Have you ever told yourself something along the lines of "it will definitely rain today since I just got my hair done," or "I'll probably hit every red light in town since I'm running late?" These seemingly benign thoughts are the seeds of defensive pessimism, and a major barrier to joy. Defensive pessimism is about predicting negativity as a protection against disappointment or pain. My husband is probably going to leave me some day, so I should probably think about how I would support myself. Going back to school would just leave me in the same cut-throat job market with more debt, so why bother? There are kernels of practicality in these statements, so we feel justified in our acceptance of them. But these negative narratives disempower us, separate us from joy, and can actually work against our goals.
We have our understanding of strength all backwards. There was actually an episode of Bones where Temperance Brennan (main character, forensic anthropologist, I watched a lot of TV while pregnant) says that her relationship with her partner has changed her from an impervious substance to a strong substance. Impervious substances are not responsive to the forces acting upon them, and as such remain separate and isolated. Strong substances are in flow, allowing for the natural processes of change, growth, decay. Personal strength requires this same allowing, built on the confidence that any negative feeling or experience can be tolerated without fear of coming apart. Defensive pessimism uses negative forecasting to protect us from future pain, but for it to "work" we have to also buy into the story of our weakness. Defensive pessimism insists that our ability to brush up against loss, rejection, disappointment is bounded. Our heart and mind, the space of our experience becomes smaller and smaller as we fill it with fear and doubt. The truth of our potential cannot be actualized when we quit before we start to avoid the pain of failure.
"I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist." That is the mind's way of acting on fear by convincing us that it is somehow more legitimate or accurate to live in worry and fear. When we imagine a negative future in the service of "realism" we aren't getting any closer to the truth, and are actually distancing ourselves from joy. To truly assess the future from a realistic standpoint, we would have to acknowledge that we have no idea how things are going to go down-- meaning that worry and hope are equal in their predictive uselessness. We would have to lean in to groundlessness, and often the pain of uncertainty seems far greater than the pain of a negative outcome. What we fail to see, because our fearful minds get in the way, is that we experience the story of loss the same way we experience actual loss. We can't feel our feelings in advance and get them over with, but we can double our dose of pain by imagining negative outcomes. The cost of this pain preparation is that we disconnect from presence, from our non-judgment, from our pure, unedited experience of right now. Eckhart Tolle has boldly said that there are no problems in the present moment, and while I initially bristled at this (well, he sure hasn't experienced my present moments then), eventually that truth worked it's way in. The stripped bare present moment has no goodness or badness attached to it like the calm still lake before the fish jumps or the moment before the gun goes off to start the race. Even if our defensive pessimism doesn't stop us from making changes or taking risks, it hijacks our peace of mind and limits our capacity for happiness in each moment.
Defensive pessimism does its worst work when disguised as flexibility. I recently asked a client what she wanted in a partner and she began her answer with "I would be ok with..." I stopped her right there and more forcefully told her not to tell me what she would be ok with, but to say out loud what she wants. I was feeling particularly stuck with another client who was struggling to find work with a disability and realized that we weren't getting anywhere because we didn't know where he wanted to go. Asking him to connect with what he truly wanted from his life felt like too great a risk because he was so used to being disappointed in his efforts toward any goal. What I have learned from clients and from my own experiences of lowering my standards to accommodate what I felt was possible or worse, what I felt I deserved, is that we will not embrace our best selves by settling. It's not always easy to know the difference between being openness and defensive pessimism. I know I'm being open when I change my expectations with a clear and non-judgmental mind. I know I'm being defensively pessimistic when I feel the air go out of me, my shoulders slump, and my mind starts to tell me stories about how I shouldn't have wanted so much anyway. We aren't going to always get what we want, and there's no object or experience out in the world that carries the full weight of our happiness. But we can connect with basic goodness by acknowledging our basic worthiness to ask for what we want. Defensive pessimism whispers "you may as well not even think about what you want because you are too broken, too undeserving, too unimportant to even ask for it."
Just for the next week, try noticing all the ways defensive pessimism shows up in your own life and you'll uncover important information about where your heart may need to soften to let go of some fear. The hardness of defensive pessimism does nothing to protect us from pain, and ends up protecting us from our own potential for joy and meaning.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.