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Finding the Illusive Optimism Hidden Inside Us All

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” — Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)

In the film “Adaptation,” stressed-out screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother, Donald, who’s seemingly perfect. He’s everything Charlie’s not. No, Donald’s not the most handsome or successful guy in the world. What Donald has in spades is optimism.

He’s not afraid to try something new and he’s no stranger to failure. He’s not defined by how others perceive him, and he doesn’t let their opinions hold him back. He doesn’t anticipate the worst-case scenario, so he doesn’t live his life paralyzed by what-ifs.

It’s not that nothing bad has ever happened to Donald. It’s that Donald has better coping skills. He picks himself back up when met with adversity or failure. He’s not so deeply wounded by disappointment that he second guesses everything about himself or every decision he’s ever made. He doesn’t spend time harshly criticizing himself. If only we could all be a little more like Donald.

It can be difficult to stop negative self-talk in its tracks. So often self-defeating thoughts pop into our heads before we even know it.

The whole point of cognitive behavioral therapy, which I’ve had off and on for more than 10 years, is to find a faulty cognition that leads to unwanted feelings or behaviors and changing it to something more healthy. For instance, a person who believes every career move he or she tries is bound to fail won’t try anything new. CBT would aim to uncover not just the faulty belief that nothing will work out, but also the idea that if met with failure the person won’t be able to cope and recover. Therapy would aim at emphasizing both strengths and times when the person was successful at coping with adversity.

It can be very difficult to replace unhelpful, self-defeating, and perfectionist thoughts with new, positive ones. It takes practice, patience and a great deal of self-awareness. Sometimes, I find myself in a novel situation, one my therapist hasn’t helped me with, and I simply can’t come up with a new, positive perspective. So I’ve turned to my own Donald Kaufman, or rather my own imaginary twin named Sadie. I just ask myself “What would Sadie do?” and immediately I have access to more positive thinking.

The premise is this: It’s an identical twin, so we were born with all the same genetic material. She looks just like me and walks just like me. We grew up together and we’ve had similar experiences. Only my twin handles life the way I wish I did sometimes. For instance:

  • My twin wouldn’t automatically assume that one negative experience predicted a whole slew of negative experiences to follow.
  • My twin can stay in the present moment and appreciate the right now.
  • My twin lets rude encounters roll off her back and doesn’t obsess over them all day.
  • She’s too curious to be paralyzed by fear.
  • She’s too secure to care what other people think about her.

Trying to take the perspective of my “twin” gives me access to the person I really want to be. It helps me to prioritize in a whole new way. I can diffuse energy-zapping and frustrating situations and concentrate on more fulfilling things, such as gratitude. I can stop trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and torturing myself for eating carbs. I even have the tools now to stop anger in its tracks.

For instance, when I feel wrongfully attacked and become defensive, my heart rate goes up even before the wheels begin turning in my head. I feel the blood rush through my chest and think, “I don’t like this. I don’t want this to ‘get a rise out’ of me.” This is the perfect moment to stop and refrain from response. Instead, I really think carefully about my reaction, instead of firing back. “What if I didn’t do anything?” I wonder, “What if I just said nothing at all? I don’t want to deal with this and this isn’t worth the trouble.” Now that’s a whole new approach for me.

In my favorite scene from “Adaptation,” Charlie recalls a time in high school he saw his brother talking with a girl, Sarah, who he had a crush on. Immediately after Donald walked away from her, Sarah began “making fun” of him behind his back.

Donald: “I knew, I heard them.”

Charlie: “Well how come you were so happy?”

Donald: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”

Charlie: “But she thought you were pathetic.”

Donald: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”

Note: The 2002 film “Adaptation” was written by the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the new film “Anomalisa.” This article is about the fictional Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald as portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the movie “Adaptation. ” It is not about the actual New York City writer-director himself.

Little boy photo available from Shutterstock

Finding the Illusive Optimism Hidden Inside Us All

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Finding the Illusive Optimism Hidden Inside Us All. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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