What Is Defensive Pessimism, And Is It Healthy?

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Avia James

Who knew pessimism could serve a purpose? For many people, it's a powerful tool in their fight against anxiety and disappointment. What is defensive pessimism, though? And, is it always helpful, or are there times when it can become unhealthy?

What Is Defensive Pessimism?

Defensive pessimism is called an affect regulation strategy. It's a way of anticipating the worst even when you have evidence that the worst won't happen. When you're defensively pessimistic, you ignore any success you've had in the past and simply assume that you won't perform well in the current situation.

When you practice defensive pessimism, you don't just tell yourself that the worst will happen. Instead, you think of the failure in vivid and specific terms. You imagine exactly how you'll fail, and you may imagine several different specific ways you'll fail. You may go through a list of everything that will go wrong. You systematically destroy every hope of success. And then, you try anyway.

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Some situations are truly out of your control. However, you can still practice defensive pessimism by imagining the worst and then preparing yourself to deal with whatever happens. Because you've imagined the bad things that can happen, they don't throw you off balance if they do. Plus, if something even mildly positive happens instead, you can enjoy that to its fullest. After all, you weren't expecting anything good to happen at all, so even the smallest happiness is better than what you expected.

By setting very low expectations, you create a situation where very minimal success is a pleasant surprise. Meanwhile, you're preparing for the worst, which means that you become ready for anything that might happen. If something bad does happen, you already know how you're going to handle it. If it doesn't, you sail through the situation easily.

How Can Pessimism Be Defensive?

The defense in defensive pessimism is a defense against anxiety. When you feel intense pressure to perform, anxiety can become intense. By focusing on the worst that could happen, you shrug your shoulders and stop worrying about it.

After all, if you're sure you're going to fail, there's no need to put a lot of emotional investment into trying to succeed. Your anxiety abates, and a counterintuitive thing happens. Without the effects of the anxiety holding you back, you may perform better.

Meanwhile, the symptoms of anxiety decrease or may even go away altogether. Anxiety can cause symptoms like:

  • Blushing
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Loss of concentration
  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble speaking
  • Stomach upset
  • Nervous cough
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness
  • Low energy
  • Muscle tightness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating

It's easy to see that, with these symptoms gone, it's easier to perform at your best. What's more, you feel better overall. So, it makes perfect sense that people would want to defend against those emotional feelings and physical reactions.

Examples Of Defensive Pessimism

Most people have used defensive pessimism, even if they weren't aware that was what they were doing. So, what does it look like? Here are some examples of defensive pessimism.

  • Actors say, "Break a leg" to each other before a performance to decrease the pressure they feel on opening night.
  • A job applicant is anxious about a job interview, so she thinks about what it's going to be like to make a fool of herself in front of a prospective employer. Having already imagined specific scenarios of failure, she avoids them all and gets the job.
  • A student deals with their fears of failing the test by studying an extra hour. He learns things he might have missed if he had assumed he would pass easily. Thus, he improves his score.
  • A person wants to ask someone out for a date, but they worry that they'll be rejected. They allow themselves to think of that rejection in specific terms. By the time they're ready to ask, their nervousness has subsided, and they come off as less desperate and needy.
  • A new newlywed is worried that he won't be a good enough husband to keep his wife from divorcing him. He imagines how he might let her down and takes steps to make sure those things don't happen.
  • You know that accidents happen when people drive distracted, so you avoid texting and driving.

Advantages Of Defensive Pessimism

There are a lot of very positive advantages of approaching problems with defensive pessimism. When used correctly, this strategy can make your life less stressful and increase your chances of happiness. Here are a few ways you can benefit.

Decrease Anxiety

Of course, the main benefit of defensive pessimism is that it reduces your anxiety. If you don't allow yourself to consider the negative possibilities, you may experience anxiety that comes from an inner knowledge that the situation isn't as clear-cut as you're telling yourself it is.

When you spend some time looking at the negative side of a situation, you avoid a false sense of security and deal with the very real possibility that everything won't go as you hoped it would. And, there's one thing about "facing the dragon." When you look your fear in the eye, it begins to lose its power to overwhelm you.

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Feel More In Control

By consciously using defensive pessimism, you take control of the possible negative situation you're in at any given time. You don't just imagine the worst and give up. Instead, you use that exercise to identify potential problems. You make plans to deal with them if they happen, so you feel more in control of the situation. In fact, you are.

Use Negative Self-Talk To Your Advantage

Negative self-talk can be a problem for people that let it take over their thoughts. However, a defensive pessimist makes positive use of their negative self-talk. If the thought comes to you that you've failed in a similar situation before, you can examine that earlier situation and learn to form it what you need to avoid this time.

Accept Your True Feelings

Trying to be completely optimistic when you feel fearful and anxious inside can create cognitive dissonance. This can increase your anxiety and make you feel like you're lying to yourself. When you practice defensive pessimism, though, you acknowledge your true feelings. You don't need to give in to them and let them keep you from trying your best. But, you can recognize them and put them to use.

Make Better Plans To Avoid Failure

It stands to reason that if you expect overwhelming success, you aren't going to try too hard to avoid failure. If you take a more pessimistic view, you can assess your attitude and actions surrounding the situation to make better plans. You know failure or disappointment are possible, so you take the steps you need to avoid them.

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Disadvantages Of Defensive Pessimism

Even though defensive pessimism can be a very effective way to deal with anxiety, you may find that it has certain disadvantages at times. Here are a few of the problems that can result.

You May Annoy Others

Not everyone wants to deal with your negativity. Perhaps if they understood the benefits of defensive pessimism, they would be more understanding. Still, it can be annoying to listen to someone go over all the worst possible scenarios for any given situation. Talking too much about negative possibilities can damage a relationship.

Therapy Designed To Improve Your Mood May Not Be As Effective

If you tend to choose defensive pessimism often, you may have trouble getting help in therapy. Many therapies are designed to teach you positive thinking. Yet, if you're used to allowing yourself to see the negative, you may have a hard time accepting the Pollyanna-type attitude of many positive psychologists.

Fortunately, many therapists understand how defensive pessimism works. They can even guide you through a defensive pessimism exercise as a part of the therapy.

You Need Time To Prepare A Pessimistic Defense

If something bad happens unexpectedly, defensive pessimism won't help you deal with it. You need time to prepare a defense, and you won't have that time if something bad happens suddenly. Because of this, it's important to develop the mental, emotional, and social skills you need to deal with problems as they happen.

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Is Defensive Pessimism Ever A Problem?

If you practice defensive mechanism the right way, it should never be a problem. Where you get into trouble is when you let the pessimism overwhelm you. When you practice defensive pessimism most effectively, you use negative thoughts to your advantage. But, when you don't use the information you positively gain from the exercise, you can become depressed. You also may be less successful.

Do you worry that your defensive pessimism is causing you to become depressed or even more anxious? If so, you might need to get help for fine-tuning your use of this strategy and deal with your mental health issues. You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for affordable private therapy on your schedule and at your discretion. There's no reason to let anxiety hold you back from achieving your dreams. Instead, you can learn the right way to use defensive pessimism to take control and have a better life!


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