What is defensive pessimism, and is it healthy?

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated January 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are lots of factors that may go into the type of worldview a person develops. Optimistic or pessimistic tendencies could be a combination of personality, upbringing, life experiences, and a variety of other factors. This can apply to the coping mechanism of defensive pessimism as well. There are a variety of reasons a person might develop this tendency, but the purpose is usually the same: to try and defend themselves from disappointment. Read on to learn more about what defensive pessimism is, including examples, and the pros and cons of using this mechanism.

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What is defensive pessimism?

As the American Psychological Association defines it, pessimism in general is “the attitude that things will go wrong and that people’s wishes or aims are unlikely to be fulfilled,” or the expectation that bad things will happen. Their definition also notes that most people fall somewhere on the spectrum between pure pessimism and pure optimism, but that they tend to remain relatively stable in their tendencies. In other words, someone who is used to having a pessimistic outlook is likely to apply that to most situations. 

Defensive pessimism is not a personality trait, but a coping mechanism. It’s a way of employing a pessimistic outlook to defend oneself from the feelings associated with negative outcomes.

In other words, it’s a way of anticipating potential negative outcomes of a situation—though what you then choose to do with these predictions can inform whether the mechanism is healthy or unhealthy for you. For instance, you can use this tactic either to fuel more comprehensive preparation to increase your chances of success, or simply to try and steel yourself against feeling disappointed by accepting a poor outcome before it happens. Either way, this type of pessimism can act as a coping mechanism, a term we’ll define below. 

What are coping mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms, also known as defense mechanisms or coping skills, are “the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.” They can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how they affect the individual and those around them. Some examples of coping skills include turning to humor to decrease tension in serious situations, or turning to social support from those you’re close to when facing a big decision or difficult emotions. Pessimism’s defensiveness as a coping skill works by the person visualizing the ways in which a scenario could go wrong so they can better prepare themselves, either practically or emotionally. 

As with many coping mechanisms, defensive pessimism can be helpful and positive in some cases when applied sparingly and kept under control. However, it can also be a hindrance and even unhealthy when relied upon too heavily or in negative ways. 

Examples of defensive pessimism

Many of us have relied on defensive pessimism in the past. You might recognize this mechanism after look at an example or two:

  • A person who has applied to a job is feeling nervous about their interview. They imagine how they might lose the chance to get the position if they’re unprepared for questions about certain technical aspects of their job, so they make sure to study and practice these beforehand, and they end up getting the job.
  • An individual assumes they’ll get a cold that’s going around their office, which leads them to take precautionary measures like washing their hands even more than usual and wearing a mask in meetings. As a result, they’re able to avoid getting sick.

Note, however, that these are generally healthy examples of defensive pessimism. In both cases, the approach didn’t cause the individual any additional or undue distress and helped bring about the outcome they were hoping for. 

It would be different if the job candidate got no sleep the night before their interview because they were busy preparing for every possible question under the sun and feeling overwhelmed by their anxiety. It would also be different if the individual avoiding the cold had an anxiety attack at work when they heard someone in the next room sneeze, or stopped showing up without telling anyone for fear of becoming ill. That’s why defensive pessimism, like any other defense mechanism, needs to be monitored and managed to minimize harmful effects.

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Pros and cons of defensive pessimism

When employed correctly, defensive pessimism can be a helpful tool across various situations. When used to an extreme degree or without being managed properly, however, it can be unhealthy and may even contribute to negative outcomes. See below for the possible pros and cons of defensive pessimism. 

Potential benefits of defensive pessimism when it's used in a healthy way could include: 

  • Decreasing anxiety, since imagining—but without ruminating on—what could go wrong in a given situation can help you prepare and feel more in control
  • Increasing chances of success in some cases, since preparing for potential mishaps beforehand could make you better able to handle them if they arise. One study even suggests that negative self-talk—which is how some may categorize thoughts related to defensive pessimism—can actually improve performance by reducing confidence in order to boost attention and motivation.
  • Promoting acceptance of whatever the outcome may be, since facing your fear of things not going as you’d hoped could help decrease the power of that fear over you

Potential drawbacks of defensive pessimism when it’s relied on in an unhealthy way or used to an extreme degree could include:

  • Increasing anxiety if you allow the process of predicting potential mishaps to overcome you, leaving you feeling powerless and overwhelmed in the face of uncertainty
  • Decreasing chances of success, because you may come to feel that the potential for a negative outcome is so high that there’s no point in trying your best
  • Decreasing willingness to give new things a try, because you’ve become adept at predicting every potential negative thing that could happen and end up convincing yourself that no endeavor will ever be successful
  • Promoting conflict in relationships, since some people may find it difficult to be around someone who is consistently negative about their own endeavors
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Seeking help for unhealthy coping mechanisms 

If you’re concerned that defensive pessimism or another coping mechanism is leading to negative or unhealthy behaviors in your life, you might benefit from discussing this with a therapist. They may help you get to the root cause of your fears and find healthier ways to manage them. A cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) in particular can also help you learn to recognize when your thought patterns may be distorted or unrealistic and practice shifting them in a healthier direction over time. 

Not everyone can get in-person therapy sessions regularly, whether due to cost, provider availability, or a lack of transport. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging, all from the comfort of home or anywhere else you have an internet connection. Session costs tend to be less than the average in-person visit and are comparable to the price of most insurance co-pays. Research suggests that CBT conducted face-to-face and online can be “equally effective” in most cases, so you can generally feel confident choosing whichever format works best for you.

Takeaway

Although pessimism often gets a bad rap in popular culture, some level of defensive pessimism can you be better prepared for events you’re nervous about. However, when left unchecked, this coping skill can turn into an unhealthy one. If you’re having trouble finding healthy coping mechanisms that work for you, speaking with a therapist may be helpful.
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