When Is Negative Thinking Positive?

November 02, 2012

Photo courtesy John Nyberg

Do you get tired of being told to look on the bright side when you express a negative thought? Do you find yourself stifling your concerns out of a desire not to sound “negative”?

Turns out, there’s a place for negative, especially if it’s in the form of defensive pessimism.

I just finished reading The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, by Julie K. Norem, Ph.D.  In this book, Norem introduced me to the concepts of defensive pessimism and strategic optimism. People who use strategic optimism seek to avoid stirring up anxious feelings, often by setting high expectations, then not thinking about what could go wrong.  Those who use defensive pessimism set low expectations and mentally rehearse how things could go wrong.

On the surface, defensive pessimism sounds pretty dismal. However, Norem explains, “Defensive pessimism involves learning to tolerate negative emotions in order to get things done. [Defensive pessimists’] tolerance isn’t passive wallowing in negative feelings; it embodies confronting those feelings and rejecting the premise that feeling good should always be our most immediate aim.” 

These two strategies are used by people who have differing psychic make-ups: those who typically feel anxious and those who do not. Those who feel anxious need to find a way to handle their anxiety so that they can act, and those who don’t feel anxious need to find ways to stay anxiety-free. As Norem demonstrates, the strategies that work for one don’t work for the other, and if you try to change someone’s strategy, their performance suffers. Norem writes, “Defensive pessimism and strategic optimism develop in response to different experiences, and their strengths lie in the ways they address different problems. Defensive pessimism works to manage anxiety and help people feel more in control, whereas strategic optimism works to keep anxiety away and to protect self-esteem. In both cases, these strategies motivate effective action and often lead to good outcomes for those who use them.” (Norem notes that these concepts are different from dispositional optimism or pessimism.)

As in most things, if taken to extremes, both of these strategies can be dysfunctional. Defensive pessimists can spend too much time preparing for disaster and become such perfectionists that they never complete anything. Strategic optimists may become overconfident, ignore real dangers, or keep working at impossible tasks they should abandon

Norem doesn’t believe you should give up your natural tendencies. Whatever your strategy, be it defensive pessimism or strategic optimism, embrace it while making sure not to carry it too far. In addition, accept the strategies of others without trying to change them.

I think I fall more towards the defensive pessimist end of the spectrum, and this book clarified for me strategies to help get me through the anxious period and into the active period. (Truthfully, I often use “self-handicapper” strategies, discussed in chapter five—a tendency I need to overcome.)

Which do you use most often—defensive pessimism or strategic optimism?