Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Defensive pessimism: Using your anxiety as motivation

Woman standing in front a sunset with her arms wide open

Have you ever thought of your anxiety as a source of success and achievement? It’s not surprising if you have not.

After all, mainstream belief suggests that anxious thoughts should be challenged because they are not beneficial to overall mental health. This simplistic belief ignores that anxiety can have some benefits for the individual, especially when it comes to motivation.

This post will discuss the concept of defensive pessimism and harnessing anxiety as a motivating force in your life (Norem & Cantor, 1986)

What is defensive pessimism?

Defensive pessimism refers to setting unrealistically low-performance expectations in a risky situation. For instance, when you are studying for an important exam or preparing for a work interview.

These low expectations are set despite past successes. The mindsets low expectations strategically, as these low expectations motivate defensive pessimists to work harder and more efficiently, in order to avoid that failure.

Setting these low expectations also tricks the mind away from the fear of the unknown.

Anxiety and self-fulfilling prophecy

Prior to defensive anxiety, the accepted belief was that of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Psychologists described setting low expectations for yourself as a self-handicapping strategy, they argued that setting low expectations for self will match the performance abilities to match that low expectation:

You think you are going to fail - you will act in ways that lead to failing

The self-fulfilling prophecy is not an insignificant idea, evidence suggests that it exists.

Nevertheless, defensive pessimism offers a different way of perceiving anxiety. It is suggested the defensive pessimism helps individuals to cope with their anxiety. Consequently, this turns the anxiety into a motivating force – not debilitating like otherwise thought.  

To an extent, anxiety is on a spectrum. On one end, we have self-fulfilling prophecy and on the other, defensive pessimism.

You may ask now – well, how do I ensure that I use anxiety as a motivating force? Well, I guess it really depends on individual characteristics.

Defensive pessimism and self-reflection

Anxiety and depression are like bread and butter – they are often a pair.

The main difference between depressives and those who harness anxiety as a motivating force is that defensive pessimists can self-reflect.

Self-reflection helps to increase the perception of goal importance, effort and overall hope. The ability to reflect can also develop individuals’ determination for personal growth.

In contrast, people on the other end of the spectrum reject self-reflection and are unable to use their anxiety as a motivating force.

I believe that the mind can be trained to self-reflect over time and it can become a habit. If you have any empty notebooks, use them for self-reflection. Note your thoughts, goals and feelings. Do this daily. 

This will help you to master the defensive pessimism strategy and harness your anxiety as motivation in life.  

Anxiety is not always bad

Turns out that thinking that your glass is half empty does not mean you are a failure as a human being. Anxiety has its purpose and positive benefits.

Knife is a dangerous object; however, its benefits depend on how the knife is used. You could think of anxiety in a similar way. Anxiety is not always bad, it can be used as a strategy to improve your performance and productivity.

The take-home message from this post is that being pessimistic about your performance on the task may lead to incredible results. Don’t be worried when the mindsets low expectations, it is merely a cognitive strategy to boost your success! Have you heard of defensive pessimism before? What do you think of this concept?

If you would like to find out whether you are a defensive pessimist take this quiz to find out!

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  1. As someone who suffers with anxiety this is a great post. I have never thought about the positive aspects it brings, thank you for writing this!

    1. You are very welcome :) I'm glad you found the post helpful.

  2. I like how you talked about the self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not really a psychology major, but is that similar to the Pygmalion effect? Great post btw! I didn't know anxiety could be used as a cognitive strategy to reach your goals!

    Mari xx

    1. I've never heard of pygmalion effect, but what I've read is a bit different from self-fullfiling prophecy. Self-fullfiling prophecy can happen from your own view of self, for instance viewing yourself as a 'depressed individual' and then subconsciously having your actions matching that label, is sort of like a labelling effect. Other people can lead to self-fullfiling prophecy as well. It seems that pygmalion effect only occurs due to the expectations of others'.

  3. Great post Laura. Your outlook reminds me very much of Taoism in the way you described that knife - there are many different angles at which one can view something. Turning a weakness into a strength is a key tenet of the Taoist sentiment.

    Joe (Being & Niceness)

    1. To be honest, I've never really read much into Taoism, I shall explore it a bit more. Thanks for reading.

  4. I'm guilty of defensive pessimism. I'm always scared of disappointment!

  5. I don't have anxiety but I can definitely be this way too! I've never really considered it before but this post was really interesting. Definitely got me thinking x


  6. Great post. I've suffered from GAD for a good 7 years now and I tend to use it as motivation. I set myself small achievable goals and tend to break things into sections, so if i'm really anxious about a doctors appointment for example, my first goal would be to get ready, second goal would be to make it to the surgery. Etc etc! :)


  7. Love this blog post darling, I can really relate to so much of what you have said. 💜

    With love, Alisha Valerie x | www.alishavalerie.com


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