The Power of Pessimism
Are you more glass half empty that half full? Sick of people telling you to look on the bright side of life? Kali Anthony talks about how to harness the power of pessimism for good, rather than for evil...
When I was a kid, I always assumed the worst. Always.
As I became older, I became more positive about things. Whistling little ditties about always looking on the bright side etc etc. But at its heart, I think I’m still a bit of a pessimist. See, I figured that if I assumed the worst and it didn’t happen, then I’d be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed, right?
Turns out I might have been.
Everyone bangs away about being happy and positive all the time, but I reckon those things are a trap. They can add undue pressure for us to put up appearances and leave we pessimists/partial pessimists open to unfair criticism of being the Eeyore in a room full of Tiggers (hint, Eeyore is my favourite Winnie the Pooh character).
Luckily for all the closet glass-half-empty people out there, pessimism seems to be getting a bit of positive press. Apparently, philosophers say that a constant reminder it’s all going to end, frees us to take risks because, “How bad can it really be if we’re all doomed?” Cheery thought. Happy dancing.
Moving right along, since there is a point to this piece!
Studies seem to support a negative way of thinking. In one, scientists asked thirsty people to imagine themselves drinking a cold glass of iced water. Turns out people who imagined the icy water put less energy into actually getting a hold of a real glass of water to drink. In scientist speak, “Results indicate that one reason positive fantasies predict poor achievement is because they do not generate energy to pursue the desired future.” Which essentially means if you always believe you’re going to get something, you don’t work as hard for it.
In her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Julie Norem suggests that positive thinking is actually an ineffective way of managing stress and anxiety, and talks about the benefits of “defensive pessimism” in helping you to achieve your best. Defensive pessimism is a strategy focused on the outcome, and not self-blame because self-blame is bad.
Defensive pessimists assume the worst is going to happen, then workshop everything that might go wrong, in an effort to ensure that it doesn’t. So, using a job interview as an example, the defensive pessimist will assume they won’t get the job then plan for any contingencies that might arrive by practicing answers to difficult questions, arriving at the interview early so they don’t get stuck in the lift on the way there…(this actually happened to me, but that is another story).
Essentially defensive pessimists harness their negativity to perform even better.
So how does this relate to writing, you ask? Excellent question, which I’ll attempt to answer by talking about myself, because that’s what I know.
In my writing, whilst friends and beta readers assure me I will absolutely, definitely get published one day, deep, deep down, there’s always been a little voice whispering, “Bet you won’t because you’re not good enough yet.” That’s the tortured artist speaking, right there. It’s also the lawyer, because as a lawyer I’m trained each day to be a defensive pessimist.
This pessimistic little voice has helped me to work extremely hard in my writing to avoid rejection. Harder, frankly, than I think I've worked at anything. It's meant (in the beginning) studying craft obsessively because whilst I write for my day job, I needed to understand in detail, how three act structure and internal vs external motivation were actually put into practice.
The down side of this preparation for failure, has involved a quest for perfection which can be paralysing but I tell you what, not one story I’ve ever sent off has been anything less than as perfect as I can get it in that moment. I like to think that in preparing for the worst I’ve really learned some things along the way which have made me a far better writer, that I wouldn’t have if I’d simply assumed it would all fall in my lap.
Has it meant I've never been rejected? Nope, I have. Countless times. But I never doubt I haven’t covered all the contingencies I could foresee, or submitted something that wasn't as good as it could have been. It just means I have to do even better next time.
So where does this leave us? Neither optimism or pessimism is bad. All I’m trying to say here, is that pessimism is okay, you just need to harness the good parts and not blame yourself when it doesn't all go to plan. Ignore the naysayers. You don’t have to be positive all the time. And whether you’re glass half full or glass half empty, either can work for you.
So go forth, embrace your defensive pessimist, and conquer your creative goals!
Kali Anthony is an aspiring writer and senior editor for The Pink Heart Society. Follow Kali on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Do you see yourself as an optimist or a pessimist? How does each, work for you? Let us know here, or on the hashtag #AlteredPOV. We'd love to hear from you!