Catastrophizing is imagining the worst possible outcomes for a given situation. It’s anxiety in overdrive. For me, it means my mind automatically heads into the direction of “what if?” and it needs to be filling in any perceived gaps at all times. It has to try to head off any potential threats.
I’m an aspiring minimalist. I’m not great at it in practice yet, but I’m getting there. Recently, I paused to connect the dots between my pattern of buying items, purging items, and repeating and how it relates to my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I’m not a compulsive shopper by definition and my catastrophizing relates to many things other than shopping, but this is a definite area in which my catastrophizing takes hold.
For example, I homeschool my child and I will see some homeschooling materials and my brain will automatically think I need to buy this book or that resource and if I don’t, I’m failing as a parent and my child will grow up to be uneducated, unsuccessful, unhappy, or a myriad of things that simply aren’t true. I know this is illogical and lacking a couple of books or supplies aren’t going to set anyone up for failure, but here I am.
When I catastrophize, it’s usually over insignificant things resulting in fake crises. They gradually build until they start to feel more important than anything else. All logic is disregarded, and I turn to thoughts like “what’s wrong with me? I must be so awful because I can’t do what everyone else is doing. I’m a failure as a human being and as a parent and partner.” I know these thoughts aren’t true, but it doesn’t keep my mind from saying they are.
Catastrophizing is a byproduct of thinking in absolutes, and it creates falsehoods out of our choices, seemingly forcing us to choose between two options: the fantastic one and the terrible one. It makes us think things like either we’re awesome at something or we’re a failure and everything will be ruined. In reality, there are more than just two options for most situations.
It makes us feel as though we’re horrible people if we misstep, but the truth is, we can be good people and pleased with our lives even if we aren’t pleased with a decision we’ve made.
Catastrophizing just doesn’t make sense. It rests on the notion that something bad will happen, which will result in something even worse happening, but there’s no solid reason to believe that the first thing will happen, so why worry about the second happening?
The things we catastrophize about are often those which we feel most vulnerable about. If we really want to be a good parent or partner, we might catastrophize in those areas. Or, if we have difficulties socializing or maintaining employment, those might be our areas of obsession.
That said, completely unrelated fears or anxiety can often lead to catastrophizing. What someone catastrophizes about can be a distraction over their real concerns. They might be anxious about starting a new job and they instead start obsessing over potential health issues.
Catastrophizing thrives when we keep it to ourselves and when we’re inactive. Catastrophizing aloud doesn’t make sense. As soon as we say things like “I’m a complete failure at being a parent and at being a human” someone is going to reveal the inaccuracies of that for us, even if our brains are saying otherwise.
Sitting and thinking only leads to more catastrophizing. When paired with perseveration, catastrophizing can take a real toll on someone’s self-esteem and ability to determine what may or may not actually bring harm. One way to lessen catastrophizing is to distract yourself with something else, like engaging in a hobby or exercising.
Oddly enough, catastrophizing can feel good even when it feels awful, and it can be a really difficult cycle to break free from. It can be strangely comforting to feel like you’re creating something certain out of what feels like an uncertain situation, even if the reality you’ve created is a bad one. It’s like you’re heading off the worst-case scenario before you get to it. It can feel like a twisted sense of success.