Do any of these thoughts ring true for you? It’s a beautiful, sunny summer day, so you point out to your friends that it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Or you’re driving along a deserted highway without a car in sight, so you expect that around the next bend, traffic will come to a standstill. Or you have a delicious meal in a restaurant, and you don’t want to go there again, because it couldn’t possibly be that good more than once. If you think that way, you just might be a pessimist.
Some pessimists appreciate their way of viewing the world, while others would prefer to shift their thoughts toward optimism. Here’s what Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, explained about pessimism.
What is pessimism, exactly?
“Pessimism is when someone has a personality or mindset where they are always expecting the worst to happen,” Dr. Adelayo said. “They have a negative connotation to what’s going to happen in life. It’s a spectrum—not everyone who is pessimistic thinks that way all the time, but for certain personality types, they expect that the outcome is going to be bad and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
It's important to recognize the difference between pessimism and being sad or having some down feelings. You can be down or sad and still have an optimistic outlook. Often, your low feelings are a reaction to a specific event or situation—for example, you’re sad because a trip you were looking forward to got canceled, or you’re down because a loved one is sick and you’re worried about them. “You can have these feelings without thinking everything is always going to be negative,” Dr. Adelayo said.
Pessimism isn’t the same as depression or anxiety, either. Pessimism is a mindset or personality type, while depression and anxiety are diagnosable, treatable mental health conditions triggered by your brain chemistry. You can be pessimistic without being down, depressed or anxious.
Are there positives to pessimism?
There can be. If you expect the worst, you prepare for it. You might be more careful, proactive and ready for what comes your way. “A pessimistic person will find the time to prepare,” Dr. Adelayo said.
For example, if you’re pessimistic you might expect to get COVID-19. So, you organize your work, family and life in a way that being sick causes minimal disruption. An optimistic person doesn’t think they will get COVID-19, so if they do, they might not be prepared. “Pessimistic people expect a horrible outcome, so they make sure the actual outcome is better than they expected,” Dr. Adelayo said. “They’re less disappointed and being well-prepared can boost their self-esteem.”
So, not everyone who is pessimistic needs to change. Some people like how pessimism pushes them to prepare well for important situations and events. But if you want to think more optimistically, here are some strategies you can try.
Anti-pessimism strategy 1: Challenge your thoughts
It can help to question whether your thoughts are based in reality. For example, you might go into a job interview expecting that the interviewer won’t like you, and that you won’t get the job. But think back. Is that always true? You’ve probably had interviews before that went well and where you got hired. “Try to challenge those automatic thoughts that jump into your mind. That can lift your spirits and make you more optimistic,” Dr. Adelayo said. “But it needs to be purposeful. You can’t be passive about it—you have to make an active decision to want to be optimistic.”
Keep in mind that negative thinking can create a self-fulfilling prophecy—for example, when you think you won’t be liked so you behave in such a way that you aren’t likable. If that happens too many times, it can turn into depression.
Anti-pessimism strategy 2: Focus on self-help techniques that are based in reality
Pessimists are often being realistic. “When they think they might not get a job, that’s true,” Dr. Adelayo said. So, any sort of self-help that is not realistic doesn’t typically work for pessimistic people.
For example, there’s a mindfulness skill based on imagery, where you picture yourself in a calm and comfortable place like a beach. Imagining the warm sun on your face, the soft sand beneath your body and the gentle sound of the waves can alleviate stress. “It truly works for some people, but it just will not work for pessimistic people. It’s not grounded in what they think is reality. It’s an eye-roll moment for them. If they can’t see, touch or feel things, it doesn’t work as well for them,” Dr. Adelayo said.
Asking yourself questions based on your situation can be more effective for pessimists. For example, you can ask:
- Are your plans and goals realistic?
- Are you open to making changes?
- Can you reframe your thoughts more optimistically?
Anti-pessimism strategy 3: Consider cognitive behavioral therapy
“If your way of thinking is creating distress, anxiety or depression you may want to look into cognitive behavioral therapy,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can show you how your behavior affects your mood and how changing your behavior can change your mood.”
Pessimism can come from abusive or traumatic life experiences. It’s a defense mechanism. “A trauma-based person is hyper-vigilant. They’re always ready and watching, even when there’s nothing to worry about,” Dr. Adelayo said. Therapy can be helpful if you have abuse or trauma to work through.
The bottom line
Pessimism is a mindset where you always expect the worst. It can push you to be well-prepared for whatever life throws your way, but if you’d like to shift to a more positive outlook, certain strategies can help. If you would like to connect with a behavioral health professional who can help you find the mindset you want, reach out to Banner Health.