The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak

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How often are we urged to "look on the bright side"? From Norman Vincent Peale to the ubiquitous smiley face, optimism has become an essential part of American society. In this long-overdue book, psychologist Julie Norem offers convincing evidence that, for many people, positive thinking is an ineffective strategy—and often an obstacle—for successfully coping with the anxieties and pressures of modern life. Drawing on her own research and many vivid case histories, Norem provides evidence of the powerful benefits of "defensive pessimism," which has helped millions to manage anxiety and perform their best work.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Through individual case studies, Norem (psychology, Wellesley Coll.) here demonstrates her case for "defensive pessimism" as an effective tool for managing one's anxiety. For example, by imagining all of the worst-case scenarios, a speaker prepares better for a speech. Norem has developed a questionnaire to help readers determine whether they use defensive pessimism or strategic optimism (believing things will work out for the best) in daily life. She goes further to explain that much of the positive self-concept information preached since the 1980s is unrealistic and illusory. While admitting that defensive pessimism annoys other people, Norem argues that the strategy helps those who are anxious to curb their emotions and get moving toward their goals. Norem has published in Self, Men's Health, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, but her style here more resembles that of an academic journal article. Further, her arguments are not convincing. Of marginal value for academic libraries.-Lisa Wise, Broome Cty. P.L., Binghamton, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465051397
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 668,796
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Julie K. Norem, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College. Her work on defensive pessimism has been cited in the New York Times, SELF, the Washington Post, Men's Health, McCall's, and American Health. She lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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Table of Contents

1. Preamble to a Contrarian View
2. Accentuating the Negative: A Strategy, Not a Symptom
3. What It's All About: The Problem of Anxiety
4. Why Can't a Pessimist Be More Like an Optimist?
5. Taking Cover: The Avoider and the Self-Handicapper
6. Negative Thinking Versus Positive Illusions
7. No Size Fits All: Different Folks, Different Strategies
8. When Strategies Clash: Same Boat, Different Strokes
9. Dark Side, Bright Side, My Side: Prospects for Change
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2002

    Challenges Conventional Thinking in Positive Way

    An earlier reviewer noted: "I suppose this book is a bit controversial in the way it challenges the "everyone should be an optimist" chant of the American 'positive psychology movement' but that is what makes the book so creative and original." Having read the book, I found it both insightful and helpful. I must say that 'a bit controversial' is an understatement because the book is attracting both positive and negative reviews here. And I notice that the negative reviewers just seem to be responding to the title and its challenge to conventional thinking. When you actually read the book, you will find that the first publications about 'defensive (or adaptive-constructive) pessimism' were in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research in 1986, and a long line of academic psychology publications follow and continue to appear in 2002. This book brings 15 years of theory and research to the general reader for the first time (and in a well written and user friendly style). The personality self-test for optimism and defensive pessimism is a useful tool for understanding yourself and other people. The author's discussion and case studies of different types of people includes unrealistic optimists, strategic optimists, self-handicappers, constructive pessimists, and hopeless pessimists. Personality types do matter, and individual differences are significant. Anxiety, worry, and depression are complex issues. The theme of this book is that when it comes to psychological theories of positive mental health, or to living a happy life, "No One Size Fits All of Us." I guess that message bothers some psychologists and other people who believe their own personal favorite approach is right for everyone -- but my advice is to read this book and decide for yourself.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2002

    Helpful Approach to Understanding Self and Others

    The psychologist who wrote this book developed and validated a new measure of individual differences in personality: The Defensive Pessimism Questionnaire. The key is the different strategies that individuals use to manage or harness anxiety, moods, and motivations (adaptively or not). The theme is "No one size fits all people." Are you a defensive pessimist, a hopeless pessimist, a self-handicapper, a strategic optimist, or an unrealistic optimist? How do these different types of people get along at work, in love, as family and friends, or at play? Drawing on original psychological research conducted 1985-2001, Professor Norem helps us answer these questions about personality and individual differences. I really liked the way the concluding chapter talks about prospects for change and growth, with a focus on tolerant understanding of self and others, and on optimal psychological health for different individuals. For people like me who value diversity and growth, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking is an impressively helpful contribution. I suppose this book is a bit controversial in the way it challenges the "everyone should be an optimist" chant of the American 'positive psychology movement' but that is what makes the book so creative and original. I find the author's realistic approach to recognizing and valuing individual differences to be insightful and even liberating.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2001

    The Positive Side of Pessimism!

    In this engaging and intriguing book, Julie Norem tells how to make your pessimism work for you. She explains why some people have a personality style called 'defensive pessimism', how this coping strategy works well for them, and why it should be seen in a positive light. A psychologist who has done extensive research in this area, Norem gives many case examples and research findings which illustrate and demonstrate how pessimism can be a legitimate and constructive approach to life. As a lifelong pessimist who has never been able to follow the constant advice to 'look on the bright side', Norem's book along with psychologist Barbara Held's excellent and complimentary book, 'Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining', have taught me I don't have to continue trying to suppress or stamp out my pessimism. Rather, I can now embrace it and use it constructively. These books have also helped me see the legitimacy of my pessimism and explain its merits to those who are constantly telling me to be more positive or to have a nice day. I'll be giving both books to fellow pessimists and oppressive optimists for Christmas!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2003

    Boring and poorly written.

    Julie Norem is trying to exploit negative people by giving information that has been better presented in other books. While I was reading her book, I kept thinking 'I don't trust this woman!' Save your money and buy Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman instead.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2002

    Just O.K. Not great.

    I thought it was just like a play on words when I read the title of this book. I thought the title was a clever sarcasm. I had no Idea this author was actually seriously trying to push negativity as a tool in life. It was only mildly interesting in parts, but the rest was kind of boring. It's not a bad book, but it also isn't anywhere near being good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2001

    Freedom from the cultural pressure to be an optimist

    The great virtue of this new popular psychology book is that it respects and validates the full, normal range of individual differences in optimism and pessimism. Some of us just tend to think through worst-case scenarios and feel anticipatory anxiety about upcoming challenges. For people with my type of temperament, being a Defensive Pessimist is more adaptive and satisfying than trying to fake being an optimist. I found this book to be well written, informative, and helpful.

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