Lately, to most anyone who will listen, I’ve yammered about how anxious I feel.
“I know why,” I share to people who’ve most often already stopped listening.
“It’s because I’m living in the future. I have lots looming ahead and I’m continually trying to figure out how it will unfold while simultaneously trying to be PRESENT.”
I’m super-anxious and this is NOT a state I have familiarity with.
I don’t find calm in chaos. I find calm in….calm.
I don’t find relief in constant motion. I find relief in staying still.
As a result—and as the researcher I am—I looked for information.
I turned to Dr. Google and quickly discovered a whole group of people who practice something which initially seemed counter-intuitive to optimistic-me.
They’ve adopted an attitude which they claim helps lessen their anxiety and allowed them to better cope with life-uncertainty:
Quite frankly initially this all sounded more than a little wacky.
I’m a woman whose life perspective veers more toward My glass is so full it’s overflowing — may I pour some into yours? than Crapballs my glass is cracked. It was half-full but now it’s near empty.
Still, I had no better plan or approach to mitigating my anxiety (book! potential move! life uncertainty! living in future!) so I read on.
Defensive pessimism grew less CrAzY an idea the more I came to understand the concept.
- Defensive pessimists set low expectations no matter how they’ve done in the past (huh. not usually me.)
- Defensive pessimists make detailed assessments/focus on all possible bad outcomes/roadblocks to goals (huh. definitely not Law of Attraction.)
According to believers, this strategy harnesses uncertainty and anxiety (AKA my living in the future) and uses it to promote superior life performance.
Quite frankly I give not a
shit care about (finger quote) superior life performance (unFQ) I just wanna quit being so freakin frazzled.
So I adopted this mindset.
- I considered our upcoming book edits and I imagined how horrifically they could unfurl.
- I thought about the possibility of uprooting AGAIN and moving back to Austin and imagined myself alone, friendless with a sad eight year old sidekick.
And on and on.
I embraced & practiced defensive pessimism and found all the catastrophic scenarios I imagined were also pretty easily overcome when I puzzled through them in my mind.
This newfound sense of control over uncertainty has slowly chipped away at my feelings of anxiety.
Imagining the worst case scenario in EVERY FACET OF LIFE isn’t realistic (I know it’s not going to all unfold that way) yet it has helped me to realize I‘m ok no matter what transpires.
And until I can claw my way to viewing uncertainty in this positive light:
Defensive pessimism allows me to see the “worst possible outcome” or rough road ahead is, in fact, nothing I cannot handle.
I know you’re bored by my navel-gazing, really busy, and probably no one will bother to leave me any comments resulting in my feeling sooo super alone (wink), but just in case:
- What do you do when feeling anxious as a result of life-uncertainty?
- Do you question if you’re too naturally optimistic to try defensive pessimism?
Allie saysAugust 20, 2014 at 2:42 am
I struggle with anxiety all the time. If I didn’t run, I would be a ball of anxiousness just bouncing off the walls. I have to say, that I’ve tried this technique without really knowing it. If I can sit still for a time, and think about all the “what ifs” and worst possible outcomes, I come to the same conclusions you did. Everything is manageable if you stay present. Now I just have to stay present!
Angela @ Happy Fit Mama saysAugust 20, 2014 at 3:36 am
What’s the calm in chaos talk? Yup, I don’t do well with that either. I’m a major What if-er so I’m always reminding myself to live right now. It’s so freakin’ hard but just being aware of it brings me down a little bit.
Ida saysAugust 20, 2014 at 5:07 am
I do not find any calm or soothing in chaos, either!!
Barbara saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:01 am
I hear you. Big anxiety today with 3rd grade and Kindergarten starting. Issues have me wound tighter than an 8 day clock. 🙂
About to wake the kids and get it all going. Workout….check. Coffee….double check. 😉 Breakfast….check. Clinging to Psalm 46:10 today….Be Still And Know I Am God.
I’m putting the energy of my fear into the confidence I have in my kids.
Coco saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:21 am
So, so interesting! I always think of myself as an optimist, but I have such anxiety about my kids, I may be practicing defensive pessimism without realizing it — except I can come up with all kinds of horrible outcomes of my worries over my kids being out and about at all hours …. For that, I think it’s more of a control/letting go issue, so I’ve been working on that and mostly getting better.
