Defensive pessimism is considered a coping technique used by individuals who set low expectations for situations regardless of prior success. These negative expectations are used to alleviate individuals’ anxiety about situations by motivating them to plan ways to avoid the chances of poor outcomes.1 Essentially, defensive pessimists expect and plan for the worst case scenario as a means to avoid it.
What Is Defensive Pessimism?
Defensive pessimism is a technique used to alleviate and manage anxiety and emotions surrounding stressful situations by engaging in significant reflection and planning around potential poor outcomes.2
A defensive pessimist will have low expectations and thoroughly explore potential failures due to their anxiety. In comparison, a strategic optimist will have high expectations (“You will ace this test!”) and avoid consideration of poor outcomes to avoid any anxiety.1
How Can Pessimism Be Defensive?
Pessimism can be defensive as a way to manage someone’s expectations. Defensive pessimism harkens back to common sayings like “Don’t get your hopes up.” By setting your expectations low, you are creating a situation where negative outcomes are less surprising and less impactful. If an outcome is more positive than expected, you can be pleasantly surprised.
In these situations, a controlled level of pessimism defends you against hurt feelings and disappointment. It can help the results feel less dramatic.
Examples of Defensive Pessimism
Here are some examples of defensive pessimism:
- A recently unemployed person is feeling nervous about an upcoming job interview. By thinking about parts of the interview where they could look silly or inept, they prepare themselves for anything. Ultimately, they are offered the job.
- An individual fears that they will be an unsupportive spouse to their significant other. As a result, they think about areas where this could happen and ensure they make extra time to be supportive to their spouse. The result is a more successful partnership.
- A graduate student fears that they will fail their final test to get licensed for their degree. By reflecting on areas where they struggle and excel, they pass their test and complete their graduate program.
- A teenager who just began driving fears that they will not pass their license test or will get in a crash. They practice easy and difficult parts of the course, like parallel parking, and think deeply about what a crash would feel like. Ultimately, the person engages in safe driving behaviors and passes their licensing test.
- A home cook prepares for a bad-tasting dish. They tell themselves and others that it may not be good to manage expectations.
- A person expects to have a bad time at a party. By setting the enthusiasm low, the party could feel like more fun.
Defensive Pessimism vs. Typical Pessimism
Unlike defensive pessimists, pessimists experience an internal explanatory style, meaning they believe negative things happen because of them (i.e., “The microphone fell because I’m an idiot.”). They tend to fixate on their shortcomings, experience low self-esteem, and have difficulty taking risks or finding motivation.1 ,3 They’re also at increased risk for anxiety and depression.1
Where pessimists tend to be inflexible in their thinking, defensive pessimists have the ability to reflect deeply on their situation and plan for anything. This can increase effort levels as well as perceived importance of meeting one’s goal, hope, and desire to change.1
Is Defensive Pessimism an Effective Coping Strategy?
Research shows that defensive pessimism has both positive and negative outcomes related to the person’s ability to adapt the technique to stressful situations. Outcomes are generally better when defensive pessimism is knowingly used as a strategy. It has positive effects for those who use it to manage anxiety, prepare for situations, understand why they feel a certain way, and motivate themselves to achieve or surpass basic fears.1, 4, 5, 6
Advantages of Defensive Pessimism
Research indicates multiple positive effects of defensive pessimism for people with anxiety.
Compared to people with anxiety who did not use defensive pessimism, researchers identified that those with anxiety who did use defensive pessimism had:1
- Increased levels of self-esteem
- More satisfaction
- Better academic performance
- More support
- Better progress towards their goals
Disadvantages of Defensive Pessimism
Defensive pessimism is not all good, though. Too much defensive pessimism can result in:
- An overly negative perspective
- An unwillingness to go new places or try new things
- Unrewarding relationships and less social support
- An inability to set challenging goals
When Can Defensive Pessimism Become a Problem?
Defensive pessimism becomes a problem when the practice is used too often or at an exaggerated level. Any positive coping skill becomes a negative when it’s used to an extreme. If you become too pessimistic, it can bleed over to every aspect of your life. You could see almost all people or situations as problems that are likely to end badly.
This view could reduce your motivation, so you no longer even try. It can also push away your relationships as your negativity wears off on others.
Finding a Therapist for Unhealthy Coping
Defensive pessimism is fine in small doses, but too much overtime can worsen your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If you are starting to notice the negative impact of defensive pessimism, it could be time to find a therapist.
Talk to your doctor for a referral or visit an online therapist directory for a list of experienced therapists in your area. A trained therapist can help get your outlook balanced and healthy.
Final Thoughts on Defensive Pessimism
Pessimistic thoughts and feelings can be scary or lonely, but there are ways to handle them, and in the case of defensive pessimism, use them to your advantage. Remember, you’re not alone! Reach out to someone you trust in your family or friend group, or even a therapist, to help you begin to form a strategy and make a difference in how you feel.