Defensive Pessimism: The Crucial Thinking Skill You Need to Know

By Val Silver

What is defensive pessimism?

Defensive pessimism is a crucial thinking skill that harnesses the power of negative thinking. It helps you manage anxious feelings and lack of confidence when you have challenges to face. This kind of thinking, and the planning that goes with it, is a strategy that helps you feel more at ease while increasing your chances of realizing positive outcomes.  

There is a big difference between using negative thinking to your advantage and unproductive negative self-talk.  In humans, a fair amount of pessimism is normal and even healthy. Your subconscious mind is hard-wired to alert you to to danger and to keep you safely in your comfort zones so that you survive by minimizing risks. Because of this, it is more likely to pay attention when something is wrong. Your subconscious seeks out negatives and stores them in memory with more weight than it gives to positives.

Negative thinking patterns put you (and others) down, keep you stuck, and do nothing to make your life better. A negative mindset may convince you to procrastinate, or not to bother at all, so you don't.

On the contrary, people who practice defensive pessimism, or inversion, intentionally explore potential risks of moving forward, or not, and ways around them in order to motivate and propel themselves forward.  While someone with a negative mindset might just decide that the effort to get well isn't worth it, defensive pessimists might worry too much about the health risks if they do not bother, even if they are cautiously optimistic about how much it will help. They get a checkup to alert them to potential problems and take targeted action to prevent or correct them. 

Hoping for a positive outcome in the face of negative situations has been dubbed optimistic pessimism. It sounds like this, "After all I've been through, how can it get any worse," or "The only way from here is up." 

In defensive and optimistic pessimism, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

before you can inspire your players - coach bob knight quote, defensive pessimism

By focusing on worst case scenarios and setting lower expectations for success, some anxious people naturally maximize the power of negative thinking by using the strategy of defensive pessimism. 

This approach has two main benefits. It reduces feelings of stress about a situation and success is often higher than anticipated because negativity is used as a motivator when taking action in hopes of a better outcome.

It is natural to feel anxious about new situations. Your brain does not like change, especially big risky changes.  Even if you feel totally confident, it is wise to listen to the voice of caution from others and your inner self and have a 'plan B' if any of those concerns come up. The following exercise will help. 

Defensive Pessimism Strategies

The following strategies are designed to help you navigate potential risky situations, make important decisions, and decide on your best course of action before proceeding. 

The Stoic Approach: A premeditation of evils

Ancient Greek stoics imagined worst case scenarios for a variety of situations that could come up in their lives and then made plans for how to thwart them. Instead of just focusing on success goals, they made also made plans for failures and hard times. They believed that if they visualized losing their status, their homes, their livelihood, or their health, then they could prepare ahead of time instead of being caught unawares.  In short, they prepared for what they did not want to happen and figured out how to avoid it.

You can use this method, called inversion, inverse or reverse logic, to gain a broader perspective on your current goals. It helps you figure out what can trip you so you can avoid those obstacles or have a plan for facing them.

So, for example, let's say you want to have the energy and vitality to keep up with your grand kids or to travel. Usually, you would decide on what you need to do to improve your energy and focus on that - how to up-level you diet, how much sleep you should get, how you are going to exercise, etc. And you also have figured out where you might mess up - too much booze at parties, late night show binges, favorite excuses for sitting on the couch instead of going for a walk...and how you are going to address those challenges should they come up.

  1. First, get a feel for achieving that goal. What does that look like? Feel like? 
  2. Then, fast forward six months from now and imagine the opposite. Ask yourself what went wrong. What mistakes did you make? What habits did you continue that slowed or stalled your progress?
  3. Develop a plan to avoid these pitfalls and challenges.
  4. Implement your plan. Tweak as you progress. 

Defensive Pessimism Strategy for Making Important Decisions

When you are facing an important or scary decision about your health or life goal, this defensive pessimism strategy can help you decrease anxious feelings, increase your confidence, and improve your chances of having a positive outcome, maybe even more positive than you hoped.

Ask yourself the following questions. Take your time exploring all possible outcomes, positive and negative. Look and listen within. Gather information. Talk with an expert and/or someone who cares about you. Then, you are in a position to make wise, informed decisions and feel good about them, even if you still have worries. 

  • What is the worst that could happen? And the best?
  • What else could happen?
  • How will you prepare for all these possibilities in order to minimize risk and give yourself a better chance for a positive outcome?
  • What is the most likely outcome?
  • Do you have other options?
  • Given the possible outcomes and possibilities, which decisions and actions will you take? What feels best?

Once you have made your decisions, follow through with action. Have confidence. You can always adjust course if need be.

Defensive Pessimism and the Law of Attraction

Will optimistic pessimism or inversion thinking strategies somehow jinx or sabotage you? Will they negate the law of attraction and magnetize all the terrible things you are trying to negate? Aren't we just supposed to fixate on the positive?

In a word, "No". 

There is a big difference between a steady diet of rampant, unproductive negativity and anxious feelings, and honestly assessing the potential downsides of an issue and your worries about it. 

Pushing down negative thoughts does not make them go away. Your subconscious mind is well aware of what you are thinking (and is probably behind many of those thoughts). Suppressing your true feelings may even give them more energy. After all, you are using a lot of energy to ignore them so they must be important! 

Besides, when you are aware of possible challenges and are ready for them,  you will have a better chance of reaching your goal. Like they say in sports, "The best offense is a good defense." A team without a strong defense is no match for an opposing team, no matter how good they are on the offense. The same thinking applies to wellness and life goals. And you can make a sensible argument that easing your mind opens your energy to more good coming in. A relaxed mind will magnetize what you want more than a stressed worried one.

Even if you do not feel anxious, entertaining only positive thoughts is not wise or practical, especially when your well-being is at stake. Often, it is not honest. You may not be being realistic or practical. Take driving for example. Even if you feel totally confident that you will drive safely to your destination, you buckle up anyway because accidents happen. You might feel confident about an upcoming medical procedure, but you bring somebody with you in case you need help. (I learned that lesson the hard way!)

Your subconscious mind knows what you really think and feel anyway, so you may as well acknowledge your concerns and use them to your advantage. Using negative thoughts in this way makes them your ally. Applying defensive pessimism strategies purposely with intention allows you to use both positive and negative inner talk to your advantage.

Defensive pessimism and inversion thinking will help you allay anxious feelings, feel more in control, make wiser decisions about your health and life, and when followed by action, optimize your chances of success.

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Defensive Pessimism page updated 04/2020

Source: Inversion: The Crucial Thinking Skill Nobody Ever Taught You

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