Am I a Defensive Pessimist?
This blog post, I’m convinced, will be a real disaster.
I mean, just think of all the things that could possibly go wrong! If I post it at the wrong time of day, no one will read it. If I don’t write with super-engaging language and in a clever tone, potential readers will bypass my post for something else on the internet that’s far more exciting.
Oh, and I’ll probably (unknowingly!) insert a blatant typo that my eyes refuse to notice — even after several rounds of proofreeding. Or proofreading. Yeah, that second one.
I’ve painted a pretty gloomy picture there, haven’t I?
It feels a little awkward to admit that I’m a pessimist. The world really seems to be riding the wave of optimism these days, at least as far as popular literature is concerned. Amazon.com tells me that I can choose from 1,503 books about optimism and only 571 about pessimism. And the books about optimism all have these flashy, cheesy-grin-inducing subtitles like “The Key to Happiness” and “Passion, Optimism, and Wealth.”
Gag me. I just can’t buy into that happy-go-lucky, glass-half-full, Mentos-flashing style. But on the other hand, I’m not a walking cloud of pessimistic gloom & doom either. (On most days, at least.)
And thanks to both books, I’ve nailed down a precise term for my brand of pessimism: defensive pessimism. Reading Rackoff’s description of defensive pessimism is like reading my autobiography. From his interview with Jesse Thorn on PRI’s The Sound Of Young America:
…defensive pessimists are cousins to dispositional pessimists. They see the world as being a little more negative than it actually is like most pessimists, but what defensive pessimists do is they then take that presentiment of disaster, like “this is going to suck” kind of premonition, and they take arms against it, and they envision their worst case scenario coming true.
This is going to suck because of A B C and D, and they go through each aspect of suckhood and they come up with a contingency plan as to what they are going to do to combat that. It’s a means of claiming agency and getting over your anxiety about the world.
That last line stuck with me when I first heard this radio interview. (The whimsy of the word “suckhood” did, too, but I digress.) Defensive pessimism is a means of claiming agency over anxiety. And anxiety is, well, my forté.
Well-intentioned friends & family members have always told me to try & be a little bit more positive in my outlook. Conventional wisdom suggests that greater positivity equals less anxiety. After all, the less time you spend ruminating about the negative aspects of life and all of the what-if scenarios, the more time you’ll have for sunshine and roses, right?
Well, no. Not for me, and not for defensive pessimists. Defensive pessimists use their pessimism as a tool for reducing anxiety. Pretending to be an optimist would only serve to preserve my anxieties — not diminish them.
For example’s sake, let’s pretend I’m preparing to ask my boss for a raise tomorrow. There’s a lot of potential suckhood here. Lots of things could go wrong, including (but not limited to) the following disasters:
1. My boss might say no to my request.
2. She might tell me I’ve violated some sort of unknown company protocol by asking incorrectly.
3. She might laugh at me.
4. She might tell me that I should be lucky to be earning what I’m earning.
The strategic optimist would probably bypass these concerns in order to curb their anxiety level. However, the defensive pessimist would dive right in, dissect each potential disaster, and concoct some contingency plans:
1. If she denies my request, recite a long list of reasons why I think I deserve a raise. Prepare as many good reasons as possible!
2. Before meeting with her, research my company’s policies for requesting raises. Prepare any paperwork, if needed.
3. Dress myself in a thick skin for the meeting. If she laughs, don’t take it personally.
4. If she tells me I ought to feel well-compensated already, reference a few salary surveys for my line of work, education, and experience. Show her, don’t just tell her, the difference between my actual and my ideal salary.
If I tried to walk blindly into the meeting without making the above plans, I’d feel embarrassingly unprepared and anxious. Worse yet, my performance would suffer. From Norem’s website:
My experimental research shows that if defensive pessimists try to raise their expectations, or avoid playing through a worst-case analysis, their anxiety increases and their performance suffers. If strategic optimists set lower expectations or play through possible outcomes, their anxiety increases and their performance decreases.
Sorry, friends & family: if I fight my true nature, my performance will suffer. Let me play the defensive pessimist role; let me anticipate mild disaster, let me play with those what-ifs for a little while, and let me plan my way around them.
Well, there you have it. I hope this blog post wasn’t terrible. I prepared the best I could, mapped out my contingency plans, and sit ready and waiting with a thick skin if you hate it.
Further reading and listening:
Are you a defensive pessimist? Take Julie K. Norem’s quiz here.
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Beretsky, S. (2018). Am I a Defensive Pessimist?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/am-i-a-defensive-pessimist/