The Surprising Upside of Pessimism (And How To Use It For a Psychological Edge)

Your tendency to see the glass half-empty may actually be helpful.

Positive thinking only goes so far. (image courtesy of pexels)

A positive attitude is often touted as a secret ingredient to success. And it’s true: your outlook can impact everything from your sales numbers to your mental health.

But blind optimism can leave you ill-prepared for stressful situations. And as every ambitious person knows, pressure is par for the course with a successful career.

A new theory posits that a certain type of negative thinking can actually be beneficial for anticipating challenges. This strategy, known as defensive pessimism, suggests planning for worst-case scenarios can be more effective than trying to think positively all the time.

Defensive pessimism involves vividly imaging challenges that may arise, then envisioning steps to conquer problems. This practice helps re-direct anxiety toward productive activity.

Leveraging the power of defensive pessimism can prepare you for uncertainty, which is an indispensable skill every entrepreneur needs.

Here’s how defensive pessimism can have positive impact:

You’ll be more productive

Blind optimists who rationalize that “everything will be fine” may avoid red flags signaling a bad decision or fall victim to procrastination, failing to take necessary precautions.

Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, use mental rehearsal to come up with plans for handling problems.

When faced with a challenge, they spring into action by reaching out to others rather than retreating. They open themselves up to new information and options instead of remaining in their own echo chamber.

You’ll always be prepared

Many entrepreneurs can relate to feeling certain a pitch will land­, only to panic when a meeting unexpectedly goes south. Defensive pessimists are at an advantage at times like these.

Before ever entering a high-stakes scenario, they prepare thoroughly by anticipating tough questions and possible objections, for example. This foresight helps defensive pessimists stay flexible (and not freak out) when the pressure is on.

You’ll be more confident

Positivity often backfires in stressful situations like negotiations or public speaking. Telling yourself to “cheer up and look on the bright side” when your business is on the line dismisses your true feelings, which only amplifies worries. You may beat yourself for being incapable or otherwise unqualified. And when distorted thinking takes over, you can’t perform at your best.

Defensive pessimists use constructive self-talk to motivate themselves. They realize that professional and personal growth entails discomfort, which is reflected in their mindset. They don’t internalize setbacks or see obstacles as personal failings. Instead, their internal dialogue focuses on asking themselves what they can learn or how they can do better next time.

You’ll learn to take calculated risks

Research shows that when CEOs are overly optimistic, they take on more debt — potentially placing their companies in jeopardy. Defensive pessimism safeguards against unhealthy risk by channeling realistic thinking.

For example, faced with a choice whether to open another storefront, a defensive pessimist would analyze possible negative outcome before deciding, whereas a pure optimist might decide to bet their life savings on the venture with no back-up plan.

Of course, this approach differs from dispositional pessimism­, which is characterized by pervasive fatalistic thinking that’s unhealthy. The idea behind defensive pessimism is to put negative thinking in check before it spirals out of control. You use realistic imagining of unfavorable outcomes to motivate and prepare yourself to rise to the challenge, instead of ruminating.

Curious if you’re a defensive pessimist? You can take a test from the experts to find out.

Even if you’re generally more of an optimist, it’s worth giving defensive pessimism a try. You never know what you might learn from looking at things from another angle.

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Melody Wilding

Written by

Career & executive coach for sensitive high achievers. Human Behavior prof. Get the free guide thousands use to manage emotions at work:

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.