I’ve spent a good deal of my life worrying. I was raised to worry. My mom is a constant worrier. She’s gotten better, but when I was young, you could count on her to go a little batty if I didn’t call her within 5 minutes of arriving at my friend’s house or at the mall. She’d call me with panic in her voice.
Mom: “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call me?”
Me: “I forgot, I’m sorry.”
Mom: “Jenny, I was really worried. I had these images of you dead on the side of the road somewhere or something.”
Me: “Okay, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I promise.”
Mom: “I can’t take the anxiety. Please don’t do this to me again.”
That was generally an extreme case, but you get the picture. My mom cared a lot.
While it was never said explicitly in my family, I felt like I got the message that if I wasn’t stressed or worrying, I obviously didn’t care enough. As a result, I began to expect other people to freak out over my whereabouts. I would get upset with boyfriends who weren’t fretting about my safety. If they weren’t stressed over me flying safely in a plane, they obviously didn’t care. If they weren’t worried about me driving through the night on a long car drive, they were jerks.
Then, I remember sitting in my Theories class and hearing a word that changed my life.
What is catastrophizing? Well it’s kind of what you’d think if you add up the base word and the suffix.
Catastrophe n. – a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin
My professor explained that excessive worriers were constantly obsessing over the most terrible outcome imaginable. They were catastrophizing. It occurred to me that I was basically the queen of catastrophe. I would think of something that I wanted to happen in the future, say I wanted to get my master’s degree in counseling, and I would think of everything that could go wrong with that endeavor. I would think myself into a corner, break out in a sweat, and basically do the equivalent of my mother imagining me dead in a ditch except I’d do that with everything. Especially those things that surrounded my capabilities of accomplishing a task. Especially my feelings about my romantic relationships. Especially my feelings about everything. I was in a perpetual state of stress.
When you’re catastrophizing, you’re basically just setting negative goals for yourself. By anticipating all that is going to go wrong, you’re only allowing yourself to see all the things that are wrong. You don’t allow yourself to see the “half-full glass” and you basically strike out before you ever step up to the plate. How many of you have been in the throes of worry and been able to go, “Well now that I’ve thought about all the scary stuff that hasn’t happened yet, I’ll start thinking of the good things!”? It’s never really happened to me.
So how to we stop catastrophizing? Well first, we identify our worrying. We call ourselves out for thinking the worst and assuming everything will just go wrong. For example, say you go to a bar and you see a cute person there who you want to buy a drink. You obsess over buying this person a drink, you stare at them, you think they have luscious lips and perfect hair. Then you start worrying about buying them the drink. You think about them turning it down, throwing it in your face, coming over and saying, “You’re the ugliest person on the planet,” etc.
We’ve all done it. We’ve all taken the volume to 11 on our thoughts. Have we called ourselves out though? Have we said, “Seriously, worst case scenario is they turn the drink down. Best case is they say thanks and walk over to say hi”. That’s definitely a lot more likely than getting a drink thrown in our face unless we make some vulgar motion at the drink recipient when they look over our way. Then we deserve a drink in our face.
After we’ve identified our worrying/catastrophizing and then challenged those worries with the reality of the situation, our internal arguments lose a lot of steam. It’s the same philosophy behind “killing them with kindness,” when it comes to fighting with people. When you fight your thoughts with good stuff, it usually wins out. We’re never as bad as we think we are and life is rarely as bad as we make it out to be.
About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA
Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.