We’ve all heard about the power of positive thinking, and the need to ‘cheer up and smile‘ when things go wrong.
But I’d be the first to admit that optimism doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m usually the one who worries about what can go wrong, and rein in my expectations so I don’t get totally crushed if things don’t go the way they expect. And experts are saying that this attitude (called defensive pessimism) isn’t that bad after all!
Defensive pessimism, says psychology professor Julie K. Norem, isn’t about wallowing in worry or self-pity. It’s simply a realistic approach to life, where you think ahead and anticipate the problems you may encounter so that you can prepare a solution.
Defensive pessimists tend to set low expectations, too—not because of some deep-rooted insecurity or cynicism, but because it gives a sense of control. They don’t want to go into a situation just ‘hoping for the best.’ They trouble-shoot. ‘My boss may not like my report.’ Or, ‘That check may come in late.’
But they don’t get stuck there. They use these possible outcomes or obstacles to motivate themselves. ‘What are some things my boss may say?’ they ask, and then proceed to edit the report. Or, ‘If the check is late, will my savings be enough to cover the bills? I should look for extra money, just in case.’
And if there are some things that are beyond the defensive pessimist’s control—say, the boss is really difficult to please—he has already psyched himself and created necessary emotional cushions. ‘Oh, I knew he would say that. That’s okay.’ Or, if money is short, ‘Well, I knew I’d have to tighten
my belt this month. At least I did my best.’
Negative pessimists can become highly successful because of their ability to plan and prepare. But their performance can be pulled down if they’re forced to be a positive thinker, or spew out the frequently-quoted principles of The Secret.
The point is that whether you’re an optimist, or a defensive pessimist, the challenge of life is to be able to forge forward and do what you need to do. Some people are motivated by cheerful thoughts, and some are motivated by identifying potential problems. Find what works for you.
Photo from blog.bloodonthemotorway.com