Jennifer FIsher saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:29 am
I will be your in-person friend if you move back to Austin 🙂
Runner Girl saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:30 am
hmmm. I am a tremendous pessimist.
I want to make this work for me.
Erica House saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:41 am
I go through bouts of high anxiety. When I lecture on it in class I always tell my students to ask themselves whats the absolute worst that could happen, and then think of a plan on how they would handle it if it did. I do that myself and find it works (sometimes) but most of my anxiety is free-floating. I have a sudden large amount of stress put on me with deadlines or school and suddenly I”m stressed about *everything*. I need to chill out.
Tina Muir saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:53 am
WOW! How interesting Carla, and I can definitely see it surrounding me at all times. You always pick the most interesting topics, and you put them in a way we can all relate to and understand. I love it! By the way, I had no idea you were a law of attraction fan? The Secret? Its how I live my life 🙂
misszippy saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:57 am
This is so interesting to me. I am like you–I need calm to feel calm (introvert much?). And I didn’t even know there was a label for it, but I am definitely a defensive pessimist. Yet I have always questioned that–as my mom would say, “don’t borrow trouble.” Ack–so hard to know what’s right! Let us know how it works for you longer term.
Michele @ paleorunningmomma saysAugust 20, 2014 at 4:58 am
When I was a kid I had anxiety and my mom actually did this with me. We’d go over all of the horrible things that could happen until I was okay with all of them. I’ve kind of trained myself to think that way over the years (I am definitely an anxious type) and it really does help. Whenever I try to defend this way of thinking it just comes off as negative but I honestly feel it’s realistic and helps me achieve a lot more than I would otherwise.
Ida saysAugust 20, 2014 at 5:07 am
This makes a lot of sense to me.
I try and think of all life’s pitfalls before I do anything so I’m ready.
Kate saysAugust 20, 2014 at 5:42 am
Balance in all things.
If the glass is half full, it’s also half empty. I’ve always said that satisfaction lies in the half full part, opportunity in the half empty. Everyone needs both. I think far too many people today believe they need to live their lives in a state of perpetual bliss, yet it’s the discomfort of want and need that provoke us and inspire us to new heights…. as well as sadness or defeat.
In any situation, I’ve always asked “What’s the WORST that can happen?” because if that’s what DOES happen, I want to be prepared. And when the BETTER happens, that means that it’s exceeded expectations, is better than I imagined (but not necessarily better than I COULD imagine).
I’m not one to believe that we think things into being… that if we imagine (and prepare for) the worst, than the worst is exactly what we’ll get. The universe just doesn’t work that way. The key to imagining (and preparing for) the worst is to not be SATISFIED with the worst, just to be aware of it.
Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine saysAugust 20, 2014 at 6:16 am
O yes, the uncertainty and not knowing in my life now is more than I have ever experienced and it is so hard to know how to deal with it.
Beth @ Running with the Sunrise saysAugust 20, 2014 at 6:20 am
Awesome post! I tend to worry about things a lot, too, and practicing mindfulness, or a version of defensive pessimism has been helpful to me. When I started grad school my anxiety was pretty high and I went to see a counselor who had me describe the worst case scenario and then talk through how I would handle that scenario. It helped me a lot. I also find myself going to my yoga breathing when I’m feeling anxious which helps me a lot, too. I’m glad you found a coping strategy that works well for you and thank you for sharing it with us!
Amanda saysAugust 20, 2014 at 6:40 am
I think you have found your own way, Carla. I just wanted you to know that, hearing that your life is not all peaches and cream, kinda makes my own anxiety more bearable. I hope everything works out for you, whatever crazy road you take.
Carla saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:31 am
this comment is precisely why Ive lost my filter and not reapplied. I think we all need to just be honest about our struggles so we can normalize for each other more… xoxo
Michelle @ Running with Attitude saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:18 am
Really interesting….I’m such a “what if’er” and working through possible outcomes does give me some sense of calm knowing that I could manage through. However, other times it just contributes to my spinning which is not productive. A fine line I’m finding.
