Maybe you regularly assume everything you do will go wrong so you can be pleasantly surprised when something good happens.
If this sounds familiar you may be a defensive pessimist.
But could using defensive pessimism possible be healthy or does always planning for the worst have a negative effect on your life? There are arguments on both sides.
Some claim that if you always expect things to go wrong then you can never be disappointed. Others say that a glass-is-half-empty approach to life can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and turn you into a jaded, unhappy person.
What Is Defensive Pessimism?
Defensive pessimism isn’t the same as simply being a pessimist. Rather than seeing the worst in nearly everything and assuming things going badly is the overall default, defensive pessimism can operate more as a protection from anxiety and a way to mitigate a fear of failure.
People who utilize defensive pessimism to manage anxiety also tend to reflect and learn from the situations in which they employ it. In this way they are able to use anxiety laden situations to reduce future anxiety in similar situations.
For instance, if you are preparing for a presentation and tell yourself and others that you expect to bomb, then several things can happen.
• You may go to greater lengths to prepare and make it less likely things will go that badly.
• Or you may purposefully not prepare at all ensuring failure – but it’s failure you’ve claimed already, so you feel justified and unapologetic.
• Since you’ve set the expectations low you’ve made it difficult for anyone to express disappointment in you should things go wrong.
• You avoid feeling disappointed in yourself because you have already told yourself you will fail.
• If things go well, you feel like your achievement is that much more impressive because you claimed failure early. So, you can now feel impressed with yourself and receive praise and reassurance from others.
Whichever of these occurs, the process can be started as a way to manage the anxiety felt regarding the upcoming presentation. However, defensive pessimism can also be driven by a poor self-identity, such as getting praise for being humble and self-deprecating.
The Effect Defensive Pessimism Can Have On You
For those who use defensive pessimism to make themselves work harder so things go well this can seem like an effective tool, and it is – when used correctly. Using this method for managing anxiety can help certain people feel more in control and be more successful.
For others it can provide them with permission not to care and to put little effort into the things that give them anxiety by assuring they’d fail anyway. Clearly not an effective way to operate.
And if you are saying to yourself, “Well, as long as you’re using it the right way defensive pessimism seems like a good strategy,” not so fast – it’s not that simple.
Defensive pessimism can be a reaction to anxiety and a way of managing it, but it’s not a solution or cure. This means the anxiety and all of it’s effects on you still exist. You can still suffer the symptoms of anxiety like unwarranted anger, feelings of being overwhelmed, loss of concentration, raised blood pressure, and many more.
In addition, not only do some people use this as a way to simply give up and not try, but for many – including those who are using it to work harder – it can lead to pervasive negativity in their approach to all aspects of life. And this can affect their relationships as well.
People who come to rely too heavily on defensive pessimism can alienate those around them by being needy, requiring excessive reassurance, and emanating negativity. Although pessimism can be used to reduce risk of failure, it’s hard to work with, or become excited about future events with, a person who sees doom at every turn.
Is There An Alternative?
If you need an alternative to the pessimistic approach or have taken it too far and need more balance, there are other ways to more effectively manage anxiety.
Start by forcing yourself to see the possibility for a positive outcome to situations. When you can envision good things happening you can also use that as motivation for making them reality.
Then employ other techniques for managing anxiety so that you are better able to approach things in a calm, open-minded manner. This may include occasional meditation, practicing mindfulness, exercise, or journaling. These things may not alleviate anxiety entirely, but they can help you to manage your outlook and incorporate more positivity into your approach.
It’s also important to be aware that those around you may not share your view or experience the same level of anxiety. So, for them, constantly hearing the many ways things can go wrong can push them away.
Bottom line? When used correctly and managed well, defensive pessimism can be one way to manage anxiety – for some. If this is what you find most helpful to you, there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you are maintaining a balance and not allowing yourself to also become cynical and jaded, and the pessimism to become pervasive.