Defensive Pessimism When Planning for Success

July 24, 2023 Matt Brocklebank

Pessimism is a trait usually associated with negativity and a cynical outlook. But did you know there is another type of pessimism that can play a role in planning for success? Defensive pessimism, as it's called, is a strategy that offers an alternative approach to navigating all the unexpected circumstances life may present.

Defensive Pessimism and Worst-Case Scenarios

In contrast to the ever-optimistic outlook of positive thinking, defensive pessimism is a coping technique that involves setting low expectations and imagining worst-case scenarios, irrespective of how successful previous achievements were. The aim is to reduce anxiety and the pressure of always doing things perfectly.1

You would be forgiven for thinking that images of worst-case scenarios might cause anxiety, not reduce it. Indeed, worrying about things uncontrollably caused me a great deal of apprehension and stress in the past. But the idea behind defensive pessimism is that by envisioning all the possible things that could go wrong, we can prepare effective counteractive measures to deal with them.

For example, imagine entering an important examination with only one pencil. If the pencil breaks and there is nothing else to write with, the exam is as good as over. But by visualizing this situation beforehand and preparing two or three pencils, we have something to fall back on. Likewise, picturing an exam paper filled with difficult questions might motivate us to study harder. Studying hard before an exam is a way of overcoming personal limitations and improving our chances of success.

Isn't Defensive Pessimism Just Common Sense?

When I first read about defensive pessimism, I thought, "Isn't this all just common sense? How is this any different from how I do things already?"

If the weather report says it will rain, I take an umbrella to avoid getting wet. When hiking, I wear sturdy boots to avoid twisting my ankle. But while there appears to be some overlap between the two, there are also distinct differences.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines common sense as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts."2

However, defensive pessimism goes beyond the practicality and rational decision-making of common sense. It encourages us to intentionally focus on avoiding adverse outcomes so that we can plan accordingly, even when common sense might suggest a more optimistic outlook. When used in this way, it can make life less stressful and increase our confidence, especially as it relates to the ability to manage whatever upsets life may throw our way.3

How I Utilize Defensive Pessimism

Much of what I do is very similar to defensive pessimism. I anticipate and deal with potential problems by planning ways to cope with them in advance. Whenever I picture an obstacle or the inherent uncertainty in any situation, I devise a way to deal with it. Doing so helps me channel my energy from focusing on the negative toward proactive planning. However, deliberately setting low expectations is neither intuitive nor easy for me. I must keep working on this if I really want to take full advantage of defensive pessimism.

Making Defensive Pessimism Work for You

Despite being based on negative expectations, defensive pessimism is not about being controlled by the fear of failure. On the contrary, it is part of having a desire to succeed. It prompts us to actively avert unfavorable outcomes by creating backup plans and alternative courses of action.

Balancing negative expectations with positive effort empowers us to stay one step ahead, adapt to changing circumstances, and increase our chances of achieving positive outcomes.


  1. Skedel, R. (2022, December 5). Defensive Pessimism: Definition & Effectiveness. Choosing Therapy.
  2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (n.d.). Definition of common sense. Retrieved July 19, 2023, from
  3. BetterHelp Editorial Team. (2023, May 30). What Is Defensive Pessimism, And Is It Healthy? BetterHelp.

APA Reference
Brocklebank, M. (2023, July 24). Defensive Pessimism When Planning for Success, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Author: Matt Brocklebank

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