AdjustedReality saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:44 am
I never put a name to it, but YES, this. If I’m really nervous about something, I play the Best/Worst game. For example, let’s say I’ve decided to confront my boss about a promotion next week. Playing that game, I’ll envision both the scenario where I get fired immediately, and then I have to get a job doing something awful because I can’t get anything else, and the scenario where I get chosen to get a huge raise and my dream job, with a three month sabbatical to do research and travel, all expenses paid, in luxury hotels.
It does two things: it makes me giggle because both are ridiculous. Not very likely going to happen. Also, since I’ve already framed the experience as somewhere in the middle, not much will phase me even if it’s closer to the bottom end (“No promotion, don’t ask again”).
AdjustedReality saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:45 am
Also… I hope that the things you’re anxious about sort themselves out soon and at least become certainties you can begin to actually deal with and not just anticipate!
Jessica saysAugust 20, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Dr. J saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:53 am
The future can be an optimistic void. Live as if not what if, and you will be fine!
Cindy saysAugust 20, 2014 at 9:04 am
I have big anxiety problems and the way I deal with it just makes it worse. The nature of my job is to anticipate all the possible outcomes of a chose in detail and solve any problems before they happen. I take that love of finding the little imperfections into the rest of my life. I am also a drama queen so when I am looking forward I get wired up and everything is bigger and brighter and more. Try coming down from that high!
I swim a lot to help control my stress and I try to catch myself as I start to go into that ramped up state of mind and when I catch it I walk away and come back after a few minutes or longer.
Janis saysAugust 20, 2014 at 9:12 am
I freely confess — I am a defensive pessimist. But to me, it’s like defensive driving. You use it as a way to stay alert and make sure you can adapt.
Basically, pessimism is useless unless you use it as an excuse to get things done. “I’d like to achieve ABC, but I bet XYZ is likely to happen that will torpedo my plans. What can I do to make sure that XYZ either doesn’t happen or doesn’t capsize me?” To me, that’s defensive pessimism. It’s quite different from, “XYZ is likely to happen, so I might as well not even bother.”
The key thing to ask, whether you call it pessimism or whatever, is are you going to end up at ABC or aren’t you? If you’ve decided that you are, then make the plans you need to make to get there, call it what you will.
Optimism and pessimism are two of the slipperiest words in the language, I think. I’ve run into people who would class what I said as “optimism” due to the assumption that one is ultimately capable of getting to ABC. But I’ve seen the word “optimism” used to mean, “Someone else will deal with that problem, so let’s just blunder on blindly until we run into something.” I’ve also encountered people who would practically define wearing a seat belt as “pessimism” because it’s assuming you’re going to get into an accident.
It’s all very strange. These two words are used to mean anything and everything by the whole world. Words do have an inherent sort of “give” to them, but those two seem to be made of jello.
Erin @ Her Heartland Soul saysAugust 20, 2014 at 9:52 am
I wonder if this is what I am. I always consider worst case scenarios but at the same time I’m incredibly grateful and believe with out a doubt that everything will always work out better than okay.
Amanda - RunToTheFinish saysAugust 20, 2014 at 10:17 am
I’m not a defensive pessimist, but when I’m worried about an action I will think through what’s the worst that could happen and realize it usually just isn’t that bad!
Alysia @ Slim Sanity saysAugust 20, 2014 at 10:34 am
I tend to get more anxiety over little things (and needles, tried to have blood drawn the other day and had a crazy anxiety episode), than the big life unexpectancies. whatever happens, happens.
lindsay Cotter saysAugust 20, 2014 at 11:38 am
this –> My glass is so full it’s overflowing — may I pour some into yours? than Crapballs my glass is cracked. It was half-full but now it’s near empty.
Ya, i know that feeling. You can yammer to me anytime and I will help seal the cracks. Then vice versa. All while being still… ok?
Jessica saysAugust 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm
My therapist helps me talk out the “what is the worst that can happen” scenarios…then we try to identify how to deal with those, should they manifest. They rarely do.
mimi saysAugust 20, 2014 at 12:21 pm
Asking myself, “What’s the worst that could happen if…” helps a lot. It generally ends with me laughing at how absurd my imaginings can get, and makes me realize it’s not so bad a situation at all.
