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Defensive pessimism

When faced with adversity, Pollyanna's strategy was to always look on the bright side. But some people just can't do that. No matter how hard they try, they tend to see things through disaster-tinted spectacles. We can now identify these people as 'defensive pessimists'.

 Defensive pessimists expect the worst, and spend lots of time and energy mentally rehearsing, in vivid, daunting detail, exactly how things might go wrong. Before a business presentation, they worry that PowerPoint might fail, that the microphone will go dead, that -- worst of all -- they will stare out at the audience and go blank. Before a dinner party they imagine that the new neighbors will clash with the old, and the sushi will give everyone food poisoning.
Julie K. Norem 2001

In her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking psychologist Julie K. Norem says that those who fret a lot about what might go wrong can actually forestall the disastrous outcomes they fear. As the inventor of the term 'defensive pessimism', she says that always seeking the worst outcomes can help pessimists harness their anxiety, allowing them to perform at their peak. The optimistic news for dyed-in-the-wool pessimists is that they needn't struggle to find the silver lining. 

'Trying to squeeze everyone into an optimistic perspective can be both uncomfortable and unproductive, like struggling to stuff a queen size body into petite size pantyhose,' says Norem.

Trying to be positive when we are feeling anxious can backfire, because we are discounting our real feelings. By acknowledging and controlling their worries, pessimists can unleash the positive power within their negativity. By trying to predict everything that could go wrong, they can identify strategies that have a good chance of working effectively and of helping them achieve their goals.

'Defensive pessimism isn't different from good planning in terms of the ultimate results. It is different because of its role in getting to those results: Defensive pessimism is the process that allows anxious people to do good planning. They can't plan effectively until they control their anxiety. They have to go through their worst-case scenarios and exhaustive mental rehearsal in order to start the process of planning, carry it through effectively and then get from planning to doing,' says Norem.

Her theory is not an attack on optimism; it is an important insight into the fact that some people are at their most effective when they fear the worst and plan strategies to minimize the disastrous outcomes they envisage, thus seizing victory from the jaws of defeat. Teachers, colleagues, managers, family members and others can help by understanding that those who see the world through a glass darkly can be just as effective as those whose glass is half full.  

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