Catastrophic Thinking and Catastrophizing

Stop Catastrophic Thinking in Its Tracks

Dorothy: I don’t like this forest.  It’s … it’s dark and creepy!

Scarecrow: Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.

Dorothy: Do … do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?

Tin Man: Hmmm … we might.

Scarecrow: Animals that … that eat straw?

Tin Man: Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.

Dorothy: Lions!

Scarecrow: And tigers?

Tin Man: And bears.

Dorothy: Lions, and tigers, and bears … oh, my!

All: Lions, and tigers, and bears …

Dorothy: Oh, my!

All: Lions, and tigers, and bears …

Dorothy: Oh, my!

All: Lions, and tigers, and bears …

Dorothy: Oh, my!

All: Lions, and tigers, and bears …

Dorothy: Oh, my!

[Enter Cowardly Lion. He roars, and bounds into view, down onto the yellow-brick road.]

— The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)

As Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest in the scene above — from The Wizard of Oz (1939 film) — they provide us with an illustration of a kind of anxious thinking that we can call catastrophic thinking, or “catastrophizing,” i.e., imagining the worse-case scenario. Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals in the “dark and creepy” forest; Scarecrow frets that the animals might have an appetite for straw; and Tin Man anticipates that the animals will mostly likely be lions, tigers, and bears. For all three, their fears escalate quickly, becoming almost too much for words; their catastrophic thinking gets summed up in the gasp of an exclamation: “Oh, my!”

Catastrophic Thinking Is Anxious Thinking

We can describe catastrophic thinking as a kind of anxious thinking in which we assume that an experience we identify as negative will have dire, unmanageable consequences. For instance, I might fear that if I can’t remember someone’s name at a party, I will be mortified, and then stammer, blush, or otherwise demonstrate my embarrassment. I might tell myself that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd because of my response, and will not want to talk to me. I might also fear that this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, socially awkward experience she had with me. At this point in my catastrophic thinking, I am absolutely sure that I will never get invited to another party again!

Learning from Dorothy

So, what happens in The Wizard of Oz (1939 film), when Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view? The lion begins by bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man, but when he turns from them to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy brings herself to intervene; she gives the lion a terrorizing-halting swat on the nose. With her courage, Dorothy stops the lion in his tracks.

Now, when Dorothy was catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle the situation, or even that she could, should some wild animal pose a threat to her, her friends, and Toto? If Dorothy had considered how she would cope with such a situation, realized that she could (even though she would have still have preferred it not occur!), I imagine that she would have felt less worried about the prospect. I imagine that she would have experienced a much greater sense of calm, courage, and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, down the yellow-brick road.

Catastrophic Thinking Is a Cowardly Lion

Even if we don’t skip as far or as quickly down the path of anxiety as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man do in this scene, we still “catastrophize” whenever we assume that the worst will happen, and neglect to ask ourselves, “So what if it does?” or “How would I like to respond to that situation, if it happens?” When we notice ourselves starting to catastrophize, responses like these can help us question the likelihood of the worst-case scenario that we’re imagining — our own version of an encounter with lions, and tigers, and bears. Responses like these can also help us question whether such a scenario would really mean the “end-of-the-world,” and challenge our fear that we won’t be able to handle the scenario, should it occur. Simply put, these responses can help us swat the cowardly lion of catastrophic thinking on the nose, and stop it in its tracks.

When catastrophic thinking has become a bully in your own life, how have you given it a swat on the nose?



Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Wizard_of_Oz_Bert_Lahr_1939.jpg

An earlier rendition of this post appeared in a previous version of The Thought Tonic Blog. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Starting a New Habit

Four Thoughts that Helped Me Start a New, Healthy Habit

This post about starting a new habit is from a previous version of the Thought Tonic blog.  I have decided to update the post and add it to this version.  Although the story is a few years old, the ideas still hold true for me.  Perhaps the thoughts will have some value for you as well!

I have been running outside for the past couple of months — three to four miles, three to four days a week — on a trail that passes close to where I live.  Although I have run before in my life, including as a member of a cross-country team in high school, more than ten years have passed since I ran as much, and as consistently, as I have lately.  Even the last time I ran on a regular basis, I don’t think that I ever ran for more than three miles at once, and I always did so inside, on a treadmill at the gym.  For whatever reason, running outside has always been more of a challenge for me, at least since my days on the cross-country team — over twenty-five years ago.

The other day, when I got home from my run, I kicked off my shoes at the door, and as one of them tumbled into a position with the sole facing up, I noticed that the deep grooves in the tread had caught and held pieces of gravel, bits of twigs, and even some dead, dry moss from all my runs in the recent weeks.  For a moment, as I stared, struck by how much was stuck in the bottom of my shoe, I got lost in my thoughts.  I found myself thinking about what else I could say I had “picked up” in my experiences of developing this new, healthy habit.  What had I learned about the thoughts, or affirmations, that helped me in this process — to the point that I was now thinking about myself as someone who runs outside.

