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Calling all Debbie Downers! Are you sick to death of being told “smile – it might never happen”? Do optimists with all their positive-thinking guff give you a headache? Well, stuff them all. Pessimism has never looked so good – especially if you suffer from anxiety.
According to Wellesley College psychology professor Julie Norem over in Massachusetts, who’s been publishing papers on the subject since the 1980s, anxiety can be harnessed in a strategy called defensive pessimism. Using this strategy, you imagine worst-case scenarios and then take steps to be prepared for the worst to happen.
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Imagine the following scenario:
On Monday you get invited out for drinks on Thursday with people you know and like, which seems like a great idea. On Tuesday you start thinking about what will happen if you walk in and no one is there yet. On Wednesday you start worrying about what you will talk to people about – or worse still – you talk and you bore everyone to tears.
Thursday morning you definitely have a sore throat coming on – sorry everybody, maybe next time. This strategy, called self-handicapping, is used as a means to avoid failure. If you remove yourself from a situation in which you perceive you might fail, you can avoid the failure and keep your self-esteem intact. Unfortunately, you also miss out on a great night. So instead of thinking yourself out of a situation, you could develop some strategies to cope with your worries and get some fun back into your life. Rather than avoiding the situation you could strategise the following:
You walk in and no one is there yet. You don’t want to be sitting there alone self consciously so you take along a magazine to flick through. This will work twofold because now you won’t be boring when they do arrive – you have a whole mag’s worth of interesting topics up your sleeve.
Setting your expectations low actually works for you when using defensive pessimism and creating strategies to deal with worst-case scenarios means you end up performing better than if you just let your worries overwhelm you. In fact, encouraging defensive pessimists and trying to raise expectations actually makes them more anxious and they will perform more poorly than if they stuck to the low-expectation strategy they prefer.
This adaptive strategy is motivated by a need for achievement. While self-handicapping creates obstacles to success, defensive pessimism manages anxiety and allows you to achieve your goals.
So, Debbie Downer, next time some chipper fool says “Think positive!” you can legitimately reply; “I’m thinking negative and it works for me.”
Maybe you are already a defensive pessimist. Clever you. Take this quiz to find out.