“The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.” – George Will
The door was locked.
I’d woken up at 4:30 a.m. to travel to Rhode Island for a conference. I was due at the bus station in an hour to ride to Detroit, where I’d catch a flight to Providence. The night before, I’d opted to leave my toiletry bag in the bathroom I shared with my housemate, planning to stash my toothbrush and contact case in the morning.
Two important facts: first, there are two doors leading into this bathroom, one from the hallway and one from my housemate’s bedroom. Second, a deadbolt on the bathroom-hallway door allows it to be locked from the inside. We almost never use this deadbolt. Remember these facts.
Quelling a yawn, I tiptoed down the darkened hallway. And smacked right into the locked bathroom door.
I froze. Suddenly, my tiny toiletry bag, packed with allergy meds and floss, felt like the most vital object in the universe. And it was trapped on the far side of an immovable obstacle. I shut my eyes and willed my brain—fully awake now—not to panic, shunting it instead through a series of adrenaline-fueled scenarios in what I affectionately call my “Choose Your Own Adventure” mode:
You’ve been locked out of the bathroom. You…
… pound desperately on the bathroom door. Turn to page 38.
… call your housemate’s cell phone. Turn to page 13.
… head toward his bedroom’s other door and try to sneak through his room to reach the bathroom. Turn to page 74.
… leave for the bus station without your toiletries, feeling like a dolt. Turn to page 2.
Then, of course, each choice begat a fresh cascade of unnerving scenarios inside my fumbling mind:
You knock loudly for several minutes, but there’s no response. From upstairs, the creak of floorboards warns you that another housemate has woken up. They won’t be happy. Turn to page 9.
You can hear his phone vibrating, but he doesn’t wake up to answer it. Turn back to page 1.
You creep into his bedroom and have nearly reached the bathroom door when he bolts upright in bed. You yelp. He grabs at the light switch. Turn to page 20.
Without your contacts, you’re stuck wearing your old, weak glasses to the conference. You purchase a new toothbrush at the airport for the price of a first-edition Dickens. Without allergy meds, your sinuses torment you all week. Turn to page 11.
I spun down all of these mental rabbit holes in the space of seven seconds. Then, I opened my eyes. A few inches from my face, the key poked jauntily out of the deadbolt keyhole. I sighed at myself and turned it. The door opened.
* * *
Apparently, my brain isn’t alone in penning a grim “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel when confronted with stressful situations. This mental phenomenon even has a name: defensive pessimism (shout-out to the marvelous We Have Concerns podcast for discussing an article from the Atlantic about this topic).
In the article, psychology professor Julie Norem describes defensive pessimism as a coping mechanism some folks use to control their anxious reactions to stressful or unpleasant situations. “When people are being defensively pessimistic,” she says, “they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong.”
She uses the example of an anxious person confronted with a public speaking engagement. The defensively pessimistic speaker assumes that things will go horribly amiss, and he ratchets through a cascade of what-if scenarios involving coughing fits, loose microphone cables, mind blanks, or missing PowerPoint files.
Having pictured all these negative outcomes in a “specific, vivid way,” Norem explains, the speaker can show up armed with a water bottle, duct tape, note cards, and a flash drive. By anticipating the worst, he can “plan to avoid the disaster.”
This is me. I don’t struggle with clinical anxiety, but—as my long-suffering mother can attest—I’ve always skewed negative, prone to fretting, stewing, and reaching instinctively for worst-case scenarios. When I’m thinking clearly about the things that stress me out, I find myself scoping out plausible disasters and prepping contingency plans.
Before my conference in Rhode Island, I wasn’t panicking about plane crashes, but I certainly planned for situations like losing my carry-on in the airport (added a luggage tag), smearing deodorant on my blazer (packed an additional dressy sweater), and missing the bus to the airport (road trip!). I didn’t envision getting locked out of the bathroom, but if I had, I would have stashed all of my toiletries in my bedroom the night before, just in case.
For me, defensive pessimism serves two functions. First, as Norem describes, it cues me to anticipate potential problems and create contingency plans. On a deeper level, though, I get to explore how I’d feel and react in an alternate, hypothetical universe in which the worst possible outcome has already occurred. It’s like building an emotional contingency plan: if everything goes horribly wrong, I’ve already steeped myself briefly in the resulting stew of emotions and can understand how to cope with them.
Of course, there’s push-back to the notion of defensive pessimism. Some scoff and label it mere pragmatism. And Norem acknowledges that it’s all too easy for defensive pessimism to tip into catastrophism (“If I can’t get into the bathroom for my toiletries, I’ll be half-blind in these old glasses all week, and the whole conference will be a waste of time”), fatalism (“Even if I knock, my housemate won’t hear me anyway, so there’s no point in trying”), or self-sabotage (“I’ll knock, but not until just before I need to leave”).
What do you think? Does the dystopian “Choose Your Own Adventure” thought pattern sound familiar? Would you say that a pessimist is just a pessimist, no matter how he or she tries to dress it up with psychological tricks? Is defensive pessimism just realism in disguise?
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.