Sagan saysAugust 20, 2014 at 12:25 pm
Ooh, this is interesting. I used to employ defensive pessimism (without knowing that it was a thing until now :)), but I thought that I was an optimist in general… until a month ago, when I realized that somehow over time I have become a pessimist. Now I wonder if it’s BECAUSE I employed defensive pessimism? Hmmm.
I’m anxious all the time. Many moments of every day. Since I’ve been encouraging myself to think positive (in conjunction with acupuncture, deep breathing, etc.), I’ve definitely noticed my anxiety decreasing a lot. And that’s exciting!
(Ultimately, I expect that everyone’s different – and maybe defensive pessimism works really well for lots of people without any adverse effects! But I guess it wasn’t quite right for me.)
Hope your anxiety goes away soon!
Mary saysAugust 20, 2014 at 12:38 pm
I am naturally a defensive pessimist. I think by expecting less I assure myself that a. I won’t be disappointed or shocked or b. I will be pleasantly surprised. Oddly enough, I absolutely cannot live life thinking the worst will happen or expecting the future to be bleak. I just don’t expect amazing things to just happen. I don’t know if that makes sense or not but it allows me to live a happy medium and to turn it up a notch or dial it back on an as needed basis. BTW – I am friends with your sister here in Austin and promise you will not be friendless if you move here!
Roni saysAugust 20, 2014 at 1:16 pm
OMG I do this naturally! The husband thinks I’m crazy but it helps me SO MUCH!
Kim saysAugust 20, 2014 at 1:35 pm
What an interesting concept.
I never thought of myself as anxious – then we bought a business. I don’t know if it’s anxiousness or just the stress of feeling clueless most of the time. Maybe I should try this approach and see if it cuts down on whatever it is I feel!!!
She Rocks Fitness saysAugust 20, 2014 at 5:25 pm
I needed to read this and I don’t mind you talking about this, because it is REAL and it is life! I do believe that uncertainty is when things happen and sometimes we need to face or fears, doubts, and insecurities, and just suck it up, and go for it. If it works awesome. If it doesn’t, guaranteed you will find another way to make the most of it.
cheryl saysAugust 20, 2014 at 5:36 pm
Work in a public school. In a PREschool yet. In a SPECIAL NEEDS preschool. There is uncertainty in every minute. Even though my cohorts are super-planned for the day (week, month, year) we realize that there is NO CONTROL when it comes to kids (and life in general) so why not just go with the flow. We hardly THINK about adapting to the moment and live our lives accordingly. Works for many I know…and teachers are a happy bunch!
Axel (@ Iron Rogue) saysAugust 20, 2014 at 6:44 pm
I think I was a born defensive pessimist, but I’ve tried to develop my optimism. I think of it as a skill that I don’t have a talent for, but can still be useful to me to get through life. Ultimately, if I can do both, it enables a “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” approach.
I’m trying to get a handle on/identify my anxiety….
GiGi Eats saysAugust 20, 2014 at 7:46 pm
I actually do NOT get anxious too often, but if I ever do, I most certainly turn to my support system so they can calm me down! My mom is the most realistic person on the face of the planet and always knows what to say to me when I am feeling out of sorts! 🙂
iHerb Coupon saysAugust 20, 2014 at 9:47 pm
Haha, you have nothing to worry about. Being anxious is completely human. I try to cop with it by running and always keeping my head up.. You’ll be fine!
Deborah saysAugust 21, 2014 at 2:07 am
I definitely suffer from defensive pessimism! And now I have a name for it!
Lucrecer saysAugust 21, 2014 at 4:58 am
Wow! I had not heard of this before, but I’m open to trying anything to deal with my occasional anxiety. Normally, I meditate and journal to deal with challenges.
Tricia Foster saysAugust 21, 2014 at 5:49 am
One of my favorite mottoes is “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.” I call societies current obsession with positive thinking the “cult of positivity.” God forbid if you feel anything but good, and lord help you if you actually express it. Look nature designed us for self-preservation. I know we are not being chased by lions or anything, but negative emotions are trying to draw your attention to something. We shouldn’t disregard them, repress them, or medicate them. We should look for the cause and ultimately a solution that makes us feel better. Just because you experience and thoughtfully investigate a negative emotion does not make you a pessimist. Only an optimist would believe they can engage with negative emotions and create a positive outcome. A pessimist hides from negative emotions because they believe engaging with them will bring psychological destruction.
