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4 tactics that will turn pessimism into a strength

Although most people are wired to be optimists, if you’re one of the few who is able to detect risks and dangers, (because, yes, you are a pessimist) you are actually an asset to that group.

4 tactics that will turn pessimism into a strength
[Photo: Nolan Simmons/Unsplash]

Although we rarely celebrate pessimism, there are clearly many instances in which it is at least preferable to irrational optimism. For example, pessimism can help you predict—and therefore prevent—negative outcomes. Many self-inflicted problems are caused by an inability to evaluate unfavorable odds, perpetuate irrational “false hopes”, or prefer a self-serving view of reality to actual reality.

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Research also shows that most people are prewired to be optimists rather than pessimists or realists, so if you happen to be one of the few who are able to detect risks and dangers (because, yes, you are a pessimist) you are actually an asset to that group.

And yet, there is also a downside to pessimism, which includes the tendency to exaggerate problems, ruminate about non-existing threats, and a general inability—or unwillingness—to admit that things are actually fine. 

Since you cannot just take a pill and go from being a pessimist to being an optimist (though of course, there is a wide range of psychoactive substances and pharmacological products to make you feel good about the world, even when the world sucks), the best you can do is learn to cope with your natural disposition. That means not just coming to terms with your pessimism, but also trying to turn it into a strength or career weapon.

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The process looks a bit like this:

Understand yourself and your biases

Pessimism is a thinking bias, which shows up as a recurrent tendency to make excessively negative interpretations and forecasts of events. The best way to become aware of this bias is by frequently testing the outcome of your expectations, and noting how often you are wrong. If you are more likely to predict rain when you end up getting sunshine than the other way around, or you wrong assume your work or career-related decisions will go wrong, then you can safely internalize your learnings to conclude that you tend to see the glass half empty.

Another way to establish whether you are a pessimist is to get others who know you really well to tell you. We tend to think of self-awareness as introspection but it is more about other-awareness, or awareness of how other people see you.

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Finally, there are many short, science-based, freely available assessments that will benchmark you on pessimism. 

Turn awareness into smarter actions

If you know that you are prone to seeing non-existent problems, then don’t take your fatalistic views of the world overly seriously. And if you can’t do this, because even after discounting, say, 20-30% of your bleak and grim interpretations of reality as subjective, you still worry, then act, and embrace the advantages of being prepared.

The first part of “expect the worst, hope for the best” is way more useful than the second. Hope is just feel-good advice, but pessimistic expectations can mobilize you to avoid the very outcome you fear. In that sense, they are much more practical than hope, which is what we need when we run out of ideas or solutions.

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You can also learn to live with your paranoid style. Perhaps the best way to do this is by simply understanding that this is what works for you. This is your preferred interpretational style of the world, so just embrace it.

Don’t depress or demoralize others

Just because you are a pessimist doesn’t mean others enjoy your negativity. In fact, if the world is overly optimistic and interested in a feel-good interpretation of reality rather than reality itself, you should refrain from providing them with a brutal reality check or demolishing their hopes.

There are gentle ways to negotiate with others who see the world in a different way, and a good approach tends to be to turn the conversation into a data-driven or evidence-based discussion. Accept other people’s perspectives and they will find it easier to understand yours.

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It is very hard to change people’s beliefs, and impossible to change their personality. A pessimist and an optimist working together will be more likely to provide an accurate description of reality than one without the other. 

Learn to manage impressions

Just because the world is obsessed with positivity doesn’t mean you need to feel bad about your pessimism. In fact, you can learn to hide your negativity and expect it to boost your likability. This is why people are generally seen as more socially skilled, rewarding to deal with, and trustworthy when they come across as more agreeable, carefree, and positive.

An external projection of calm and stable optimism, coupled with an internal sense of realism, which includes the ability to detect actual environmental threats and dangers, and prepare for future problems, is not a bad approach to managing your reputation–and a better combination than the opposite.

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