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.

Enjoy the Holidays

Paint the Elephant: Daring to Enjoy the Holidays

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

A couple of months ago, I found myself painting an elephant.  It was one of those events with an instructor taking a sizable group of us through the intricacies of elephant portraiture stroke by stroke.  You can see the end result for yourself — this canvas will not be finding its way into any fine art galleries any time soon!

paint-the-elephant

But you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of creating that ill-proportioned, awkward-looking behemoth.  I savored the feeling of the brush squishing in fresh paint and the whispering sound it made as it whooshed across the textured canvas.  I marveled at the colors I created on my paper plate pallet; the way such a tiny drop of white could shift the entire vibrancy of a hue.

Meanwhile, all around me, my table mates could be heard grunting and grumbling, with mounting frustration and discouragement.  Harsh self-judgments, embarrassment, comparison, and shame echoed all around.  I found myself feeling sorry for these disenchanted artists.  They were so busy holding themselves to lofty standards of elephant painting that they were missing out on all the joy I was relishing.  But I could well identify with their plight: how often have I found myself similarly criticizing my imperfect efforts when I could have been having fun with my shortcomings instead?

It was a moment that crystallized for me the importance of focusing on being present to the process over evaluating the outcome.  The difference between me and the grumblers wasn’t that I was a better painter or a more naturally cheerful person, it was simply that I had set a different focal point for my experience.  Being present to the process set me up for joy and wonder; focusing on the outcome set them up for frustration and disappointment.

The holidays are coming, and with them increased opportunities for grunting and grumbling.  Between social pressures and self-imposed expectations, we often hold unexamined, lofty goals that turn our attention toward evaluating outcomes.  Such an outcomes-over-process perspective sets us up for anxiously trying to avoid perceived failures and harshly criticizing ourselves when we fall short, both of which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the (supposedly) “most wonderful time of the year.”

What might happen if we could apply the same principle that leads to joyful elephant painting to our holiday endeavors?  As you anticipate upcoming holiday plans, which ones are most likely to bring out anxious thoughts or self-critical feelings?  What are the outcomes on which you might tend to focus, distracting yourself from opportunities for finding joy?  Now take a moment to shift your focus to aspects surrounding the process of those activities that you are most likely to enjoy.  Imagine what it might be like to hold those life-giving elements of your experience in the forefront of your attention.  How might your experience shift as your focus shifts?

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly stated, enjoying anything in life is often a courageous act that sets us apart.  When the expected stress of the season arises within and around us, “paint the elephant” can serve as a motto that redirects our thoughts and restores our sense of calm.

“Paint the elephant.”

Bring your attention to being present to the process instead of worrying about outcomes.

“Paint the elephant.”

Relish whatever goodness you can cling to in your experiences, even when they fall short of your hopes or expectations.

“Paint the elephant.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to get it wrong, and yet … to have a grand time anyway.


Featured image credit: RhondaK / Unsplash

A Phantom Menace

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.”


 — Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are composed of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of theses thoughts and beliefs are helpful to us in that they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions — they expand what is possible for us. Others limit our view, and so our experiences of life — they resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives, and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically — as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up in a kind of self-sabotage, then, for the very experience that he fears. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation — what are often called “cognitive distortions.” The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?'” (136). In posing this question to ourselves, we open space to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking. If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather thanagainst you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.”


 — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo