I Catastrophize, and You Can Too!
For what felt like 84 years, my full time job was to hop on a plane when particularly nasty weather hit anywhere around the country, and handle insurance claims. You know, if a tree lands on your house kind of stuff. I was on the Catastrophe Team; we had special shirts, more Marriott points than Carter has liver pills, and a propensity to drink Red Bulls for breakfast and an entire bottle of wine for dinner.
I know the ins and outs of catastrophes like the back of my dainty flower of a hand. Dealing with CATs (as they were known) became my identity, actually. I was always going - always reacting.
The point of being on the “CAT” team was to react to bad things. We were, by profession, reactionary.
What made something an actual catastrophe was the suddenness. The unexpectedness. The grandness of the disaster that shocked and awed a community.
You could always find the most amazing group of people rallied around each other during a real CAT. The strong circled their wagons around the weak. They would bring water to each other, hold each other, stand at the footprint of where their homes once stood - all with the same pose that we make when we are trying to make sense of devastation: arms around themselves, huddled tightly as if to protect their soft fronts, shaking their heads warding off the reality of the loss.
In retrospect, I think I spent so many years chasing catastrophes caused by weather just so I could outrun the ones in my mind. It wasn’t until my body stopped moving and I hung up my little superhero cape, that I realized that my mind didn’t stop, and I finally felt how dangerous being reactionary was for me.
Hopping on a plane to help someone in crisis is one thing, my brain creating devastation in the wake of thoughts is quite another.
This is something we all battle.
Don’t believe me? Well, that’s rude. Let me paint you a picture:
7am: You texted, “Good morning!!” to the girl you like.
7:15am: You know for a fact she’s up because you can see that the commented on something on Facebook, but she hasn’t texted back.
7:16am: You think, “Oh no. I’m so embarrassed that I texted that.”
7:16:01am: “Oh my God. I used two exclamation points - she probably thinks I’m such a loser. I am such a loser. I always have been. I’m clingy and demanding and I can’t believe she’d ever like me. I’m not even as good looking as her. I never have been. And it won’t get better because I’m losing my hair. What if she finds out that I’m sad all the time, or that I’m neurotic and need constant affirmation. I don’t deserve her. I don’t deserve anyone.”
Ok, you’re married and that doesn’t hit home? Let’s try this one:
- 8:15am: You get to work 15 minutes late because there was an accident (read: you went to Starbucks).
- 8:17am: Your manager instant messages you, “Please come see me when you can.”
- 8:17:01am: You have instant diarrhea.
- 8:17:02am: The following thoughts happen all at once like the chorus in Les Miz: “I’m fired. I can’t believe I didn’t take getting here on time seriously. I don’t have any other skills. I haven’t updated my resume in years. How could I be so stupid? Why am I so irresponsible? Everyone thinks I’m irresponsible. What will my best friends say? What will my parents say? What if I cry when I’m getting fired? I was never qualified to do this job anyway. I knew they’d find out. I always looked so stupid in meetings. Everyone thinks I’m stupid. I’m such a screw up, and always will be.
Well that escalated quickly.
By the way, if you’re keeping score at home, both of these happened to me, on the same day, within an hour of each other.
These are what’s called “catastrophic thoughts.”
This brand of thinking is totally natural, and we all do it. It’s our primitive brain’s way of thinking it’s keeping us safe by preparing us for the worst case scenario based on things we think we know.
Catastrophizing is just one branch in the tree of life that is cognitive distortions (more on the other branches later). Just like it sounds, catastrophic thinking is the progressive tunnel vision we get when we feel backed into this kind of emotional corner.
We zoom in and magnify an event until what we’re feeling becomes as factual in our minds as much as knowing that the sky is blue. We assume the worst, and don’t always have the ability to get altitude and perspective. The lense in which we are looking at a given situation becomes so colored by the voice in our head, that we don’t know that we have the ability to change the prescription. (#LameMetaphorTime)
All cognitive distortions (but especially the catastrophizing thoughts) are the irrational and/or exaggerated thoughts that have no basis on actual facts, but that we believe to be true.
For realz...no facts.
