What Is Defensive Pessimism, And Is It Healthy?

Updated May 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Who knew pessimism could serve a purpose? For many people, it's can act as a powerful tool that may seem to help defend against disappointment, pain, and vulnerability. In this way, defensive pessimism can become a sort of coping mechanism. A person might use defensiveness as a coping skill to safeguard themselves from the things they fear. It achieves this goal by helping a person visualize the worst-case scenario, which then may open the doors to finding ways to avoid or prepare for the very things that can drive our anxiety. 

What Is Defensive Pessimism?

It's a way of anticipating the worst so that you won’t feel surprised or disappointed should it happen. Some people may use it to plan for worst-case scenarios so they can effectively prepare for and come to terms with them, which may be helpful for lowering feelings of anxiety.

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When you practice defensive pessimism, you likely don't just tell yourself that the worst will happen. Instead, you may think of the failure in vivid and specific terms. You might even imagine exactly how you'll fail, including several different specific scenarios. 

A key component of using this behavior to benefit you rather than hinder you is by using it as a means to explore your fears and find ways to address them. Otherwise, it can be far too easy to react in a way that ensures your hypothetical outcomes come to fruition. After all, if you engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, you likely have “ripped off the bandage” that may accompany your worst-case scenario, so to speak, and may only confirm your fears by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you’ve got an important presentation coming up at work, for example, and are worried that underperforming may impact your chances of scoring a promotion, you might feel like setting minimal expectations helps you safeguard yourself from the potential of rejection or failure. But, in telling yourself that there’s a real chance you could deliver a presentation that’s uninteresting or that you simply don’t have what it takes to complete the task well, you may make it difficult to find the confidence you might need to contradict these fears. 

Instead, it may be better to view your fears as opportunities for growth – if you’re worried about giving a lackluster presentation, you might decide to find ways to add something new or innovative to your plans. Or, to boost your confidence levels, you might revisit past successes to remind yourself that you do, indeed, have the skills necessary to get the job done.

How Can Pessimism Be Defensive?

Defensive pessimism is often the result of trying to compensate for or address underlying fears or anxiety. When you feel intense pressure to perform, anxiety can become intense. Pessimism may drive you think about the worst possible outcome you could experience rather than focusing on positive thoughts but doing so can help you develop solutions that can help ease your mind. 

Examples Of Defensive Pessimism

Many people have used defensive pessimism, even if they weren't aware that was what they were doing. Below are some examples of how this sort of mentality might manifest in real life; while some scenarios are more significant than others, they all can demonstrate how a tendency to react this way can influence outcomes.

  • A job applicant is anxious about a job interview, so they think about what it might be like to make a fool of themselves in front of a prospective employer. Having already imagined specific scenarios of failure, they avoid them all and get the job.
  • 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 appear more confident and approachable.
  • A newly married spouse is worried they won’t be a good enough partner to their significant other. They image how they might let their partner down and take steps to make sure those things don't happen.

Advantages Of Defensive Pessimism

There can be many positive advantages of approaching problems with defensive pessimism. When used correctly, this strategy can make your life less stressful and may even increase your confidence, especially as it relates to your ability to handle whatever life may throw your way. 

Decreasing Anxiety

The main benefit of defensive pessimism is generally its ability to help reduce 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 may be able to confront the possibility that everything won't go as you hoped it would in a safe, consequence-free environment. When you look your fear in the eye, it often begins to lose its power to control your behavior. 


Feel More In Control

By consciously using defensive pessimism, you can take control of the possible negative situation you're in at any given time. You may use it to identify potential obstacles and discover things you can do to avoid or preemptively overcome them. This can help you feel more in control of your life and behavior, which is something that can be highly beneficial for those experiencing anxiety. 

Use Negative Self-Talk To Your Advantage

Negative self-talk can be significant for people that let it take over their thoughts. However, a defensive pessimist may learn to use of their negative self-talk in a way that’s beneficial rather than damaging. If the thought comes to you that you've failed in a similar situation before, for instance, 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 may be able to acknowledge your true feelings. You don't necessarily 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 likely 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 may be more likely to take the steps you need to avoid them.

Is Defensive Pessimism Ever A Problem?

If you practice defensive pessimism as a technique for managing anxiety and finding solutions to obstacles you may face, it likely won’t adversely impact your mental health. But it can be easy to let defensive pessimism evolve into full-blown negative self-talk and an intense preoccupation with your fears. This can lead to results that are likely the opposite of what you’re after – things like lowered self-esteem, heightened stress levels, and the desire to seek out coping mechanisms that might hinder your ability to succeed may come into play.

If you think you could benefit from defensive pessimism, it may be best to do so under the care of a mental health professional. Working with a therapist can help you develop skills that may help you confront your fears, learn where they stem from, and find ways to overcome them without impacting other areas of your mental health.

It can be particularly beneficial to seek out care through online therapy due to its accessibility. No matter who you are or where you’re located, online therapy can make it possible to find a professional who understands your needs. Plus, you can save time and money by avoiding unnecessary commutes and other related expenses.

Online therapy can also be an effective way to manage anxiety itself so that you can feel empowered to face your symptoms head-on. One review of several studies on online cognitive behavioral therapy found it could successfully decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic disorder, and other mental illnesses. No matter why you may feel the urge to lean on defensive pessimism, it’s likely that online therapy can provide you with the resources you need to use it properly and safely.

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Want To Make Use Of Defensive Pessimism In Your Life?


Defensive pessimism is thought to be a potentially beneficial way to manage anxiety, stress, and fears that surround certain events or things in life. When used mindfully, it may help you feel prepared to handle even the worst-case scenario, but it can also worsen your symptoms in some cases. Working with a mental health professional as you use it may help you avoid unintended consequences while still reaping the benefits of this technique. 

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