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Are You a Defensive Pessimist?

Do you fixate upon potential presentation mishaps to the point where it becomes counterproductive? Read on.

Defensive pessimism is a tendency to think negatively about your current or future situation in order to avoid disappointment and keep yourself focused on areas for improvement.

In my clinical practice working with high-functioning clients, I’ve found that many successful people often exhibit defensive pessimism, and that it does facilitate success, at least to a certain degree. Defensive pessimism can be beneficial because it stimulates you to prepare for possible problems, and it helps you avoid getting grandiose ideas that leave you overly vulnerable to disappointment or embarrassment. On the other hand, excessive defensive pessimism can be detrimental to success because it can facilitate rumination or negative thought spirals, which can stifle motivation and decrease your ability to relax or celebrate victories.

Imagine you’re scheduled to do an important presentation at work. Your defensive pessimism kicks in, and you start to imagine all of the possible scenarios in which something could go wrong. You imagine yourself forgetting your speech, losing your voice, tripping on your way up to the front of the meeting room and unable to access your PowerPoint deck due to Wi-Fi issues. Healthy defensive pessimism might motivate you to take whatever precautions you can to ensure that none of these scenarios come to fruition. This could stimulate you to practice your presentation with friends and family to work out any kinks, do vocal exercises before the presentation to make sure you’re warmed up to speak and back up your PowerPoint on a flash drive to ensure access. These are all healthy and helpful behaviors that can actually be traced to healthy levels of defensive pessimism.

Alternatively, you may fixate upon potential presentation mishaps to the point where it becomes counterproductive. You may think, “If this presentation doesn’t go well, I will certainly get fired, and potential employers won’t hire me when they learned the reason why. Without a job I won’t be able to afford my rent, and I’ll get evicted.” This way of thinking is rarely helpful; negative thought spirals can lead to a decrease in preparatory behaviors because you’re dreaming up scenarios that are downright overwhelming. This can lead to an increase in anxiety symptoms, like difficulty sleeping or concentrating – manifestations that are hardly conducive to improved well-being or increased success.

How can we find the sweet spot of using enough defensive pessimism to stay on our toes, without overdoing it to the point of demotivation? Try the tips below:

1. Limit your concerns to what’s truly relevant. When you’re worried about tertiary consequences of hypothetical situations (i.e., “If the presentation doesn’t go well, I could get fired, and then I could lose my apartment”), it’s a sign that your defensive pessimism may be going into overdrive.

2. Balance defensive pessimism by cultivating appropriate positivity. If you have a tendency to go overboard with defensive pessimism, take time to deliberately focus on possible positive outcomes and celebrate your victories. For example, recognize that being asked to do an important presentation suggests that your boss likely sees you as capable and competent. Visualize yourself doing a great job thanks to your hard work and preparation.

3. Say your concerns aloud and/or write them down. Speaking and writing force us to put abstract worries into words, and this helps us to evaluate if our thoughts are actually rational. Ideally, you can discuss your concerns with a trusted confidante so that you can get emotional support and feedback about your concerns. Alternatively, writing your concerns on paper also helps you look at worries objectively and determine if they’re legitimate or irrational. If they’re legitimate concerns, take whatever logical step will help assuage them – this keeps you in a healthy, proactive state. If they’re irrational, let them go.


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