The Advantages Of Defensive Pessimism

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Can you imagine a therapist telling a patient to think negatively? To concentrate on the less positive aspects of the issues they are having? Sounds crazy and not too healthy but there are times when this kind of thinking can certainly be justified.

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Name any self-help book found on the shelves of any bookshop and you will read common themes. Positive thinking, affirmations, perfect scenarios… change your life today! While there are many good things to be had from the pages of books written by Messrs Covey, Robbins, etc, they can be seen as quite unrealistic in terms of what happens in real life. I have often written here on the power of realistic thinking… looking at life through realistic eyes, knowing that there will be setbacks that will inevitably come along with better times. However, my strong opinion is that there is justification at times for negative thinking but only if this is targeted in a specific place.

Nowhere better can this be seen than in the case of addiction of some kind like gambling, drinking or overeating, even when trying to change a habit like smoking.  The “thrill” that comes from this is often associated with something positive. “I must have a cigarette” or “just one more coin in the slot and I could win”.  Some even believe that engaging in these practices will help them in some way and for others, it is a form of escapism, away from what they see as the “negative” they experience in their daily lives. The effect is normally short-lived and feelings of guilt, self-loathing, fear often follow, quickly changing what they perceive as positive to negative. The cycle continues on and on…

I recently finished therapy with a young man who was a classic example of the above. Here is his story and how a dose of negative thinking did the trick.

Graham (name changed)….. a young man lost at sea.

G couldn’t have had it harder growing up. A mother who was addicted to Class A drugs during pregnancy and a father who he would never get the chance to meet. He was brought into the world unwanted to live in an insecure environment that would shape his life for years to come. Passed from one family member to another, living in children’s homes but never really have a home, G suffered years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse which left him unable to cope with daily life. At 16, he was hanging out with the wrong crowd who taught him to steal cars, deal drugs and break into homes. It was about then that the addiction that would blight his life took hold. G could not resist casinos and spent huge amounts of money trying to achieve the “big one”…that is a jackpot that would change his life. It was also an escape from the rigours of his life…he felt good when gambling, in contrast to his life outside the casino. Crippled by a lack of self-esteem, the casino was the one place he felt at home despite the destructive influence it had on him. He knew all the casino workers  and the regular “punters” personally, calling them “family”. This positive (for him) “high” that he  felt while gambling was followed by days of depression, guilt and self-loathing. He would have no more money for the month, he would be terrified that his girlfriend would find out and end their relationship, he would hate himself  for days after a fix to the extent that he would lay in bed and feign illness. One day, he called me and said he would be gone for six months. Despite my pleas for information, none was forthcoming and I subsequently found out that he had signed up for a six month stint on a fishing boat in an attempt to cure his addiction. He believed that if the temptation was not there, he could be cured. This was half of the story…he owed huge amounts of money to loan sharks that he had contacted to fuel his addiction. Upon his return, he was more anxious than ever before and asked me for help. This I believed would be a monumental task due to the fact that he had never shown any motivation to stop before. I decided to use the negative feelings he felt after a fix to over-ride the positive he felt while gambling. We went at least 20 times to the same gambling hall that he had used frequently. I made him “feel” the negative feelings of guilt, worry and self-loathing, challenging him to realise how he would feel if he gave into his temptation. I reminded him of what would happen if his partner found out…I made him focus on the negative things that happen to him after the event and made him relate that to the environment that we found ourselves in.  It was not easy but eventually it began to sink in and as I write he has been “gamble” free for three months.

I employed a calculated form of negative thinking, called defensive pessimism. This can lead to very positive results, according to Julie K. Norem, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College. “We’re not talking about a general disposition to see the glass half-empty: Defensive pessimism is a strategy used in specific situations to manage anxiety, fear, and worry,” says Norem, who has conducted seminal research on the subject. “Defensive pessimists,” she says, “prepare for a situation by setting low expectations for themselves, then follow-up with a very detailed assessment of everything that may go wrong.” Once they’ve imagined the full range of bad outcomes, they start figuring out how they’ll handle them, and that gives them a sense of control.

“What’s intriguing about defensive pessimists,” adds Lawrence Sanna, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has also studied the phenomenon, “is that they tend to be very successful people, and so their low opinion of the outcome isn’t realistic; they use it to motivate themselves to perform better.” For example, an executive is getting ready to pitch a project, and she thinks beforehand, “The client is going to be really difficult; he’s not going to like my proposal. I have to make sure I explain things very clearly.” “She uses defensive pessimism as a tool to work through all the possibilities so she’s prepared for everything, even failure,” Sanna says. “And if she does fail, she’s ready for it, so it’s not so catastrophic.”


Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Intriguinglyc


    I actually do this naturally all the time with things…with situations. It’s a learned defense mechanism.
    I naturally always prepare for the worst. But I do it to such an extent, that I do not see or hope for any good any longer, and even though it does prepare you for the worst, you get into the habit of always then expecting the worst. In fact you are waiting for the worst to happen. It seems right that it should.

    Even when something does unexpectedly turn out well or good, it then doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t sit right. You feel you do not deserve any good. And then I try to destroy it or sabotage it in some way.

    I do not understand anyone who hopes for the best, or thinks positive about a situation. That makes no sense to me.

    Also even though I can feel and know all the bad about a situation, I will still go back to the high again and again, even if it causes me pain and torment every time.

    The pain and torment are where you feel like you know and are familiar with most though.

    There is always a price to pay for pleasure. You cannot have pleasure without pain.

    They go hand in hand.

  2. This is interesting Dr. Jenner. It makes sense. I utilize EMDR in many of my daily sessions where in the underlying negative belief is identified and in short, new perspective through the processing the underlying belief and attached emotions and memories. I am accustomed to looking for underlying negative cognition, but had not necessarily considered these as defensive strategy-though this makes sense. I am certainly going to explore this more. Thank you for this post and information. Interesting.