Here’s something that’ll bend your brain: thoughts make us believe they are fact based, right? But it’s the thoughts that tell us that we should believe the thoughts that think they’re facts. Heavy stuff man.
Cognitive distortions like these can be seen as what the Buddhists call the “second arrow.”
Stay with me.
We can’t help the first arrow, we get honked at when the light turns green and we were looking down, and we feel angry and embarrassed. Totally pure emotions.
Half a block later, however, we shoot ourselves in the neck with the second arrow: “I always get beeped at because I’m such an irresponsible asshole for looking down. I know they think I’m the worst. Everyone thinks that. Great, now my face is hot and blotchy, how am I supposed to go to work like this? They all hate me there too because I accidentally ordered that patient’s medication twice. I know they don’t think I have enough experience. I probably don’t. They all talk about me in the break room, I just know it. This is all too much pressure. I can’t do anything right.”
The first arrow is bad enough, but at least it’s pure emotion….and as we know “emotion” actually means “in motion.” Those jerks move on as fast as they creep in if we let them. This second arrow malarkey is something we do to ourselves, and it it always completely unnecessary.
Before you argue with me that shame has made you the man you are today...it actually hasn’t. We’ve been through this, but as a reminder: You haven’t thrived because you’ve shamed yourself, you’ve thrived despite it.
We do the second arrow all the time, sometimes it looks like:
“I’m in pain, and this will never go away.”
“I’m depressed; I’m going to be like this for the rest of my life”
“I’m anxious today; I’m never going to be able to handle life.”
“I’m scared of messing up a budding relationship; I’m such a disaster because of [name thing that happened 5 years ago that you’re still holding on to] and I don’t deserve for that amazing person to love me, so I might as well sabotage it and go for someone in my league.”
You know what’s fascinating about catastrophizing? It’s simultaneously past and future oriented. Humph.
“I’m a failure because I got a B on that paper.” (#past)
“And that means that I’ll never get into any grad program because I’ll always have a terrible GPA because I’m dumb and lazy.” (#future)
What’s wilder is that sometimes these thoughts are like this creepy Magic 8 ball of self-fulfilling prophecies. We tell ourselves that we’re such a screw up, that we actually believe it and when things go wrong, as things in life are wont to do, we throw up our hands and say, “See?? I told you!”
Worse, we use our supposed prophetic thoughts as a map to follow, and we sabotage ourselves as if we’re beating disappointment to the punch. Like it’s easier to just get it over with since is clearly going to happen anyway.
Listen. I’m sorry that thing happened to you when you were seven. Or fourteen. Or last week. Or all of the above. I’m sorry that your lenses are tinted with your experiences, and that you think those are facts. I’m really sorry you think those things about yourself, and that the voice in your head that sounds an awful lot like the combination of James Earl Jones, your mom, and the last relationship you had, and they’re telling you what a piece of absolute garbage you are.
On behalf of God and the Universe and Oprah and Simon Cowell’s approval that we all pray to, I am actually sorry. I’m sorry for me too. Those thoughts are sticky and loud and they really know what to say to get you to eat Kit Kats in the car whilst crying. I know man. I’d hug you if you’d let me because I really know what that feels like, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
And I know how seemingly impossible it is to get out of that rut.
Do you remember that scene in the movie Twister, when they’re stuck in a literal rut and the tornado is coming up behind them, and their only option is to ram their truck under a foot-bridge and hide until the winds past? That’s exactly what this feels like.
God that was a good movie.
Oh, I just remembered that Bill Paxton died.
Ok, so I know that the rut is deep and it is lonely. I know because I’m in there about forty times a day. I also know a few other things.
I know now that if something feels particularly gross, it’s likely not real. Urgency should not be confused with accuracy.
I know that most of the battle is even seeing that I’m in the thick of things. It takes longer than you’d think sometimes. Believe it or not, just recognizing that you’re in a thought tornado can make a really big difference.
The Twister reference not doing it for you? Cool. What about trains?
The thing about trains of thought, is that they go further the more momentum they have, but happily, are easily derailed.
I also know that, as lame as it sounds, self-compassion is the best derailer that I’ve come across. Just giving myself a tiny break when I can remember to puts those thoughts on ice.
