Stop Catastrophizing

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As I was finishing up grad school, I began diligently searching for jobs in my field. After a lot of cover letter writing interviewing, I finally found an entry-level position and set up shop. A little while later I was laid off due to budget cuts. I hadn’t been in love with the job, but I’d liked it well enough and the prospect of job hunting again and being unemployed for the first time scared me. One night, I was talking to my wonderful friend about it, and I was freaking out. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I recall verbatim her response. After I had painted us both a bleak picture of my future she paused for a minute, then said, “So, do you think you’re going to be the 80-year-old in the retirement home who just never found another job?”

She stopped me dead in my tracks, trained a spotlight on my thinking, and called it out for what it was- catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is worst-case scenario thinking. It’s pretty common and can be kind of fun when using it for affected theatrics or hyperbole. It’s much less fun when it feels more like a belief, and we’re just waiting for it to happen.

In my line of work, people catastrophize to me a lot. Sometimes they’re aware they’re doing it and sometimes they’re not. It’s my job to help them identify the behavior and get their thinking back into reality and under control.

Catastrophizing is a bit like a photo filter for our brains. And, oh, there are so many filters available to us. We can use the all-or-nothing thinking (or black and white thinking) filter, the discounting-the-positive filter, the mind-reading filter, and the blame filter. That’s not even all of them. There are countless ways for us to distort situations.

When we employ all-or-nothing thinking, we only allow for extremes. We invisibilize the whole picture, which means we invisibilize a lot of pertinent information. With this line of thinking, there are no positive outcomes for us.

Discounting the positive is a way for us to either weigh only the negative or weigh the positive in a negative way, either about ourselves, a situation, or someone else. It looks like this: “Why would anyone want to hire me? I’m young and inexperienced and don’t have a very impressive resume.”

Mind reading offers just about as much comfort. Here, we assume we know someone’s intentions. “She probably called me into her office because she wants to reprimand me for something.” “He told me he liked my presentation only because he feels sorry for me and is hoping his kindness will somehow make me believe in myself.” These are good examples of mind reading. With assumptions like these, we improve our chance at living in a state of interminable insecurity.

Using blame as a cognitive distortion is equally as useful as its sibling methods. When we use blame, we can either take none of the responsibility or more than our fair share. Something is either everyone else’s fault because they didn’t (fill in the blank) or because we didn’t (fill in the blank). “I shouldn’t have asked for that raise.” “I shouldn’t have said anything about how I was feeling.” “She shouldn’t have spoken to me that way.” “They shouldn’t have set the bar so high.” When we use blame as a defense, we don’t have to see a situation clearly which means we can stick to our patterns that have become so uncomfortable for us.

All of us fall into these distortions at some point. It’s important that we identify them and know how to handle them. We can combat them by asking ourselves questions that will help us with our reality testing. A useful question that I like to use both professionally and personally is, “What is the real evidence that this is true?” This is a good jumping off point. Any evidence we think we’ve found to support our distortion can be thoughtfully worked through and sorted. It’s best to enlist an ally when we first start challenging our cognitive distortions because we’ll likely fall into the same patterns if we don’t have a more objective outsider. Start with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. You’ll find that you don’t have to believe everything you think.


Love and Be Loved,

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