Negativity Can Harm Your Mental Health: Learn How To Stop Being Pessimistic

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people may overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes and underestimate positive potential outcomes. This phenomenon, called pessimism, may increase your risk of developing anxiety and depression and keep you from trying your best.

While some degree of pessimism may be dictated by external factors like previous life experiences and genetics, some strategies may effectively reduce pessimistic thoughts and improve mental health. If pessimism significantly impacts your daily life, contacting a licensed therapist may be beneficial. You can also investigate other tools to help you cope with negative thoughts. 

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What is pessimism?

According to the American Psychological Association, pessimism is the assumption that a situation will go wrong, goals will go unachieved, and positive outcomes are unlikely. Skepticism, negativity, and reduced willingness to take risks are characteristics of a pessimistic mindset.

Often, since pessimism emphasizes weaknesses and failures, chronically pessimistic people may experience lower self-esteem and self-confidence than more optimistic people. 

While pessimism is often seen as an undesirable character trait, it may not necessarily be unhealthy in every scenario. For example, pessimism may help motivate some people to achieve their goals, work harder, build safety nets, avoid unnecessary risks, and improve self-confidence. However, it can be healthier for negative thoughts to balance positive thoughts and positive thinking. When individuals are overly optimistic, they may take excessive risks, whereas excessive negative energy can lead to unhealthy thought patterns and mental health challenges. 

Signs that indicate you may be a pessimistic person

Some people may not identify as entirely optimistic or pessimistic. For example, a person may exhibit a positive outlook about their career but a negative outlook on their relationship. Additionally, positive and negative thoughts may shift over time. 

People who tend to exhibit an unbalanced fixed position on the optimistic-pessimistic continuum, reacting very positively or very negatively to various events, are often classified as pessimists or optimists. To an optimist, the world may look like a place of opportunity. To a pessimist, the world may seem full of danger and challenges. Unsure if you’re a pessimist? Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do I expect to get fired from my job?
  • Do I expect to fail classes or get bad grades on exams?
  • Do I expect hiring managers never to offer me a position after a job interview? 
  • Do new people I meet dislike me?
  • Do I expect to receive bad news when I go to routine doctor’s appointments? 
  • Do I assume that something horrible happened when my partner is not answering the phone? 
  • Do I expect others will not follow through on their commitments to me?
  • Do I assume repairs will be expensive when something breaks in my house or car?
  • Do I believe that situations rarely go my way?
  • Am I surprised when situations work in my favor?
  • Does an assumption that I will fail inhibit me from taking action?  
  • Do I experience imposter syndrome?
  • Do I think negative thoughts about myself, such as: “Why can’t I do anything right?”

If you tend to answer yes to these questions, you may have a more pessimistic mindset. Some underlying factors may make some people more likely to have a pessimistic personality. One study found that genetic factors may explain 20% to 36% of the variation in pessimistic and optimistic personality types. 

Negative experiences may also influence some people to become more pessimistic. For example, trauma can intensify negative self-talk and pessimism. Parental relationships, personalities, life events, culture and ethnicity, and attachment styles within families can also influence the development of a pessimistic or optimistic personality. Additionally, individuals with lower socioeconomic status may view the future more pessimistically.

Explanatory styles, or how you explain situations to yourself, may influence tendencies toward pessimism or optimism. For example, a pessimist may believe that a poor grade on an exam means they’re not smart. In contrast, someone with a positive mindset may attribute their poor grade to the exam being difficult or not preparing adequately. Contrarily, they may see it as an opportunity for growth, even if the unsatisfactory grade was due to their mistakes. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Tools for becoming a less pessimistic person

Compared with optimists, studies have found pessimists tend to experience physical symptoms like higher levels of inflammation and a more significant release of cortisol when under stress. Regarding cognitive or emotional symptoms, pessimistic people may experience higher levels of depression, reduced self-rated life satisfaction, and less resiliency. They may also have lower-quality social relationships and less meaningful educational or career success.

Contrarily, studies have found that optimistic and positive people experience a greater quality of life, resiliency, and mental health than less optimistic people. While you may have pessimistic tendencies, there are actions you can take to reevaluate and reframe harmful automatic thoughts consciously. If positivity isn’t your second nature, you’re not alone, and hope is possible. Research shows that it may be more important to reduce excessive pessimism rather than increase positivity. The following strategies below may help you to stop being as pessimistic as your current frequency, intensity, and duration.

