When you’ve got a big work project or task coming up, do you feel like you waste time worrying?

And then get irritated with yourself for worrying and thinking of the worse? (because for Pete’s sake, you’d really like to be more calm, cool, and confident given your skills and experience).

I do. Yes to all the above!

This is where my worried mind takes me:

  • “This is going to be hard”
  • “Others would probably do this better/faster/more easily”
  • “OMG, what if I suck/fail/don’t do a good job?…and then make a fool of myself”

Welcome to being a human and a perfectionist.

Hey, you’re not wasting your time!

I’m semi obsessed with making the most of my time. When I assess that I’m not using it well, I get annoyed with myself.

Enter the concept of defensive pessimism—a form of pessimism that can have a positive impact on situations where you want to shine and do good work but you’re worried that won’t be the case.

Do you waste time worrying, or are you a “defensive pessimist”?

Defensive pessimists are people who keep their expectations low as a means of helping them prepare for the worst. They are convinced that a future event will go poorly and, consequently, take all the necessary steps to make sure it does not go that way.

In other words: they worry, and then prepare like heck to make sure things go well.

What does defensive pessimism look like?

Defensive pessimists don’t want to fail or do poorly at something. So, they take action to ensure that their worse case scenario won’t come true.  For example, let’s say you’ve got an upcoming job interview. A defensive pessimist will be stressed out that the interview will go terribly and that they’ll underperform. They’ll anticipate all the things that could go wrong and this motivates them to prepare extensively.

Worry energy turns into solid preparation (albeit, usually accompanied by lots of stress).

The good news

Research has shown that defensive pessimists don’t perform worse than strategic optimists in verbal, creative, and analytical tasks. Furthermore, they may experience more self-esteem over time as they make progress over their goals.

As someone who regularly over prepares and stresses about things, I’m not suggesting that defensive pessimism is ideal! However, knowing about this concept helps me appreciate the function of my worry. Instead of (only) being annoyed with it, I can reframe it (i.e., think of it differently) and see how it propels me forward to do good things.

To learn more:

The positive power of negative thinking (LinkedIn article by Adam Grant)

The upside of defensive pessimism: The potential benefit of anxiety (PositivePsychology article by Joaquín Selva; includes a helpful distinction between pessimism and defensive pessimism)

I coach a lot of highly conscientious perfectionists who want to do well by others, by their work, and also advance in their careers. They take on projects, responsibilities, leadership and — worry. As a coach, I work with folks so they can make use of their amazing energy, talent and drive, without “killing” themselves. If you could use this kind of support, reach out to me. I’d love to help.

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