The Difference Between Being Realistic, Optimistic, and Pessimistic

Debby Downer

There seems to be confusion over being realistic, optimistic, or pessimistic. To explain the differences better, here is an example from my own personal experience.

When I first considered having surgery to help with my epilepsy the doctor gave me all the data, statistics, and science behind it. What it came down to was that 80% of people who have the surgery become seizure free. As far as the other 20%, they see a reduction or no change at all. Also, she made sure that if I was in the 80% range, I would be able to reduce my medication. She made it very clear that I will never be able to get off of it completely.

I walked into that hospital 2 years ago today, taking into account those outcomes. I prepared myself for what could happen. At the time, friends and family encouraged me to be positive that I would become seizure free. When I responded with, “Yes, I am hoping that this will work. However, there is a chance that I’ll fall into that 20% range.”

Some people said I was being negative based on that line of thought. Those that choose to be positive that I would be seizure free, didn’t take into account the data given to them. When I reminded them of it, they said I was being too negative.

3-months later, I had a breakthrough seizure. It was upsetting, but I had to look at it in a positive light. Seize the World, a nonprofit located in Boulder CO, best explained my line of thought:

“For now, Danielle is taking a cautious approach and gauging how she responds to the aftermath of her surgery. To this point, it has undoubtedly decreased the episode frequency she was experiencing. ‘I was having one or two a month. It’s now been six months and I’ve only had three seizures in that time.’ She’s very excited about that fact. If and when they are able to eliminate all of the abnormal brain tissue, those seizures may seize to exist altogether.”

I took a realistic approach going into the surgery and then stayed positive even after my first seizure. So why did some accuse me of being a pessimist?

These three terms can get a little cloudy which makes these accusations unfair. To understand each, let’s break them down one by one.

Optimistic – Adjective. Hopeful and confident about the future.

An optimist pushes data and statistics aside and focuses on the positive outcomes. That isn’t a bad thing but can catch you off guard when things turn sour. However, a true optimist doesn’t let a negative outcome ruin their day. Consider getting punched in the face and then going about the day as if nothing had happened at all. Not many people can do that but perhaps Jack McBrayer from NBC award winning comedy, 30 Rock. I have never once seen that man frown!

Pessimistic – Adjective. Tending to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen.

The character Debby Downer from SNL is a good example of someone being a pessimist. Being a pessimist means you go out of your way to find the bad in a situation. You look at what is happening in the present and think that the worst outcome is going to happen no matter what. They key is looking ahead instead of living in the present. It is also taking those stats that you know and don’t bother at all with the 80%. Instead, you choose to focus on the 20%.


Realistic – Adjective. Having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected.

Someone who is realistic is perfectly balanced of being both an optimist and a pessimist. When a situation arises, they take the data and focus on the present moment. They don’t relive the past or look into the future. Instead of making a decision on whether to believe in the 80% or in the 20%, a realist sees the good in both.

Are there stuff in life that is okay to be totally one sided? Absolutely! Think about going to the DMV. I have never heard one person say that they enjoy going there. Or what about going on vacation? Everyone loves to do so! Nobody bothers to think about the possibilities of a delayed flight or bad weather ruining their time. All you think about is how exciting it is to leave your common surroundings and explore somewhere new.

There is something to be said about being realistic. It’s the best of both worlds and keeps you balanced. It keeps you in the present and prepares you for potential outcomes. Don’t look at things as either good or bad. Heroic or evil. Positive or negative. Look at things for how they are, accept it, and then go from there.

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