Worriers, rejoice. Your fears may actually be the makings of your success.
At least, they may if they motivate you do to something about them. At The Atlantic, Olga Khazan talks to the psychology professor Julie Norem about a quality called defensive pessimism. Ms. Norem explains:
“When people are being defensively pessimistic, 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. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy.”
She gives public speaking as an example. If she’s worried about a talk going poorly, she’ll take a series of precautions, down to wearing flat shoes so she doesn’t trip on her way to the podium: “Once I do all those things, I’ve built in a lot of safeguards and I’m very likely to have things go well.”For some people, this may work better than just trying to look on the bright side. When someone is anxious, says Ms. Norem: “Often our instinctive reaction is to think that we’ll help them by saying, ‘Calm down, don’t worry.’ If you’re not experiencing anxiety yourself, it’s hard to have insight into how unhelpful that is.” And if you can’t calm down, maybe you can use your anxiety to your benefit.
In an excerpt, also at The Atlantic, from his book “My Age of Anxiety,” Scott Stossel describes a somewhat different public-speaking ritual than the one Ms. Norem outlines:
“Four hours or so ago, I took my first half milligram of Xanax. (I’ve learned that if I wait too long to take it, my fight-or-flight response kicks so far into overdrive that medication is not enough to yank it back.) Then, about an hour ago, I took my second half milligram of Xanax and perhaps 20 milligrams of Inderal. (I need the whole milligram of Xanax plus the Inderal, which is a blood-pressure medication, or beta-blocker, that dampens the response of the sympathetic nervous system, to keep my physiological responses to the anxious stimulus of standing in front of you — the sweating, trembling, nausea, burping, stomach cramps, and constriction in my throat and chest — from overwhelming me.) I likely washed those pills down with a shot of scotch or, more likely, vodka, the odor of which is less detectable on my breath.”
He notes that “my method of dealing with my public-speaking anxiety is not healthy” — and indeed, preparing for possible mishaps by mixing alcohol and prescription medications may not be the kind of defensive pessimism Ms. Norem has in mind. But he notes that despite its (major) drawbacks, his anxiety has helped him: “As often as anxiety has held me back — prevented me from traveling, or from seizing opportunities or taking certain risks — it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.” He explains, “Some of the things for which I am most thankful — the opportunity to help lead a respected magazine; a place, however peripheral, in shaping public debate; a peripatetic and curious sensibility; and whatever quotients of emotional intelligence and good judgment I possess — not only coexist with my condition but are in some meaningful way the product of it.”
Part of anxiety may be expecting the worst, which some research suggests is actually a recipe for happiness. But part of it may be dreaming up worst-case scenarios and responding preemptively to them, which may, weirdly, bring out the best in you. Mr. Stossel even suggests being anxious might make him a better husband: “It may be that my anxiety lends me an inhibition and a social sensitivity that make me more attuned to other people and a more tolerable spouse than I otherwise would be.”
This isn’t to suggest anxiety is always awesome. Of course, it can be painful, and Ms. Norem notes that pessimism is no longer productive if it devolves into despair, if “instead of thinking of specific things that can go wrong that you can prevent, you say ‘This talk is going to be a disaster. My whole life is a mess. I’m going to lose my job and my partner’s going to leave me.’”
But if negative thinking leads to specific steps to prevent the worst possible thing from happening (and if that thing is, in fact,reasonably preventable), then it may not be so bad.
Ms. Khazan also links to a quiz to help you determine if you are a defensive pessimist. I tried to take it, but, as any good pessimist would have predicted, something went wrong: The box that was supposed to display my score simply popped up blank. Given my answers to the questions, I’m going to assume I’m a pessimist. But if pessimism is indeed effective preparation for the uncertainties of life, maybe that assumption is actually optimistic.