Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion. It’s basically expecting the worst- calling every setback a disaster- and imaging all future outcomes as being horrible.
So for example, you worry that you’re going to fail a test. Then you imagine what would happen when you do fail- you’re going to fail out of school, end up working at McDonald’s, never have success in life and die homeless on the street.
Catastrophizing is taking a difficult situation and interpreting it as being horrible, terrible, and unrecoverable. We’ve all know that person who, if they got a “B” on a test wailed “I’m failing Math class”.
We trick ourselves into believing that if we expect the worst, we can prevent it. But in reality, usually the exact opposite happens.Seeing the worst, often invites the worst. Not only do we cut ourselves off from opportunities, but we invite the exact problems we are hoping to avoid. If we go into a conversation expecting the other to get defensive, we often lead off by being harsher or more rigid- inviting the other to get defensive. If you expect that your crush will reject you if you ask her out, then you don’t ask her out, and you end up alone on the weekend.
Catastrophizing messes us up because it makes us anxious (horrible things are going to happen), depressed (Everything is Awful), unmotivated(Why try because nothing will ever work).
So if catastrophizing is so harmful, why do we do it? Well it secretly serves 2 dysfunctional functions
To protect us from uncertainty- we try to prevent disappointment by expecting the worst
A misguided attempt to motivate ourselves by fear-But fear is never a sustainable source of motivation, it always undermines us in the end.
So if it’s so bad, how do we stop: Here are three steps
Notice: Write down what it looks like when you catastrophize What are the words you use when catastrophizing? (words like Never, terrible, fail, rejected, awkward, horrible, etc) What are the situations you tend to catastrophize about? Ask a friend or family member to point it out to you.
Challenge those thoughts- Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Learn to notice and gently question your thoughts. You don’t have to believe everything you think.
Replace those thoughts with something more helpful.
For example: “Oh no! I am such an idiot! I already made a mistake on this report. I’m never going to finish it! Or if I do it will be so flawed that it won’t matter. I’m going to get fired no matter what!”
“OK, Wait, that’s not true. Everybody makes mistakes. I’m only human. I’ll fix this mistake and if I need to ask for help I can, but I’m just going to keep working hard and try to be more careful in the future. Nobody’s going to fire me for a mistake or two in a report.”
This approach requires us to stay engaged, even when there is a risk of things not going perfectly. This is called vulnerability, the potential for success- and also for getting hurt. But the only alternative is to guarantee failure by cutting yourself off before you even try. As you let go of catastrophizing- you’ll come to wholeheartedly embrace life, your goals, your values, you’ll get better and better at living with some risk- and you’ll be rewarded with good things happening to you all the time.
This blog is a tiny version of my more in depth video on catastrophizing-That (upcoming) video has stories, more examples, and a three step process to replacing the dysfunctional function of catastrophizing. So subscribe to my YouTube Channel to make sure you get to see it.
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