Do you worry about your ability to succeed when faced with risky, anxiety-inducing activity? Do you get anxious when asked to do something for the first time? Do you get nervous when being asked to speak in front of a big audience? Or do you know others who have this sort of anxiety? Do you try to cheer them up and push them to be more positive? Does it ever work? Has it ever worked for you? The chances are good that if you try to solve someone’s anxiety before a difficult performance by pushing them to be more positive, carefree, and relaxed, you will fail. And you are not doing them any favors anyway.
Psychologists Julie K. Norem, Nancy Cantor, and Stacie M. Spencer talk about two cognitive strategies on how to motivate yourself when dealing with anxiety-inducing performance or risky activity. Strategic optimism and defensive pessimism.
If you are a strategic optimist, you anticipate the best and stay calm. You will still plan ahead but only minimally as you don’t have any anxiety. You feel that you will do well, and there is nothing to worry about.
If you are a defensive pessimist, you expect the worst and imagine how things can go wrong. You then use this anxiety to motivate yourself to better performance so you can avoid the worst-case scenario.
It seems that both strategies work equally well when it comes to the actual results.
Introverts often suffer from anxiety. Because of our worry, we prepare. We prepare very well. And then we go and ace whatever challenge is in front of us. Because of our anxiety, using defensive pessimism, and a ton of preparation, we succeed. Anxiety is an integral part of our road to success. If defensive pessimists don’t feel anxious, they may become complacent. They won’t prepare that well, and they will fail.
I fit into this category. I’m an endless optimist when it comes to life and the big picture. But I’m a defensive pessimist when it comes to individual tasks and risky anxiety-inducing projects. I need a basic level of stress and anxiety to keep performing to the best of my abilities. If I don’t have it, I get lazy, I procrastinate, I don’t prepare, and I struggle. If I feel a reasonable amount of pressure, not too much, so it is not paralyzing, I will prepare really well to mitigate any potential failure. And I don’t fail too often. When I do, I can usually trace it to not taking something seriously enough, being too relaxed, and not giving it my best.
A great way to explain defensive pessimism is on public speaking anxiety. If you are scared of public speaking and you employ the defensive pessimism strategy, you will imagine possible issues and obstacles—things like getting thirsty, forgetting the speech, or being too nervous and using filler words. Because you would have thought of these problems, you would do your best to mitigate them. You would bring a glass of water. You would have some note cards. You would practice the speech many times, saying it out loud, maybe even in front of a friend. These actions would both lower your anxiety and prepare you for great performance.
To make sure you are on top of your game during the actual performance, it is helpful to learn to convert your fear and anxiety into excitement. Don’t try to get calm as that would slow you down and suck out the energy. Use the anxious energy and channel into excitement. This works mostly because of the physiological impact our emotions have on our bodies. Anxiety and fear are strong emotions that make your heart beat faster and trigger fight or flight response. Trying to suppress it is not easy. Better to convert to something that can use a faster heart rate, like excitement.
Difference between a pessimist and a defensive pessimist
It is essential to realize that there is a big difference between a pessimist and a defensive pessimist. Norem and Cantor originally defined defensive pessimism as a situation where people set unrealistically low expectations prior to entering a situation in order to prepare themselves for potential failure and to motivate themselves to work hard in order to avoid that failure. It doesn’t matter whether the person has a track record of previous successes. The research indicates that this strategy leads to a gradual improvement in performance. As Norem says, defensive pessimists often show significant increases in self-esteem and satisfaction over time.
Pessimists, on the other hand, are negative and cynical about the future outcome, often have low self-esteem, or don’t believe they can influence the results. Pessimism is internalized and stable in the individual. It is who these people are, and it informs their view of the world. It often leads to an increase in anxiety, depression, and lowering the importance of the goal as a way to justify the failure. They are depressed, and they fail.
Defensive pessimists use the pessimism as a strategy, and they tend to reflect on their performance. It is not only about being pessimistic and expecting the worst. It is also about reflection to understand why you believe things will go wrong and then mitigating it by proper preparation. Those of us who practice defensive pessimism also experience anxiety and, in fact, often increase it by giving the goal even bigger importance than it objectively has. This then leads to increased effort and personal initiative. Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy that you use in particular situations, not a way of life.
Mobilizing your anxiety
One of the smartest people I knew during my studies was a girl who suffered from anxiety before every exam, even though she was otherwise a very positive person. Curiously, she has never failed a single exam. She never even got anything else than A. She would still worry that she may fail and would prepare ruthlessly. Even if others tried to cheer her up and remind her how good she was, and that there was nothing to worry about. Even though she must have known at an intellectual level that her track record shows there is no need for anxiety, she would still worry. The only productive way for her how to lower the anxiety was to use defensive pessimism. She would put a tremendous amount of time and effort into preparation. She could always say that she did her best to be ready. And she always aced every exam.
Minimizing the impact of failure
A defensive pessimism strategy also helps to prepare for potential failure. The ancient Stoics used a similar approach to cope with life adversities, negative visualization. The idea behind this strategy is that things keep changing and never go according to plan. There is only so much you can control yourself, and things not under your control may throw all sorts of obstacles in your way. Since it is pretty much guaranteed that things will change and potentially go wrong, it is crucial to be mentally prepared for it and take it in your stride. You won’t prevent the bad from happening, but you won’t lose your calm and tranquility either.
As Seneca points out, Stoics believed in looking for the best and preparing for the worst. They understood that many things are not under their control and were ready for bad things to happen. When something terrible then indeed happened, they were able to cope with it better. They may not have liked it, but they accepted it as nature or divine will and moved on.
Putting it all together
People who use defensive pessimism can mobilize their anxiety and turn it into motivation. They worry about failure, but instead of letting their fear paralyze them, they use it to motivate themselves and work hard to be ready for whatever risky endeavor they face. People who use this strategy don’t resign or give up on their lives. They are not depressed. They believe that they can influence the outcome.
The worse you can do to a person employing this strategy is to push them to adopt an optimistic attitude as a reaction to their anxiety. The only thing you would achieve is that they wouldn’t put in the effort. They would still worry, though. And chances are they would be even more anxious before the event as they would know they didn’t work as hard as usual. Because they wouldn’t prepare as well as in the past, they would also have a higher chance of failure. Your well-meaning advice made them less successful. Keep in mind that there are different ways how to achieve success, and each of us has a way that works for us.
What are your thoughts on defensive pessimism? Have you ever employed that strategy? Are there situations where it may help and are there somewhere it would be highly counterproductive? What other approaches do you use to fight anxiety and achieve good performance?
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