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What Makes Me Think My Colon is So Special? Hope, Optimism, and Narcissism

Just over two weeks ago, I had a sigmoidectomy. All literature states that it typically involves a 2-5 day stay in the hospital, and 6 weeks for recovery, with additional restrictions for the first 2 weeks—including not working and eating a low fiber diet. Prior to the surgery, I decided that I would require 2 days in the hospital and that I would be able to resume full activities in 2 weeks. Somehow, I skimmed right over the recommended 2 weeks off work, and scheduled myself back to full commitments (including teaching in-person) after a week. Apparently, my grandiose thinking extends to thinking that my colon has special healing properties.


The surgeon was happy with how the sigmoidectomy went. Great! Unknown at that time, in the stapling of my colon back together, a vein was ruptured. For two days, I hemorrhaged. Fortunately, it did clot—I didn’t need a blood transfusion or emergency surgery. But, I did require a 5-day hospital stay, as they watched my progress. I am grateful for the exceptional care I received—I wouldn’t have wanted to go home any sooner.

However, I was a little shocked—this wasn’t what I had planned.  My recovery required the maximum, rather than the minimum, hospital stay. Still, surely once I got home, I would make up for this lost time by healing rapidly.

I still wasn’t aware of the magnitude of my delusional optimism until I hit the two-weeks-post-surgery date. When that day came, I was extremely fatigued. The three long rests that I took were required, not optional. I could walk only about half as far as I had the day before. I was devastated that I wasn’t “all better.” I thought I would be back to yoga and biking by now. Instead, I could barely walk from bench to bench along the paved creek path, with a large ice pack strapped to my abdomen—and needed a nap both before and after my “stroll” (my euphemistic term for hobbling gingerly).

Suddenly, I realized my expectations of colon superiority.

I write and lecture on the threat of toxic positivity. Yet, here I was expecting that I would—should—heal faster than normal. Unawares, I held the belief that anything less than being “colon exceptional” was a sign of weakness or lack of effort.


Hope is a double-edged sword. Zeus gave Epimetheus and Pandora a wedding present—either a box or jar, depending on the version. When Pandora opened the gift, human misfortune spilled out with hope, blind, fluttering at the edge. Hope can be interpreted as the sole comfort in misfortune—or the compounder of all other misfortunes. Author and podcaster Glennon Doyle and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believe the latter. As Nietzsche opined,

Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.

Zeus’s gift was vengeful; whether he included hope to soften the blow or compound it is debated. Hoping that I would recover more quickly than I have led to increased suffering—as I tried to do too much, possibly setting my recovery back, and berated myself for not being able to do what I had expected.


Related to hope is optimism. Although there are semantic arguments, hope can be defined as situation-specific, whereas optimism is a personality trait or life-orientation—the belief that good will ultimately prevail over evil. Optimism leads us to act in the present, because we believe in our ability to create a desired future.  Psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted research suggesting that optimism, although it may be less accurate than pessimism, leads to greater happiness and life satisfaction. Seligman advocates that we teach optimism to children (and ourselves) to promote resilience to depression. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have best captured the optimistic stance, in his famous 1965 sermon,

We shall overcome.  We shall overcome.  Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.  And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Without Dr. King’s words as my foundation, it would have been difficult to sustain a two-plus decade career in school psychology.

But, just like hope, optimism has a shadow side. Untempered by reality, optimism can become excessive and delusional. Excessive optimism can lead to denial of obstacles and inequities. We can unwisely pursue goals, overemphasizing the potential benefits and underestimating likely costs. This is well-documented in the business world (see for example, Harvard Business Review). In our capitalistic, competitive society, delusional optimism is lauded as the means to be highly successful. Looking back on my career, I ate from that poisoned apple. No matter how overwhelmed I might be in the present moment, I always believed that, in the future, I would have a greater capacity, and so would commit to additional opportunities.


What my ridiculous colon delusion caused me to see was that optimism can veil a belief in exceptionalism.

Why would I think that my colon was special in its ability to heal? Because my insecurities led to needing this to be true. And, I am not alone. Most of us have a bit of narcissism. Although a  full-blown narcissistic personality disorders (NPD) is rare (affecting approximately 6% of the population), many of us believe that we are above average on the silliest of traits for which we have very limited evidence. In academia, narcissism is ubiquitous. 

Narcissism comes in two flavors: grandiose and vulnerable. Those with grandiose narcissism are convinced of their exceptionality, making them highly confident and insensitive. Others, like me, with vulnerable narcissism vacillate between feeling inferior and superior, and become anxious if their specialness is not reinforced. My sigmoidectomy recovery trajectory has shown my lack of specialness—my colon (and the rest of me) is human and vulnerable, lucky if it heals in the typical timeline.

Narcissus died of heartbreak, staring at his reflection in a pool. Now, when I see daffodils welcoming spring, I hope—pun intended—I will remember my colon superiority delusion and look for how my hopes and optimism might be covering vulnerable narcissistic beliefs.

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