One of my
favorite things about being an author is learning from other authors. Recently,
I was chatting with a colleague whose book came out in the spring.
“I never thought I’d be
this person,” she sheepishly admitted, “but I check my sales numbers every day.
It’s like a sickness!”
Letting out a knowing
chuckle, I fessed up to the same thing. I added, only half-jokingly, “And when
I don’t like what I see for a couple of days, I conclude that I'm a failure.”
Sometimes we’re so
oblivious to our self-defeating patterns that we spot them only when we confess
them to someone else. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I wondered, Wow,
am I really doing that?
Psychologists call the
act of defining ourselves by one choice, one situation, or one result
catastrophizing. We might decide that we’re a terrible salesperson after just
one month of declining numbers, or a horrible friend because we get in a fight
with a friend, or that we’ll surely die alone after one painful breakup.
I probably don’t have to
tell you how harmful such thinking can be for our happiness, confidence, and
success (rest assured, research confirms it’s really bad). But what makes
catastrophizing especially dangerous is that it often disguises itself as
productive self-reflection. After all, why else would we put ourselves through
such self-flagellation? If we can objectively understand just how much we suck
this time, we’ll suck less next time…right?
Wrong. It’s one thing to
objectively and reasonably assess our limitations. But catastrophizing is
neither objective nor reasonable, and if we want to be truly self-aware and
successful, we have to work on overcoming it. The good news is that it is
possible to do so.
Two Techniques to Combat Catastrophizing
1. Focus on
When we are
catastrophizing, it usually means we could have handled something better or
differently. For that reason, it's neither realistic nor helpful to blindly
convince ourselves that everything is okay ("It's fine that I screamed at
my spouse this morning! I'm awesome!"). What's more reasonable, and
productive, is to focus on processing the objective reality and choosing to
like ourselves anyway.
just a good idea in theory—it has very tangible benefits. In one study, Kristin
Kneff and her colleagues asked job-market-bound undergraduates to participate
in a mock interview for a job they “really, really want[ed].” When the
interviewer asked the students to describe their greatest weakness, those high
in self-acceptance reported feeling significantly less nervous and self-conscious
afterward—had it been an actual job interview, they likely would have performed
much better as a result.
Research shows that a
simple way to boost your self-acceptance is to monitor your inner monologue. So
the next time you find yourself catastrophizing, take notice of whether you’re
being self-critical (“There I go forgetting to set my alarm! What is wrong with
me? Why can’t I do the most basic things, like be on time?”) or self-accepting
(“That was a mistake—but I’m only human and these things happen”). A helpful
question to ask can sometimes be, “Would I say what I just said to myself to
someone whom I like and respect?”
2. Get Some Perspective
Another powerful tool to
combat catastrophizing is perspective. In one study, researchers surveyed more
than a hundred Chicago
couples every four months for a year on their feelings of marital satisfaction,
intimacy, trust, passion, and love for their partner. During the study, they
asked participants to write about the conflicts in their marriage. A control
group wrote for 21 minutes on the conflict and the experimental group wrote
about how a "neutral third party who wants the best for all" would
see the conflict—only the experimental group was protected from the general
trend of "robust declines in marital quality."
By rising beyond their
own perspective about their marital conflicts, participants were able to get
out of their ruminative loops and move forward far more productively.
The same thing happened
to me during my conversation with my author friend. After I came clean to her
about my "failure," she explained, "When that happens to me, I
try to remember that I’m the same person as I was the day before. The only
thing that’s different is the number.” It was a simple but powerful insight.
Especially when we’re
down on ourselves for a perceived failure or limitation, widening the lens to
see our objective progress over weeks, months or years helps us keep the faith,
sustain our energy, and appreciate our accomplishments.
My colleague helped me
realize that even if it doesn’t always feel like it, I am making headway in my
vision for a more self-aware world. I’m not quite there yet, but I'm also not
stopping anytime soon! (When has anything important ever been easy?)
And on a deeper level,
it's a reminder that it’s just as vital to work on our self-acceptance as it is
to work on our self-awareness. If we commit to seeing ourselves clearly, but
without compassion for what we learn, it becomes just another exercise in
self-loathing. Instead, if we remember that we're human and therefore
imperfect—and that this is really okay—the journey becomes much easier and
infinitely more affirming.