I have a terrible poker face. I’ve never actually played poker, but I assume I would lose. I’m not good at putting on a happy face when I’m not happy, and please do not tell me to turn my frown upside-down. My ability to maintain a neutral to upbeat expression is so bad that strangers have stopped me in the grocery store to ask if I’m feeling alright.
For years, my inability to ignore my own stress has been a primary motivating factor in my life. Being worried has long enabled me to get my work done efficiently. It has made me sit down and start working on an essay weeks before it was due; it has made me submit dozens of job applications during summers in high school so that I’d have back-ups. I didn’t know it originally, but I was actually practicing a technique known as defensive pessimism.
The term “defensive pessimism” was coined by Nancy Cantor and her students in the 1980s. It involves setting low expectations and then mentally rehearsing all the bad things that could occur in a given situation. For some, this way of thinking is part of their personality, but it can also be a technique to manage anxiety—by focusing on possible actions that you can take, you distract from feelings of fear or worry. Defensive pessimists address their anxiety before an event/situation, so by the time they reach the event itself, they have passed the peak of their anxiety.
You can take a quiz to find out if you are a defensive pessimist, but chances are that if you are one, you'll already recognize yourself in these descriptions.
Julie Norem, one of Cantor’s students, literally wrote the book on defensive pessimism, entitled The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. In the book, Norem describes the differences between defensive pessimism and strategic optimism. Generally speaking, strategic optimism is the opposite of defensive pessimism. Through this technique, individuals set high expectations, but avoid actively thinking about possible outcomes. When a strategic optimist tries to use defensive pessimism, he or she feels more anxious—and vice versa.
Defensive pessimism tends to be employed by people who are more anxious. Anxiety is natural, and it does serve a purpose. In some situations, increased physiological arousal is necessary. Defensive pessimists use that arousal—their anxiety—and turn it into a positive motivation to focus on a specific task. In this way, defensive pessimism is not at odds with the positive psychology movement.
A key feature of defensive pessimism is the acceptance of one’s anxiety. People who try to avoid acute anxiety—e.g., not making a budget for their monthly spending because it terrifies them—may worsen their anxiety in the long-term. And in this case, landing themselves in potentially massive debt. By anticipating the worst-case-scenario, a defensive pessimist can often avoid that very scenario by taking preventative measures.
Alright, so we’ve talked a lot about theory, but what about practical, real-world examples of defensive pessimism?
Here we go:
- To use the previous example, a defensive pessimist would be anxious about money and would therefore create a monthly budget to ensure that she stays on top of her expenses while also maintaining healthy savings and retirement accounts.
- When a defensive pessimist is getting ready to catch a flight, he allows himself plenty of time for traffic, lines at the airport, security, and other glitches that could possibly occur. This may involve him leaving four hours early for a flight or meticulously packing his suitcase so that it is not even an ounce over weight.
- If she has an important presentation coming up, a defensive pessimist will practice extensively, prepare for all sorts of questions that her audience might ask, save her PowerPoint on two different flash-drives, plan to wear her hair back so she doesn't fiddle with it during the presentation, and bring deodorant with her in case she gets nervous and sweaty beforehand.
Just based on these few examples, you can hopefully see how defensive pessimism can help you in your personal and professional lives if you tend to be anxious. On the other hand, if these examples sound like they would make you more anxious, then you might be a strategic optimist. But even if you are not a defensive pessimist yourself, chances are that you know someone who is, and recognizing that their strategy has its own benefits and putting a name to it can deescalate conflict.
The danger of defensive pessimism is that it has the potential to lead to catastrophizing--that is, spiraling out of control with your anxieties. In order to avoid this pitfall, one needs to focus on concrete, actionable steps that can be taken. Instead of thinking that everything is out of control and giving up is the best option, a defensive pessimist will say, "Okay, everything could potentially go wrong, but what can I do to make sure that doesn’t happen?”
Sometimes, it’s okay to look at the clouds rather than their silver linings.