Interrupt negative self-talk

If you engage in negative self-talk, you may find yourself critiquing or blaming yourself with thoughts like, “I’m not good at this,” “I should give up,” or “I’m not smart enough.” To interrupt automatic negative self-talk, try the following: 

  • Examine your thoughts: Notice when you think critically about yourself.
  • Consider whether your thoughts represent the truth: Remember that your thoughts are not necessarily factual or accurate. 
  • Use less extreme language: Reframe all the negative thoughts with neutral words. For example, instead of saying, “I’m horrible at this,” you could use language like, “This task is difficult for me.” 
  • Verbalize your thoughts: Talk to a friend, loved one, or therapist about your inner dialog. They can help you evaluate these thoughts. You could also write your negative thoughts down in a journal and consciously work to reframe them more neutrally in writing. 

If you’re finding it challenging to interrupt negative self-talk, consider whether you’d have that thought about a close friend. It may seem easier to be kinder to your loved ones than yourself, but you deserve your own compassion and empathy. 

Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a mental state characterized by non-judgmental awareness of bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, and environment in the present moment. A study on mindfulness found that mindfulness can reduce negative thinking while increasing self-reported optimism levels. Because mindfulness emphasizes focusing on the present, it can reduce excessive rumination about the past and worry about the future. Harvard Medical School recommends trying the following mindfulness exercise:

  • Begin by focusing on your breathing and heartbeat for several minutes with your eyes closed. Try to quiet your mind by allowing thoughts to pass by without judgment. 
  • After several minutes, begin to focus on your body. Notice where your body touches the earth and how your body is feeling.  
  • Notice other sensations, smells, sounds, and thoughts. 
  • When your mind wanders, return to your breath.
  • Try this exercise once daily for however long it feels right to you. You may want to lengthen each mindfulness session as you become more comfortable.  

If you are short on time, you might consider practicing mindfulness while doing routine activities, such as washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, or walking outside. For example, while brushing your teeth, notice the smell of your toothpaste, the feeling of your toothbrush in your hand, and the sound of running water. 

Keep a perspective

If you’re worried a catastrophic event might occur, try to intentionally consider the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario, and the most likely-case scenario. 

For example, suppose your boss emails you stating you need a one-on-one meeting the following morning. In that case, you may automatically think of the worst-case scenario, such as being fired and losing all your resources. The best-case scenario might be that your boss wants to promote you, and the most likely-case scenario may be that your boss wants to give you constructive feedback. You may gain a more realistic perspective on your negative thought patterns by considering different scenarios.  

Accept that disappointment may happen

Laura Oliff, associate director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, told the New York Times that pessimistic people may expect the worst from situations to protect themselves from disappointments. According to Dr. Oliff, however, anticipating positive outcomes and occasionally being disappointed may be healthier than always expecting negative results or expecting not to feel positive emotions. Disappointments are often disappointing whether you’re expecting them or not. 

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Consider therapy 

Pessimism can predict mental health challenges, including anxiety and depressive disorders. If you’re experiencing symptoms such as persistent sadness, worry, fear, panic, or lack of energy that interferes with your life, you might want to consider trying cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of evidence-based talk therapy can effectively address anxiety, depression, and negative self-talk. It typically focuses on recognizing and reevaluating thought patterns, developing healthy coping skills, and gaining self-confidence. 

CBT may be more effective when it includes homework. In addition, some people prefer online CBT, which is available through platforms like BetterHelp. This type of therapy may be preferable to in-person therapy because it allows them to share homework through in-app messaging and ask their licensed therapist questions between sessions. Additionally, a review article published in 2017 found that internet-based CBT could effectively address symptoms of many psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. 


Pessimism can be beneficial by helping ensure you build safety nets, work hard, and avoid unnecessary risks. However, when people are consistently negative, they may have a pessimistic personality trait. Chronic pessimism can reduce drive and self-esteem while increasing the risk of mental and physical health challenges. 

Some strategies, including practicing mindfulness, challenging negative self-talk, and accepting disappointment, may be beneficial for reducing pessimism’s impact on your life. However, if your pessimism interferes with your daily life or contributes to symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might consider speaking to a therapist. You can reach out to a licensed professional online or in your area to get started.

Understand how different outlooks can shape life
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