And I know that getting some altitude gives a view of the whole horizon, not just the ant farm that I’ve been looking at. This one takes a while sometimes because it involves trying to spark up your rational brain whilst the anxious one is filibustering it’s pants off. Let’s remember that there physically isn’t a way to rationalize with the irrational...meaning that your amygdala where all your grey hairs and anxiety come from, doesn’t necessarily connect with your prefrontal cortex, where your wise mind hangs...or at least it doesn’t connect when you’re at a ten. You very literally can’t logic your way out of anxiety, so you might as well let it run its course without jumping in it’s way and trying to stop it. It’ll shut itself off on it’s own.
Perspective, when available, reminds me that bad things happen. Relationships fail, I will fail, we will collectively fail. That’s just life. And blissfully, frustratingly, it’s not personal.
So let’s start small when practicing how to fend off that second arrow. Remember that “bad” emotions are normal and healthy, it’s what we add into it that builds those unhelpful thought habits.
If you burn your mouth on your fresh and delicious DeFazio’s pizza tomorrow, instead of, “JESUS CHRIST! What kind of an asshole takes a big bite like that of something so clearly hot? Great. Now my day is ruined. I’m such a jackass. Everyone knows that. I can’t even take care of myself, how will I ever take care of someone else?”
Practice saying, “Oops, ouch! I hate that when that happens! I was just excited. I’m going to take a sip of something cold to feel better and will try to be more careful.”
Just try it...believe me, it’ll soften the blow. The pain of a burnt tongue is bad enough, you don’t need to make it worse by shooting ourselves in the neck with a second arrow.
Like everything, this is all a practice. Practice makes habits, and who run the world? Habits.
Good luck out there, man. I’m rooting for you like I’m rooting for me. I mean, I know we’ll figure this out - I have faith in us.
It’s very much an “us” when it comes to this crap. We think we’re in this on our own, but baby doll, I’m here to tell you that there is no “I” in Catastrophe Team...which I had to spell out to make sure that joke would land.
I have faith in our ability to rebuild ourselves the same way I had faith in the communities I would visit when I was on the Catastrophe Team. That’s what we really need, don’t we? We need someone who will swoop in when our foundation is rocked. We need a bottle of water, a snack, and some company to stand and look at the hole in the ground with us until we’re well enough to back away and make a plan.
All it takes is a softer touch, and being able to say, “I have these thoughts...the feel real and swirly and I think I need to get them out of my head.”
I guarantee the person you’re talking to has had the same exact thoughts.
Talking these things out with your team can and will change the trajectory of that second arrow. I promise...and I never break a promise.
Who’s on your CAT team?
If you’re wondering what other kinds of cognitive distortions are lurking in the corners of your mind, as I know you were, here’s a few. Watch out for these branches of the tree, they’ll poke you right in the eye:
Overgeneralizing - if one thing goes wrong, everything won’t necessarily go wrong. Remember: If your partner is having a weird day and seems off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t to be with you. Ask yourself a really simple question, “Am I sure?”
#allthefilters - filtering out the positive because being disappointment is easier, and when something positive happens, we up the ante by disqualifying it. “Yeah, she sent me that nice text, but she feels like she has to.” Remember: What we look at becomes our reality, and disappointments happen as much as beautiful moments.
Using emotions as facts: “I feel like a loser, therefore I am a loser.” We use our emotions as labels, and labels become identities. “I was late, I feel shitty, therefore I’m an irresponsible and a shitty person.” Remember that emotion means “in motion.” This too shall pass, man. How about, “They had an expectation that i’d be somewhere at a certain time, maybe I didn’t set realistic goals for my day, I’ll try harder next time”.
Personalization - the thing where we think we’re the center of the universe...everything bad is our fault. And/or we feel we need to own people’s emotions/okness. Remember: everyone is a hot mess, and most of it is not because of you. You are not in charge of making someone ok.
Shoulds: lead to self judgement and impossible standards. You “should” be better; you “should” be thinner; you “should” have done that project earlier. Cool. No what? Try “could.” Could I add a walk into my evening routine? Could I seek out the help I need to reach the goals I want? Questions help relax the nervous system.