The Negativity / Pessimism Schema

Why does it always rain on me, was it because I lied when I was 17 – Travis


“No matter what happens, things will never be simple for me. Nothing just goes easily”. Cory’s* department was recently privatised, and his role was reclassified. In effect, he had received a demotion due to not holding a university degree, despite being one of the most respected and competent employees. “Story of my life, nothing good ever happens to me”.

Life is unfair. Some of us are born at the wrong time and wrong place and live through wrong things. Life dishes out harsh events: loved ones die young, parents lose jobs, divorce, rejection from friends, academic failure. Life dishes out harshness unevenly: lots to some, and little to others, and most of us fall somewhere in between.

Humans are consumed with the question of “why?”. When a lot of bad things have happened to us, we ask ourselves “why me?”. We seek meaning to our suffering. Why should I have such bad luck? What did I do to deserve this?

Fate and Karma

Some people find answers to these questions in religion, spirituality and even superstition. “I must have done something wrong in a past life”. “I’m suffering for the sins of my father”. “Someone has put the evil eye on me”. “I broke a mirror”.

For most of human history these have been the common answers to the question of unfairness and bad luck. Exploring answers such as these is above the paygrade of a psychologist. And, maybe, there are answers to the bad-luck question which don’t appeal to the metaphysical.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Early experiences shape expectations. In an unfair world, random chance dictates that someone has to be an unlucky child. The unlucky child learns to expect bad luck. This process is called overgeneralisation.

Expectations direct attention. When we expect bad things to happen, we are on the look out for them. We are more sensitive to bad luck events. We are more likely to recall bad things than good things. We are more likely to overestimate the number of bad things that have happened and underestimate the good things. We discount the positives. This process is called mental filter.

Attention determines emotion. When we expect bad luck and are on the look out for bad luck, we feel sad and defeated even before starting.

Emotions motivate actions. It’s hard to truly motivate oneself to make a positive change when you feel hopeless. Never trying, quitting and half-hearted action, these are the natural states of the hopeless person.

The Negativity/Pessimism Schema is the name of the processes that are described above. Early experiences of bad luck becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many people who have recurring episodes of depression have this schema.


There is hope. Recognise the pessimistic thoughts, the negative inner voice. Consider whether it is rational to think you are cursed to be eternally unlucky. Decide to act as-if you have just as much chance of good luck as anyone else. Seek help: Schemas are blind spots; they are very difficult to defeat alone.

Speak Your Mind


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