John @ GymSanta saysAugust 21, 2014 at 6:03 am
My approach is to imagine the worst possible outcomes as something that will bring excitement to my otherwise semi-boring life. For example, if I get lost in the wilderness, what an adventure! If ebola spreads globally, it will be like in a Hollywood movie! And so on.
Yes, I guess you can call me crazy. But it works! 🙂
Carol Cassara saysAugust 21, 2014 at 6:44 am
I’m better about living in uncertainty at this age than I was when I was younger and expected everything to tie up neatly in a package. Not. 😉
Denise Gabbard saysAugust 21, 2014 at 7:57 am
So interesting— This line is absolutely me and my husband:
“My glass is so full it’s overflowing — may I pour some into yours? than Crapballs my glass is cracked. It was half-full but now it’s near empty”– and although him being a true pessimist infuriates me at times, it also keeps me grounded. Not to mention, it gives me motivation to prove him wrong.
We’ve been together most of our lives (seriously– since we were 15, off and on in the early years…so over 2/3 of our lives!) and been through LOTS of ups and downs…and I think we balance each other out 🙂
Lori saysAugust 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm
My life so far in 2014 has been chaotic to say the least. Between the house and work, I have had a huge sense of being unsettled. Now I have a new job to start on top of the new house stuff. However, I just say “Set em up and knock em down”. I just go forth and conquer. My motto is that everything can be fixed, you might not know how just yet, but it can be. Helps me to be positive.
Jody - Fit at 56 saysAugust 21, 2014 at 1:08 pm
Always been the defensive pessimist but not sure how far that got me… 🙂
I watch comedies to help me get thru craziness! 🙂
holly saysAugust 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm
I’ve always been paranoid and too much of a what iffer. A recent illness knocked me into perspective and I’m trying to change.
Christine @ Love, Life, Surf saysAugust 21, 2014 at 7:16 pm
Hmmmm, I think that naturally I am a defensive pessimist because it helps me figure out and realize that the worst case scenario really isn’t horrible. But, over the past few years, I’ve been trying to focus on the positive and what I can do and control vs what I can’t which clashes with my natural inclination. But man, the uncertainty and anxiety is out of control!
Lucy saysAugust 21, 2014 at 11:54 pm
I can relate with this article. If I feel anxious I just take a minute-break, breathe and sometimes I eat chocolates and then I feel fine. Just how childish I am HAHA! But seriously, being pessimistic can’t help us. Let’s just appreciate what we have around us.
bodynsoil saysAugust 22, 2014 at 5:30 am
I’m not sure how I’d do with defensive pessimism, but I also suffer from periods of anxiety as well. I do address some things systemically and try to keep my macro-nutrients balanced and add Natural Calm (magnesium) to my nightly routine to help improve sleep and relaxation.
Tricia saysAugust 23, 2014 at 7:47 am
Yep, me too. I’ve been so anxious all month, always am in August, just living in the future and dreading things. Love this post.
jennydecki saysAugust 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm
It depends. When it is a temporary uncertainty I make a few plans and then wait for things to unfold, knowing I’ve taken several paths into consideration. For my long time “I might be homeless” anxiety I live with the understanding that I know where some shelters are, I have some friends and family I could crash with, and the faith that I have made the right decision – in the long term – for my family.
I am neither an optimist or a pessimist. I feel it is important to feel both outcomes to be able to cope with them effectively. I do not want to pooh-pooh a lovely moment if it comes unexpectedly but I also do not want to be prepared for an unexpected setback. So I put myself in both places for a moment and feel that result so it will not be unfamiliar if it occurs and then go back to planning with reckless abandon the multiple paths that are most likely to happen.
Jenn L @ Peas and Crayons saysAugust 26, 2014 at 10:06 am
This. For the past two years, this. I thought maybe not just my glass was cracked but that I was indeed cracked. It’s been a tornado of events these past two years and I’ve gone into full blown DP and then some. It’s suffocating at times. I don’t have a light and sunny but then…. to add to the end of this. Just a note to say I feel you. And I’m here for you. Always.