Using Defensive Pessimism or Negative Thinking


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by Jayaram V

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My book Think Success is about success and positive thinking. In fact, over time, the expression "positive thinking" has become a cliché. Every book on self-help more or less speaks about being positive and cultivating positive thinking. It is true, it is very difficult to remain positive in the present day world, when many bad things happen all the time and you are constantly bombarded with negative news.

Ask any reporter or journalist, and she will tell you the power of negative thinking. We are instantly drawn to negative news: wars, conflicts, murders, crimes, shootings, rapes, corruption, pollution, drugs and death, while the actions of good persons (like me) are rarely noticed unless they make negative comments or indulge in inappropriate behavior. Besides, our very survival mechanism is geared to keep us pessimistic and fearful of the world in which we live. Therefore for all practical purposes, negative thinking is our natural state while positive thinking is an affected one, which we hardly remember or maintain in crises or disturbing situations.

It is difficult to stay positive always

Despite scientific research debunking the usefulness of positive thinking, I still believe having positive mental attitude is helpful. You can use it to feel good about yourself and your future. You can use it to boost your commitment and resolve to stay on course and complete your tasks under difficult circumstances. However, like everything else in life, we cannot just live by positive thinking alone. Just as we cannot always be happy or unhappy, we cannot always remain positive. From time to time reality stares at you hard and you cannot help imagining the worst. Is it good? It is certainly is, as long as you know how to use your common sense and keep your balance.

Life is all about balance

The beauty of life is, it is a mixture of opposites. Problem arises when you deny this simple fact and try to veer towards one or the other extremes in your search for happiness and stability. True happiness lies in accepting life for what it is and basing your plans, actions and expectations upon that reality without focusing unduly upon changing the equation. The opposites are like two fires burning on the two sides of the road of life. Your job is to remain in the middle, without getting burned. Hinduism and Buddhism suggest that you should rise above the opposites and remain equal to them. Sameness (samatvam) is the highest virtue, the ultimate result of yoga and renunciation. It is, of course, a difficult goal to achieve, unless you are spiritually inclined and willing to set aside all your ambition and self-indulgence.

Defensive pessimism

Research done in recent times suggests that negative thinking is useful and has its own value. We cannot ignore its importance, knowing well that we are constantly forced to deal with the uncertainties of life. Negative thinking helps us to deal with adverse and unpleasant outcomes of our actions and manage unforeseen situations, which we cannot completely avoid. This is a defensive strategy for self-preservation. It is also called defensive pessimism. It involves thinking or envisioning worst case scenarios to take care of the negative outcomes of the actions and decisions one may take.

The purpose of defensive pessimism is very much like that of defensive driving. Even if you are very positive about your driving skills, it is certainly helpful to listen to your spouse or friend who keeps telling you, much to your annoyance, to slow down, or watch the traffic signal or the opposite vehicle. It may be annoying at times (it certainly is), but you know that at times it helps you to refocus your mind and bring back your attention. You know inherently that despite all your experience, you cannot be careless while driving because even if the vehicle you drive is under your control, the other vehicles on the road are not. It is the same with your life. You can only control certain aspect of your life. The rest is not under your control. It depends upon others, chance or acts of God.

Put to use the power of negative thinking

Positive thinking is largely helpful to remain engaged with your goals and dreams. It is the booster of your life and your drive. However, you cannot always remain positive. Life is such that you have to deal with negative situations and outcomes also. You have to deal with negative people and safeguard yourself from their bad decisions and actions. Therefore, your positive thinking needs to be tempered or balanced with defensive pessimism so that you can always have a backup plan to deal with the contingencies and the unforeseen outcomes of your own actions and decisions and those of others. Since you cannot live by yourself alone, you have to be careful about your dealings with others and situations that are not entirely under your control. Especially, if your work involves other people or depends upon their contribution, you have to remain on the defensive until the task is completed.

I am not suggesting that you have to be suspicious, distrustful or paranoid, but careful, diligent and watchful, just as you are when you perform a complex task such as driving a vehicle, operating a machine or giving a presentation. That is what defensive pessimism about. It keeps you prepared without being overly pessimistic or fearful. Life being uncertain, people being unpredictable, you have to remain defensive, despite your enthusiasm and positive outlook. Even when things are going on smoothly, you have to keep assessing the situations to notice warning signs and problem spots so that you are not surprised by the turn of events.

The value of negative thinking in health and relationships

One of the areas where defensive pessimism is very useful is your own health. We generally tend to ignore our health. By nature, we are life oriented. We are very positive about our prospects of living and always believe that somehow we are not going to be effected by our unhealthy choices. Defensive pessimism certainly helps us to take preventive measures and address our health problem in time.

Relationships is another area. Relationships do not last long. Relationships cannot be taken for granted. People change and with them their relationships and attitudes. Therefore, you should not expect your relationships to continue forever. You should be prepared mentally to allow your relationships to wither over time or take preventive measure to keep them.

Putting your negative mindset to practical use

Defensive pessimism is a strategy in which you use the power of both positive thinking and negative thinking to reach your goals, use the opportunities and take care of the rinks and threats. Defensive pessimism is also a preventive measure. It will help you to prepare for the rainy day. It will keep you on the alert and stay balanced. The few suggestions are helpful to practice it in daily life.

1. Haven an open mind

2. Stay positive but be realistic

3. Do not take people or situations for granted

4. Develop contingency plans

5. Be ready for any eventuality

6. Trust in your abilities but know that everything is not under your control

7. Do what you can, hope for the best but have a backup plan for every situation.

8. When things go wrong, take responsibility and focus on the solutions.

9. Learn from your failure and keep moving on.

10. Enjoy your life, knowing well that it will not last forever.

Know the value of pessimism in accomplishing your goals. Know the value of pessimism in relationships also. Those who understand its value, do not react to the negative comments and criticism coming from others. They consider it a feedback, review their actions and move on by learning from it. You should always value the relationship of those who do not hesitate to speak their minds, who are transparent and speak out their hearts. It is better to have such friends rather than those who are not honest with you, who does things behind your back and whom you cannot really trust.

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