“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf…”
Defensive pessimism is a phenomenon in which people imagine worst-case scenarios to manage their anxiety.
But what defensive pessimists do next is an essential strategy for dealing with stress: They come up with strategies to avoid having all of those bad things happen, thus ending up better prepared and less anxious in the long-run.
If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel, and it’s hard not to feel that particular way at the moment. Often when you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually, people try to run away from the situation that makes them feel anxious, but there are other ways of dealing with it. And that’s when defensive pessimists have an upper hand.
They set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think, concretely and often vividly, of all ways that something might go wrong.
What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy and it helps them direct their energy toward productive activity.
How Defensive Pessimism Works
Public speaking is a perfect example of an anxiety-provoking activity with plenty of potential for creating disasters.
“I’m going to walk onto the stage and trip over the microphone cord. And I’m going to knock over the pitcher of water by the podium. And my powerpoint won’t work. And the audience is going to ask me questions and I won’t know the answer to them. They’ll be bored and my career will be over!”
But when one gets this anxious, one also starts to define some very clear steps to take to avoid these accidents from happening:
“I’m going to bring duct tape to tape the microphone cord down. I’m not going to wear high heels. I’m going to email my powerpoint to the AV director and bring my flash drive.”
With disasters have been imagined and plans made to safeguard from anything happening, things are likely to go well.
Defensive Pessimism: The Benefits and Drawbacks
The main advantage of defensive pessimism is that people tend to be better prepared. Creating solutions does not necessarily take away anxiety, and that is not the purpose of this article. However, it can help people feel more in control of their situation which can reduce worries.
There are drawbacks, though. The biggest negative impact potentially comes from other peoples’ reactions, if you are pessimistic in public, people may question your competence, or you may make others around you anxious as well.
However, the worst of the drawbacks are internal. These are when instead of thinking of negative possibilities in very specific terms, you might start spiralling out of control. Your thoughts end up being unhelpful, global misrepresentations which can lead to despair and reluctance to act at all.
The key to using your anxiety constructively is to be specific about your concerns and fears and then create practical solutions which ensure they have the desired positive effect on you avoiding disaster and gaining control.
This article isn’t to suggest that I believe anxiety is always beneficial. Of course, it can be very painful, and may not always be productive if you go into despair. But if negative thinking can lead to us creating steps to prevent the worst possible thing from happening, then it may not be so bad after all.
How do you deal with your anxiety? Have you found another strategy which you think could help others? We would love to hear your thoughts and advice in the comments box below.
Clarke, C., & Edmond, Jr., (2002). The power of negative thinking. Black Enterprise. Volume 32, Issue 11, p. 254.
Norem, J., (2007). Defensive pessimism, anxiety, and the complexity of evaluating self-regulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 121 – 134.
Rossman, J. (2010). The surprising power of optimistic pessimism. Rodale News. Retrieved from: http://www.rodalenews.com/optimism-and-pessimism.
Spencer, S., & Norem, J., (1996). Reflection and distraction defensive pessimism, strategic optimism, and performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Volume 22, Issue 4, pp. 354 – 365.