I recently wrote an article about the definition of stress, and why defining stress as an external thing that comes into our life is flawed. I believe that stress is created internally when there is a disconnect between our perception of who we are and what we have achieved, and our mind’s view of the person we have to become or the things we have to achieve before we will see ourselves as “good enough”. One way in which this disconnect causes stress is through the art of catastrophizing.
Here's an example that shows the power catastrophizing can have...
You’ve been working flat out preparing for an important application at work and you’re finally at the point where you are starting to feel confident, or at least more excited than scared. And then the day before, a senior lawyer comes in to your office and says, “Hey do you have that application ready? I’ve been thinking it would be best if I speak to it. You know how it is.” And you think, “No, I don’t know how it is! Why don’t you tell me?” But instead you say, “Oh. Right. Yeah, of course. No problem.” And you hand over your carefully prepared work with an even more carefully constructed smile.
Inside you are fuming. You wonder what it was that caused the senior lawyer to suddenly lose faith in you. You think you must have done something wrong. You think maybe the work you’ve done previously was crap, just no one told you. You think maybe they are going to start taking more of your work away. Maybe they are trying to find a way to get rid of you. You have noticed that your work load was lighter the past few weeks. You should check your billed hours. Maybe they’ve been writing off your time. Maybe you’re not quite meeting target. And then you remember another lawyer has asked you to come to his office tomorrow afternoon for a meeting, to discuss “an issue”. You had assumed the “issue” was about a file, but what if it was about you personally? And then it hits you, this lawyer you have a meeting with is also one of the senior lawyers on the hiring committee. Its all coming together. They are going to let you go. Or maybe if you’re lucky it will just be a warning. You start replaying previous conversations in your head, and suddenly it seems like there were signs you should have noticed. They’ve been disappointed in you for a long time. How could you not have noticed! Why didn’t you work harder? You should have worked harder. You should have gone to that breakfast function last week and sat at the firm table. You shouldn’t have turned away that file last month. You should have made time to do it even though you were swamped. Your head fills with things you should have noticed, should have said, should have done, should have done better…
By noon the next day you are exhausted and freaking out because of course you didn’t sleep and you are convinced you are going to be fired. Just as you are feeling an overwhelming urge to quit so they can’t fire you first, the lawyer you are to meet with that afternoon bursts into your office carrying two boxes overflowing with paper, drops it all on your desk, and rushes back towards the door saying, “Not going to be able to discuss this with you today. One of my other files has exploded. Just go through the boxes, try and get a sense of things, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”
You are caught off guard. You stare in shock at the empty doorway. Gradually your gaze shifts to the mountain of papers on your desk, and, through the layers of panic, it begins to set in: this was the “issue”. You let out a little laugh. Your heart rate slows.
And then your brain comes out of its shocked silence. “Shit. You’re an idiot. How could you have been so stupid? No one’s going to fire you. Why did you blow this out of proportion? Why didn’t you get any sleep? Why have you been stressing so much? You’ve been so unproductive all day. And now look, you’ve got all this extra work on top of what you didn’t get done this morning while you were busy stressing out so much over nothing.” You are frustrated with yourself, but you try to laugh it off. You take a few deep breaths. You tell yourself, “Ok. Its ok. Now focus.”
I'd be surprised (and impressed!) if you say you can't relate in any way to this example. I don’t know how many times I’ve constructed scenarios in my head and made assumptions about how horrible things will play out, only to later find out I’ve been completely off base. And its happened not just in relation to work but in all aspects of my life.
These types of thoughts are the source of so much unnecessary stress, as most of the time there is little or no truth to them.
The world is not deliberately plotting to sabotage you. Your boss is not trying to make your life awful. Your friend is not talking about you behind your back. The guy in the gym is not thinking, its about time you started going to the gym. The couple you invited over for dinner is not thinking you are a horrible cook, and on top of that you have really bad taste in wine. Your colleague who didn’t say hi this morning is not angry with you and does not think you are an idiot. .
What's more likely true is... Your boss is so stressed out she has no idea what effect her behaviour is having on your life. Your friend is secretly envying your new hair cut. The guy at the gym is worried you are thinking the same thing about him. The couple you invited for dinner is thinking they wish they could entertain like you but their place is just not nice enough to have people over. Your silent colleague has just been informed by the principal at his son’s school that his son has been bullying his classmates; he is preoccupied and doesn't feel like small talk.
The truth is that everyone is so wrapped up in their own thoughts, stressing about things in their own lives, and catastrophizing their own circumstances, that most of the time the only person thinking negative things about you, is you.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we catastrophize things? Why do we assume everyone is out there secretly judging us, thinking bad things about us, and plotting to take us out?
Catastrophizing is our mind's twisted way of trying to protect ourselves from being caught off guard by negative emotions like sadness, loss, failure, and rejection. It starts with a fear. We fear that we are not good enough in some way or not deserving enough of good things. Then we play out in our mind all of the horrible things that will happen as a result of us not being good enough or worthy enough, so that when something bad does happen (and bad things will happen in life no matter what we do) we will be prepared for it.
And while catastrophizing may prevent us from being caught off guard by negative emotions, the problem with this approach is that instead of experiencing negative emotions only when bad things actually happen, we experience negative emotions much more frequently. We end up feeling stressed out and dissatisfied even when we should feel peaceful and satisfied. And we may even allow our fears to convince us we are not good enough in situations when we've done something great, and so we catastrophize, leaving us feeling stressed out and dissatisfied when we should feel proud, happy, and loved.
Catastrophizing has been the cause of so much unnecessary stress and discontent in my life and I hope this article helps you to become more aware of how catastrophizing may be affecting you. We would all be much happier if we could only just shut off that voice in our heads that puts words into other people's mouths and creates horrible situations that may never exist.
I know this can seem impossible to do. But there is a way and it is really a simple solution. And I would love to share it with you! So in my next post I will let you in on the thing that has helped me the most to stop wasting my time being stressed about how life is worse than it really is.