being an optimist or pessimist serves me better as a person living with chronic illness. I’m not entirely sure, but the question led me to consider a different option — the pragmatist.

In general, I consider myself to be fairly optimistic with a high sense of self-efficacy. I have confidence that if I use my problem-solving skills and apply myself to a given situation, I can control or at least reduce potential outcomes to ones that I desire, most of the time. When something doesn’t work out, it provides additional information to consider for the next time. I’ve noticed that optimism seems to work in my favor and support a personal confirmation bias when things work out well.

But then there are times that I may not feel quite so chipper about a situation. That’s when the pessimistic side of me comes out with thoughts like “darn, I just knew that [something bad] was going to happen.” Or “there’s nothing I can do about it; everything’s out of my control.” I’ve noticed that this voice enters my thoughts when other people are involved and I actually do have less control over my own situation. Pessimism makes me feel anxious and somewhat powerless to change my circumstances. I don’t like it. It tends to breed depression and unhappiness.

Instead, I think I tend to be more pragmatic; more realistic in my outlook on what is possible, what has been, and what may be. I prefer to acknowledge where I am at the moment and consider ways to get to where I want to be, no matter how difficult the path. Giving up or hoping for the best do not seem to be practical solutions to any given problem.

As a pragmatist, or perhaps a practical realist, I have an understanding that MS can totally suck. I also know that MS can prompt people to make small changes that have great positive impact. Likewise, people with MS are often resilient and capable of living their best lives possible despite what obstacles MS may place in their way. These are understandings that have come from personal experience and exposure to the many ways that people deal with MS.

Perspective is everything

So which attitude is better for MS: optimism, pessimism, or pragmatism? My personal belief is that each serves a different purpose. Nobody can be only one thing or have a single viewpoint. We are multi-faceted individuals complete with complex emotions and wide variety of experiences upon which build our fortress of coping skills.

So if you are newly diagnosed and you feel inspired by the “MS doesn’t have me” viewpoint, then go with it!! If MS has wreaked havoc on your life, totally acknowledge that it sucks. But please know that there are always ways to help yourself. Choose one thing each day to focus on that utilizes your literal and figurative full range of motion.

It is only by living with MS for so many years that I can look back and see what has worked for me and what has worked for others in coping with this disease. Each of our perspectives are unique, but they mean everything when we choose to be an optimist, pessimist, realist, or pragmatist. It is the full kaleidoscope of attitudes, outlooks, emotions, and experiences that help me to move forward with this disease.

See more helpful articles:

The Only Resolution You Need to Make

Life With MS: It’s Okay to be Okay! A Gratitude Friday Post

Facing Depression and Anxiety With MS

How Does Personality Affect Cognition in MS?