“I can do it (even when I don’t want to do it).”

I cringed a little when I realized one of the first thoughts that had been helpful to me; articulating it explicitly would likely spoil my future ability to use a whole genre of my favorite excuses without a second-thought, without knowing I was lying to myself if I tried.  The thought that had made such a difference was this one:  I can do what I want to do even when I don’t feel like doing it.  There were plenty of days over the past two months, after all, when I would have much preferred to stay in bed, and not get up, dressed, and out the door into sometimes unpleasant weather to exert myself so strenuously.  I did not feel like running on those days, but I ran anyway.  “Yay!” for me, and “Ugh!”  Now that I knew, how could I ever again use, “I don’t feel like it!” as a reason to claim I couldn’t do anything I said I wanted (and really did want) to do?

“I set myself up for success.”

A second learning I had picked up was the value of setting my intentions, and developing these intentions into a plan.  I had thought in terms of starting with running two miles at a time and working myself up to three miles and then to four, beginning with running two days a week and working my way up to three and then to four — all in a given amount of time.  Now, I had a goal of running five miles four days a week by the end of the month, at which point I thought I would likely turn my attention to running faster.  Being clear with myself about my intentions, developing a plan in which my goals were specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound had supported me in doing what I had set out to do.  I had set myself up for success by setting myself a series of what are often called SMART goals.

“I will support myself in this process.”

I was also aware that, in the process of developing my new habit, I had implemented ways to take care of myself, to help myself stay accountable to what I said I was going to do, and to feel supported.  First, I took time to stretch before each run and to do a cool down afterwards; in my cross-country days, over twenty-five years ago, I had been plagued my shin-splints — I wanted to do now what I thought might help me avoid that trouble.  Second, I downloaded a free running app onto my cell phone to help me track my runs, and see what I had accomplished.  Third, I had someone in my life who knew what I was doing, who supported me in doing it, and to whom I sent a quick text after almost every run; this person would reply with a text of “Congratulations!,” “Great job!,” or some other celebratory response that would always put a smile on my face.  For me, this exchange of texts functioned as a source of both accountability and support.

“I choose to think about what I’m doing in ways that fuel my motivation.

The fourth thought that had been helpful to me over the past couple of months concerned the reasons I was giving myself for running.  Rather than thinking in the anxious terms of what I was running from – extra weight around my mid-section, for example — I had made a conscious choice to focus on what I was running toward, and what I felt I got out of running outside.  What I was after, and what I got, was a sense of being in better cardiovascular health; time in beautiful, natural surroundings, on the trail under the trees and with views of the river; and my experience of running as a kind of “moving meditation,” which left me feeling relaxed, centered, and grounded.  Last, but not least, I got a great sense of satisfaction when I could say to myself after running outside, “I did it!”  By thinking in these ways, I was able to generate a very different energy about running outside than I would have had otherwise; with this anabolic energy building me up, I was able to support myself in doing what I said I wanted to do, and in enjoying it.

All together, these four thoughts, or affirmations, helped me start a new, healthy habit.  What thoughts fuel you with positive, anabolic energy — and so calm your anxious thinking, stoke your courage, and foster your confidence — to support you in habits that you find helpful in your life?


Featured Image:  Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Where Do You Want to Go?

Where Do You Want to Go?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car.  In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well.  I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly.  Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road!  One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.”  The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while!  The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin the new year, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.  We’ll formulate goals, or resolutions.  If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits.  If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home.  So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do.  We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!”  And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives?  Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives.  Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”?  What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”?  Let me clarify.  From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not.  In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon).  For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement.  I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do.  “I really need to get to the gym today!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!”  I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind.  “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!”  Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don’t finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”?  How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning?  The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative?  For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation).  Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …”  For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida.  Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”).  However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym.  “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids.  Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!”  For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism).  Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety.  While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!).  For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well.  When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go.  The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well.  These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  As we begin the new year, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals.  I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!


Updated: 01/12/2019

Featured image: Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One Christmas, when I was much younger — perhaps just into my teenage years — my grandparents gave me a very special gift.  Although I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I still very clearly recall feeling terrifically excited one moment, terribly confused and disappointed the next.  When I pried open the large cardboard box, after tearing through the wrapping paper and enough Scotch tape to make a clear, adhesive straitjacket for one of my younger brothers, what did I find?  A heavy wool blanket for my bed!

Obviously, I did not initially regard this blanket as a very special a special gift.  This shift in perspective did not occur for years, really, until I was away at college, and living on my own.  During my junior and senior years of college, I lived in an off-campus apartment that had a single source of heat — a very small electric wall-unit in one of the corners of the living room.  On cold winter nights in that apartment, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me warm!  I still think of that blanket, which became so worn over time that I finally had to give it up, let it go.  I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (what kind of Christmas gift is a wool blanket for a teenage boy?), but also how I learned to value it, even treasure it, in later years.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these experiences can be, and how easily the pain can begin to blanket our sense of anything positive in our lives.  As if the emotional anguish of anxiety weren’t enough, it often comes with physical discomfort — muscle tension, upset stomachs, and headaches, just to name a few common examples.  The emotional and physical distress combine to take a toll on our confidence, then, convincing us that something must be wrong with us, and that withdrawing or giving up are the only options that make sense for us, or are even the only options that are possible.  With such feelings of limitation and compromised self-esteem, we frequently experience increased emotional pain — a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, even what we could call depression.  No wonder those of us who struggle with experiences of anxiety tend to see anxiety as a curse, a way in which we’re broken, a wound that doesn’t heal.  Who wouldn’t feel this way, given what we go through?

As valid as this view is — and it is completely valid, given our profoundly and repeatedly painful experiences of anxiety — it seems to me to have the very unfortunate effect of perpetuating the very affliction from which we seek relief.  Seeing anxiety as a curse or a wound sets up a relationship between us and anxiety that is dominated by our sense of antipathy, resentment, and fear.  In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as our enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we often generate an even higher degree of tension for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm, courage, confidence that we desire.  Personally, I wonder how our experiences might be different if we were able to see our anxiety in another light, not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing or a source of healing, as odd as those ideas may sound.  What if, in keeping with the holiday season, we were able to see our anxiety as a gift?  What kind of relationship with anxiety would be possible for us if we were able to adopt this perspective?  What might the benefits be?

For me, the key to seeing anxiety differently — as a gift, for instance — lies in exploring those ways in which I can say that I am thankful for my experiences of it.  Sure, on the one hand, the very idea of being thankful for anxiety sounds absurd — even offensive, perhaps — given all the pain that we associate with feeling anxious; however, the frame of mind in which such an idea is absurd or offensive is the same frame of mind that is dominated by anxious, fearful, tense, and defensive thinking.  I am not intimating that we consider experiences of anxiety pleasant — I have already mentioned the myriad ways in which they are profoundly painful, in fact; what I am suggesting is that these very unpleasant, painful experiences call our attention to certain habits of thinking, associated feelings, and ways of responding in behavior that are not helpful to us — that limit, constrain, even debilitate us.

Anxiety, then, provides a doorway to healing, a prompt to us to examine our thoughts about ourselves, others, and our experiences, and to evaluate how well these thoughts are working for us.  If we don’t like the way that our thoughts are working for us, if we determine that they are exacerbating our anguish rather than helping us to feel more calm, courageous, and confident, we can decide to exchange them for thoughts that support us in having the different experiences that we want.  The curse, the wound of anxiety, becomes a source of healing, a gift for growth.

When I think about this idea — the gift of anxiety — I think back to the wool blanket that my grandparents gave me for Christmas when I was in my teenage years, and how, eventually, I grew to feel so thankful for it.  At first, of course, I felt only confused, disappointed, and frustrated — even a bit hurt and upset, to be honest.  I hadn’t asked for the blanket.  I didn’t want the blanket.  I even hated the way the blanket felt.  Who would ever be glad to have such a thing?  The very notion seemed preposterous to me.  Now, as I reflect on my experience, I know that I couldn’t have reacted any other way, given how I was thinking about the blanket at the time.  In the years that followed, as I learned to see ways in which the blanket was helpful to me, I began to think differently about the blanket itself, and my relationship to it changed, eased, became much less dominated by tension and aggravation.  Finally, I stopped thinking about the blanket as the heavy, scratchy burden on my bed that I had received instead of a new bike, music player, or something else that I had really wanted; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much.

What are some of the ways in which you can say that anxiety has been a gift to you?  What welcome differences in your experiences of anxiety, and of life more generally, might experimenting with a perspective like this one might make possible for you?

With my very best wishes to you for increased calm, courage confidence during this holiday season, and in the coming year!



Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences; it helps us shift our perspective. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Featured image: Photo by Kendall Lane on Unsplash

Show that Gremlin Some Sun

Show that Gremlin Some Sun!

Mr. Wing’s grandson: Look Mister, there are some rules that you’ve got to follow.

Rand Peltzer: Yeah, what kind of rules?

Mr. Wing’s grandson: First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight. (Gremlins, 1984)

Today, I offer the fifth and final post in a series that I began back in June, with “Through a Glass Darkly.” Throughout this series, I have been playing with the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I have suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others, in that they restrict — rather than expand — our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these restrictive thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which weighs or even breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which animates us and builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us from reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” simply being another way to reference what many of us call our inner critic). In previous blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefsassumptions, and interpretations; today, we explore the last of the four “energy blocks” — gremlins.

Schneider defines a gremlin as that part of us that fears in some way (or many!) that we’re just “not good enough to cut it” (141); we may worry, for instance, that we’re not smart enough, attractive enough, and/or experienced enough — the list can go on and on, as most of us know. “Your gremlin,” Schneider writes, “tells you not to try, never to take a risk, always to take the safe road, and to compromise your life by playing small” (140); left unchecked, your gremlin can begin to convince you that you are small. As examples of gremlin activity, he points to thoughts that he has heard Richard, his fictional client in Energy Leadership, express during their conversations together. Richard, the owner of a small business that has fallen on hard times, has told Schneider that he feels like a failure, and that he has let his employees down, because his company is currently struggling (141). Schneider asserts that Richard is giving voice to his inner critic in thinking, feeling, and speaking of himself in this way, as “not good enough” (i.e., a “failure”). This kind of negative self-talk resonates with catabolic, rather than anabolic, energy; Richard feels beaten down, hopeless, and could tend to shrink from opportunities for improving the situation — after all, what’s the use?

As another example, on a personal level, I’ll confess that I wrestled with my own gremlin when I was thinking about leaving my salaried job as a therapist to go into private practice as a therapist and coach. While I believed that I was good at what I did, part of me wondered if I should take the risk, if it wasn’t better for me to remain where I was (with the steady paycheck!), rather than to follow my dream of having my own business (setting my own schedule; seeing clients that I wanted to see and who wanted to see me, specifically; etc.). As someone who identifies as an introvert, and also struggles at times with a sense of anxiety in social situations, I worried that I wasn’t “good enough” socially to network successfully, or to communicate effectively to potential clients the benefits that they could experience through our work together. I fretted that if I couldn’t network or communicate in the ways that I imagined necessary to cultivate a thriving private practice (anyone also hear a limiting belief in this idea?), I wouldn’t be able to “cut it” on my own. I’m so happy now that I didn’t let my gremlin hold me back!

There are ways for us to challenge our gremlins, of course, which will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns of thought we can call negative core beliefs. The first step, in my own view — as with any of Schneider’s “energy blocks” — is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think, even about ourselves, as “true.” We don’t have to believe everything we think! When we are able to hear the pronouncements of our inner critic as beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time, based on what we have been seeing through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear — rather than as “facts” — we create new possibilities in thought, feeling, and behavior for ourselves. When we catch our gremlin telling us that we’re “not good enough” in some way, and experience even the vaguest sense of dissonance reminding us that another part of us — our “inner genius” (142), Schneider says — knows better, we can begin to hear the voice of our inner critic more objectively, then, as saying less about us, and more about a habit that we have and can change of seeing ourselves in an unhelpful way. Some people find that naming their gremlin and describing it in physical terms helps them objectify it — separate from it, get some distance from it — more effectively. I once attended a training in which, as participants, we had the assignment of drawing, sculpting, or creating in some other fashion a physical representation of our gremlin. This was not long after I had undergone surgery for a salivary stone, an experience that I had decided to refer to as “having some of my fear removed” (at the time, I was working through those apprehensions I mentioned about leaving my job to start a private practice!). I used white Play-Doh to give my gremlin the shape that I imagined a large salivary stone to have, and put it in an empty medication bottle. I still keep this physical representation of my gremlin around to help remind me that my gremlin is only a part of me, not all of me, and not even the strongest or most influential part of me — not any longer.

In responding to your own gremlin over the next couple of weeks, should you choose to do so (the key to your cage is in your own hand!), I invite you to think about the three rules that Mr. Wing’s grandson passes along to Rand Peltzer in the movie, Gremlins (1984), when he sells Rand the creature that we later come to know as Gizmo: “First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight.” Like the creatures in this movie, our own gremlins multiply, wreak havoc, take over our lives, and even get vicious towards us when we “give them water” with unquestioned acceptance and “feed them after midnight” with unchallenged influence over what we think, feel, and do. When we expose them to the light of day, on the other hand — that is, become aware of them, identify them as negative core beliefs to which we don’t have to (and won’t!) ascribe any longer, and challenge them with alternative, more helpful ways of seeing ourselves — they begin to lose their power.

Go on … show that gremlin some sun!


Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GremlinStripeByInti.jpg

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight
My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

Think the Rainbow

Think the Rainbow!

In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others — they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine. — Diana Wynne Jones

Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction'” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit. When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.

There are no facts, only interpretations. — Friedrich Nietzsche

There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step, I contend, is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?'” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!

I have proposed before, and will do so again, that we give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance, when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?

“Experience the Rainbow!” — Skittles

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You may be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches. Consider whether or not such interpretations of your experiences are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, that distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, that supports you in moving in the direction that you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!” Your interpretation is only one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!

Featured image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg