Defensive Pessimism–The Way of the Worrier

I’m a pessimist. A worrier.

I sound like a lot of fun, don’t I? I could add some other things to that list, but I don’t want to scare everyone away.

Because in the U.S. of the 21st century, “pessimist” is practically a dirty word. Anyone been told to look on the bright side recently? Or to turn that frown upside-down? Raise your hand if you’ve been told in the last week, “Don’t worry about it–it’ll be fine!” There’s nothing wrong with optimism, but even water is lethal at high doses, and we live in a world that overdoses on positivity every day. Sometimes, realism is necessary, and realism often looks a heck of a lot like pessimism. Fortunately, there’s a form of pessimism–defensive pessimism–that can be very helpful.

We all know that a half-empty glass is also half-full. But if you want more water in your glass, you have to go fill it up! Rather than  saying, “Oh, my glass if half-full, I have all the water I need!” a defensive pessimist would say, “I’m going to get thirsty soon if my glass is half-empty, so I better go fill it up!” One of them is well-hydrated, and one of them is eyeing a bag of pretzels longingly, knowing that they’ll get too thirsty if they eat them, because they only have half a glass of water.

Now, I am not about to take credit for the term defensive pessimism. Psychologist Nancy Cantor and her students coined the term in the 1980s, and one of those students, Julie Norem, literally wrote the book on defensive pessimism–The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. In her book, Norem explains how the strategy of defensive pessimism can help people turn anxiety into action.

As described in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, defensive pessimism has a couple of key components:

  • Low expectations, but high standards
  • Pessimistic outlook on a future event
  • Reflecting on possible outcomes
  • Mental rehearsal of those outcomes (“coping imagery”)

In a series of studies conducted by Norem and others, blocking any of these components worsens a defensive pessimist’s performance on a task.

However, she is also clear that defensive pessimism is not a one-size-fits-all solution to finding happiness, conquering your personal demons, and gaining fame and fortune. Which is disappointing to me, as I am a lifelong defensive pessimist (since way before I knew there was a name for it), and I think I would make a fabulous rich person.

According to Norem, strategic optimists are the primary counterparts of defensive pessimists. These people are able to look on the bright side, see the glass as half-full, and attack a challenge with confidence. I envy them! But, as Norem explains, different people require different strategies to be successful and have happy and fulfilling lives. For example, anxious people (or worriers, some might say) are more likely to naturally employ defensive pessimism.

So if smiley-faces and silver linings aren’t working for you and you want to be free to frown sometimes and look at the dark part of the cloud, then try out the way of the worrier!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *