-David Rakoff New York Times Magazine,12/9/2001
For years the popular psychology and self-help movement has tried to help anxious or pessimistic people achieve a positive attitude. Among the enemies of emotional well-being, we have been told, are negative outlooks and “catastrophizing,” both of which could be battled through the visualization of a successful outcome: avoid the bad and focus on the good.
In September, Julie Norem, a psychologist at Wellesley College, surprised a great many adherents to that belief by revealing that it just wasn’t so. Or rather, not universally so. According to her highly counterintuitive book, “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking,” such sunny, upbeat strategies don’t always work; in fact, for some people they backfire, making them even more anxious than they were in the first place. The only thing that can bring them a sense of calm is directly contemplating negative outcomes. This deliberate and structured focus on dark contingencies is known as defensive pessimism.
Defensive pessimism can be reduced to a three-step mental rehearsal. First, approach the anxiety-producing task with lowered expectations, certain that it will go badly. (Take, for example, public speaking, a common fear: commit yourself to the idea that your next speech will be a disaster.) Then, imagine in detail all the ways in which it will go awry. (You will lose your notes at the 11th hour, you will trip on the way to the podium, you will be pilloried by your colleagues.) Finally, map out ways to avert each catastrophe.
For strategic optimists, the sorts of people who like to psych themselves up for a challenge, this routine would produce more anxiety, not less. But for anxious people, Norem’s findings show that this unusual method can offer a sense of control, however limited, over uncomfortable circumstances.
And as for those Cassandras who seem genuinely unhappy? Those are dispositional pessimists, the classic catastrophizers. They also assume that every challenge will end in disaster, but they leave it at that. That kind of blanket hopelessness defies agency, the exact opposite of what defensive pessimism does, with its deliberate, detailed planning.
And what about now? Does it seem foolish to advocate daydreams of worst-case-scenario when the furthest limits of fantasy are so easily trumped by the evening news? The contradictory exhortations to return to our lives while remaining vigilant of some nonspecific threat cause many people to experience “premature cognitive narrowing,” that tunnel vision of panic that robs us of our normal capacity for reason. An unvarnished gaze at an undeniably perilous world might be the only means by which some of us can restore even a minimal sense of control. Or, as Norem puts it: “Ensuring that every piece of mail in the United States is irradiated is beyond most of our power. Buying a pair of latex gloves is not.”