“Pessimists have only pleasant surprises.”
Long before I knew a name to put to the practice of defensive pessimism or read Mr. Wolfe’s wise words, I found myself using a strategy that I thought of as “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” I knew that by setting low expectations, I would be disappointed less often. The problem with my own, off-brand version of defensive pessimism was the “hope for the best part.” Now, I’m not knocking hope in general–just my own tendency to imagine catastrophic scenarios and agonize over them and make everyone around me miserable by whining about them, all while secretly feeling, in my heart of hearts, that everything would work out exactly as I wanted it to.
I am about 90% pessimist, but that 10% optimist is a hearty gal and is enough to bring me supreme disappointment when things don’t turn out best-case scenario, even if the worst-case scenario that I imagined doesn’t happen either.
So basically, when I unconsciously practice my instinctual defensive pessimism, I sort of half-ass it. And my half-assing acts as a double-edged sword. (This isn’t a math blog, so I don’t care if that doesn’t add up.) I enjoy all the misery and anxiety of a pessimist, all while experiencing the let-down of a disappointed optimist.
For a long time, my anxiety was one of the main motivating factors that forced me to do things. “Doing things” here encompasses school-work, work-work, friendship maintenance, household chores, and general giving of shits. But anxiety gets old–fast. So, a little over a year ago, I let myself stop caring so much about those things. I must say, it did initially reduce my anxiety a lot. I was probably quarter-assing defensive pessimism at this point, so I certainly wasn’t getting any of the benefits that Julie Norem talks about.
It did sorta-kinda work for me though, for a bit anyways. However, as just about anyone could have seen (myself not included) it ended up making my stress and anxiety worse in the long-term. For me, uncertainty about the future causes a lot of stress, and by avoiding acutely stressful things, I was making my stress worse overall.
For example, by putting off making any decisions about graduate school, I’ve landed myself in a position where I am unprepared to go to grad school next year and must look for a job instead. And by not thinking too hard about what kind of job I want until very recently, I’ve increased my stress there as well. Seeing a pattern?
Avoiding minor stressors has landed me in a substantial amount of major stress.
Hence the starting a blog, researching defensive pessimism, and generally deciding to give a few more shits and whole-ass more things. (I probably could have said fewer profanities in that previous sentence, but it wouldn’t have felt as heartfelt to me if I had. I apologize.)
I’ve realized that it is impossible to avoid anxiety indefinitely. I want to find things I care about, try new things, and embrace pessimism and anxiety in a constructive way.