In my last post I talked about catastrophizing and how it can be the cause of so much unnecessary stress and discontent in our lives, and today I’m going to share with you what I've learned is the number one way to shut that voice off! I used to be a slave to that catastrophizing voice – it would constantly make assumptions about what other people were thinking about me, what their motives were, and how I was perceived in the world. And it would stress me out!
I had tried everything to get rid of it: from yoga, deep breathing, and going for a walk, to complaining, having a drink, and eating, and everything in between. Depending on the situation, I could sometimes use one of my techniques to shut the voice off for a while. But when the voice would arise in relation to an area of my life where it was most important to me to be successful, worthy, and competent, it would overpower every technique that I tried.
And regardless of the situation, the voice would never go away completely, until at some point in the future either the thing the voice was catastrophizing happened (and the voice was either proved right or wrong – usually wrong!), or the thing the voice was catastrophizing became so remote that it faded into the background and got overtaken by the newest fear.
I had just accepted this voice was a part of life that was impossible to get rid of. But I recently decided to give it another shot – one last effort to battle the voice to the ground!
I started with what knew. There are two ways in which the voice can be permanently shut off: when the thing it is catastrophizing happens; and when the thing it is catastrophizing is no longer important to me.
I didn’t want to have to wait until whatever the voice was catastrophizing was no longer important to me, or change what was important to me, so I crossed out the second option right away.
The problem with the first option, waiting for the thing to happen, was also the waiting: the excruciating waiting while the voice rambles on about the horrible ways things will go and the feeling of helplessness that comes along with it. But what if I didn’t have to wait, what if I could prove the voice wrong, or at least find out if it was right, without waiting? What if I could beat it at its own game?
How can you beat your catastrophizing voice at its own game?
There is a very simple answer, and that is…
This is most clearly demonstrated with an example. In my last post I wrote about a young lawyer whose hard work was taken away by a senior lawyer and how that spiraled into the belief that she was going to be fired. But what if instead of plastering on a smile and handing the work over as if she understood what was going on, the young lawyer said “Is there any particular reason for the change of plans? I’ve prepared quite a bit for this application and I was looking forward to the experience of speaking to it in court.”
I realize that saying something like this can be scary, but once you get it out I can guarantee you will feel better, regardless of the answer that you get.
The senior lawyer might have revealed that the client is his cousin and that his cousin had asked that he speak to it personally. Or maybe the senior lawyer would have said something like, “The client is really stressed out about this one – so just to give the client a little comfort and reassurance its best that I do it.” Maybe the young lawyer wouldn’t think this is fair - that she could do just as good a job - but at least she would know that the reason it was being taken away was for appearance purposes and not because the firm doesn’t think she is competent, or value her skills.
Finally, even if the senior lawyer says that he is concerned about her ability to do it, at least she would be aware of the issue. She would be able to follow up with a question about the specific concerns the senior lawyer has about her performance and could request some advice on how to improve on what she is doing, so that next time the senior lawyer will be confident that she is prepared.
No matter what the result of the conversation, the young lawyer is not likely going to catastrophize the situation to the point of not sleeping because she believes that she will be fired the next day. The catastrophizing voice will have been proved wrong before it could even speak.
But what if you ask and the worst case scenario is true?
What if on asking the question, the senior lawyer reveals that they actually have been concerned with her performance, and, after a few more questions, she finds out that she really is going to be fired?
In the unlikely event the young lawyer learns the worst is going to happen, is she worse off than if she had never asked? Definitely not!
Don’t worry, you are still better off!
If she hadn’t asked the question, she would have found out the same answer the next day anyways, but after a day of being stressed out and night of not sleeping; she would have end up being run down and worse equipped to deal with the bad news.
If the answer really is that she is being let go the young lawyer will undoubtedly have other challenges to face, but the catastrophizing voice will no longer be able to affect her. As tough as the situation may be she will have empowered herself. She will be in a position where she can take steps to deal with the situation, rather than only helplessly stress about the possibility of it occurring.
Does this really apply in every situation?
What about the other examples – the stressed out boss, the secretive friend, that guy at the gym, the couple you invited for dinner, and the silent colleague?
If you are asking whether you can just go up to them and say “Hey, can you tell me what you are thinking about me so I can stop thinking its something bad?”
The answer is YES!!
Maybe you don't want to do it in those exact words – but any conversation on the subject you are worrying about is going to help!
Try out some of these and beat your catastrophizing voice at its own game!
For the Boss: set up a meeting to have a chat. Explain to your boss everything that you have on your plate and why you are struggling/overwhelmed/feeling unappreciated. Ask for guidance. Ask if they have ever experienced these types of struggles and how they overcame them. You will likely find out your boss is a real person who cares. If not, and your fears are confirmed, maybe it will give you the push you needed to start looking for something else.
For the friend: have a real conversation. Say you value the friendship but notice things have been strained or that you are no longer as close. Ask why. You will likely find out the issue has nothing to do with you, or if it does, you may be able to work through it. If your attempts at real conversation are rejected, maybe you will gain some clarity about whether this person is a true friend or a toxic one that you should shed.
For the guy at the gym: go over and talk to him. Ask him how long he’s been coming here. Ask him about an interesting exercise he was doing. Just opening communication will likely be enough to shut off that voice in your head that tells you he is judging you. If he’s a jerk, insults you, and your fears are confirmed...you can think, “Wow, what a jerk! Who cares what he thinks anyways.” Give yourself a mental high five for being at the gym in the first place and then let it go.
For the couple at dinner: compliment them. Say you’ve heard they know a lot about how to pair great wine with delicious food. Tell them you would value their opinion on how the wine you are serving pairs with the meal and ask for their recommendations. You’ll likely get some positive feedback and maybe some helpful tips for your next dinner party!
And for the colleague: go over and say hi yourself! Ask how their day is going. You’ll likely find out their bad mood has nothing to do with you and you will probably brighten their day just by listening.
This stuff really does work!!
What I’ve learned is that communication strips the catastrophizing voice of its power and instead empowers you to a position where you can either take action or choose to accept things as they are.
So stop assuming things and stressing over possibilities and get out there and ask some questions! Be fearless. You’ll thank yourself for it later.