“Catastrophizing.” I came across this fun word recently, reading a book about how to keep your brain from screwing up your life. The word means exactly what it sounds like: taking a small problem and mentally blowing it up into a catastrophe. Making a mountain out of a molehill, that’s catastrophizing.
We do this when we’re already in a bad frame of mind. For instance, say your boss shoots down one of your ideas. On a typical day, you’d be a little disappointed, then forget all about it. But if, for whatever reason, you’re already stressed or upset or depressed, then your chain of thought can go something like this:
My boss didn’t like my idea.
My boss never likes my ideas.
If he never likes my ideas, he must think I’m a bad employee.
I’m going to get fired.
I won’t be able to get another job because I clearly don’t have any meaningful skills.
My life is over.
It may look silly when you write it out like this, but in the unchecked privacy of our own minds, it happens all the time. Maybe you don’t really believe your life is over – not in any rational sense – but the words are there and the feeling is there, and that can be enough to ruin your whole week.
This morning, I woke up utterly exhausted and without a clear idea for a blog post. “Exhausted” is not a good state for rational thinking to begin with, and the lack of ideas leads to frustration, which leads to even less clear thinking, which leads to no ideas, which…you get the idea. I caught parts of my brain doing things like this:
I used to have blog ideas all the time.
Now I always have to struggle for ideas.
This is the end of the blog.
Look at the unchecked assumptions here, and how frail they seem when exposed to the light of day.
I used to have blog ideas all the time. Yes, but I also went through dry spells.
Now I always have to struggle for ideas. Sure. “Always.” If you don’t count, you know, yesterday, where the post practically wrote itself.
This is the end of the blog. Even if the two propositions above were true, the conclusion simply doesn’t follow. Have I considered all possible methods for coming up with new ideas? Have I considered any methods? No. I’m not thinking, I’m catastrophizing.
As you can see, the first and biggest step in fighting back against catastrophizing is simply to realize you’re doing it.
The next time something happens that feels like the end of the world, step back and ask yourself what’s really going on. What are your assumptions? State them clearly, and demand that they prove themselves against alternative explanations. What is your chain of logic? Is it rigorous, or does it have holes? Is it based on reason – or is it based on fear, frustration, anger, or tiredness? Have you truly considered all your options, or did you just jump to your usual reaction?
So, I’m curious. Do you catastrophize often? Sometimes? Never? If you do, how do you handle it?
Oh, and for the record, I am not planning to end the blog anytime soon.