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Catastrophizing – the question we are really asking but don’t want to ask out loud

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Behind the Scenes Tour of G. Krug & Son by Baltimore Heritage via FlickrCatastrophizing

Do you have an area in your life where the slightest mistake fills you with foreboding?

Let me give you an example of catastrophic thinking:

  • You go to the shops and you drop a can of baked beans.   You think nothing of it.  You pick it up the can and put it back in your basket.
  • You go to the shops and you drop a can of baked beans.  You feel mild panic.  You’ve been told you are clumsy and here you go again.

Challenging your catastrophic thinking and re-framing

The standard psychological advice is to challenge your catastrophic thinking – be a critical friend and show yourself you are exaggerating.

That’s good.  Do it.  But also go a step further.   The problem isn’t ‘you’.  The problem is not what you are expecting from yourself or anyone else. There is a problem coming though.  You are losing faith in a relationship that is important to you.  Get your head around that now before your growing jitters sabotages what is left.

First, let me remind you of the conventional advice.  Then I’ll show you what I mean about your growing loss of confidence and the pointers to another task – reframing.

The 3 P’s of catastrophizing

Someone somewhere , I don’t recall whom, provided a handy heuristic to ‘parse’ the underlying mechanisms of catastrophizing.


In the first situation, the can of baked beans that you dropped was, well, a can of baked beans.

In the second situation, dropping a can of baked beans had personal significance: I am clumsy.


In the first situation, dropping a can of baked beans was chance – a one-off related to nothing else.

In the second situation, dropping a can of baked beans reminds us of another time where we were clumsy – the personal quality persists over time


In the first situation, dropping a can of baked beans in a supermarket has no connection to our prowess elsewhere.

In the second situation, dropping a can of baked beans in this place reminds us of when we’ve dropped something in other places – we feel a connection between otherwise disconnected activities.

How to use the ‘personal, persistent and pervasive’ heuristic to challenge your panic?

Personal, persistent and pervasive is a useful heuristic that helps us challenge our thinking.

  • Is this about us? (Not always!)
  • Is this really persistent? (OK, we suspect so, but what would be counterbalancing evidence to at least make our feeling neutral?)
  • Is this really persistent? (As above)

Challenging your thinking will at least give you a chance to take a deep breath and concentrate on what is well and good in your world.   Some times that is all that is needed.   Try this first and if all feels good, stop here and laugh at your temporary panic.

Our relationship with the world

But if you continue to feel bad, consider this.  We are feeling angsted by our relationship with the world.  We feel humiliated. Lessened. Devalued.

The real issue is that we feel an important identity has been challenged and challenged by someone whose attention and respect we sought.

Let’s play this out some more.

If a steward on a plane had said to me when I dropped my coffee, “You are so clumsy”, it is unlikely that would have gone with me to be remembered in a supermarket.

If my boss, or my sports coach or a lover had said “you are so clumsy!”, that would have been remembered.

The real issue behind catastrophizing

Who is making us care?

When we catastrophize, we do need to take not just one step back but two.  We have to go past personal, persistent and pervasive and ask ‘who is making us care‘?

Whose opinion do we fear?  And why do we fear this opinion so much?

What is the real issue behind our alarm?

Think of this.  If I am really so clumsy, my valued other should be

  • Trying to protect me
  • Helping me arrange circumstances so that my clumsiness hurts neither me nor anyone else
  • And if it is really bad, getting me some medical attention.

The real issue then is not my clumsiness (though it may be real).  The real issue is their bad temper.   What is irking them?

What to do about nagging criticism of a valued other?

It is hard to think straight when someone is attacking you but that is where our attention should go.  In my example of feeling clumsy when we drop a can of baked beans, we only notice the pattern of ‘clumsy’ because it was said by someone dear to us.

So let’s concentrate on that.  What relationship do we want with that person?

The question that we are really asking but don’t want to ask out loud

What relationship do we want with that person.  Or rather, why do we suddenly feel that we have significantly reduced faith in the relationship?

Isn’t the problem with us?  Aren’t we suddenly feeling “This can’t work”, or rather, “I am not sure I can be bothered to put the work in to make this work.”

That’s what we are thinking about, really. That we have to reframe this relationship.  Not jettison it or downgrade it.  Re-frame it.

We have to think about what we really want from this relationship and whether we have any faith in the relationship.

One thing that I do know and that I willing to stake my professional reputation on – any relationship is as strong as your belief in it.  It may be weaker but it is never stronger than your belief in it.

Be willing to take that second step back and re-frame

Examples of re-framing

Sometimes we find we have to reframe.

For example, on Saturday I noticed myself dropping things in the supermarket and because I was, I noticed that a lot of other people were too.  Mid-month and a lot of exhausted people on a Saturday morning.  I’ll read that into my assessment of the economy.

And then I noticed errors while I was working.  Some of which turned out not to be errors after all.  What was I saying to myself?

  • I was momentarily worried that I had lost my systematic ways of working.   I opened a few log books and slowed down and corrected that.
  • I was also asking myself whether I was committed to the project that I was working on.

I need to re-think where this project fits in to my life.  I don’t have the answer yet but once I did work for an organization for 10 years with the motto “Though they cannot support me, I will support it”.  I earned my own money and funded a lot of their operations and was nominally an employee of theirs.

Get it?  I knew what I valued and how much of a commitment I would make.   With the wisdom of years, i might phrase that now as “Though the cannot support me, I will support it while we are doing mutually valuable work together.”

How to re-frame?

By definition, re-framing is hard.  We are having to discover a new way of thinking.

That can take some long walks, some talks with close friends who might have different ways of thinking (not just their opinion of our lives!), and some reading of novels and poetry.

But we should stop worrying about the baked beans.  Our clumsiness may be real but it is not the issue here.  The issue is our self-esteem reflected in the eyes of someone we hold dear.

We need to think about how much we care about them, and whether we want to stay in the conversation if they do.  If we want to stay in, then stay – but only as long as the relationship is mutually valuable.

  • So do you believe in the relationship that is making you so unhappy?
  • What are the conversations that you are  having?
  • How are you bringing yourself to the conversations that you are having?
  • Are we doing mutually valuable work together?

Or to say this appreciatively:

  • What is it that we are doing together that is so valuable?
  • What are the immediate obstacles to our common activity?
  • What are we doing well and can do more of?
  • When we do more of what we do well together, are we doing what we find so valuable?

Sometimes a relationship is valuable but on entirely different terms than we originally supposed.



  1. Gaye Prior Gaye Prior

    Like this clear, organised way of looking at often complex relationships. Applies to a relationship in my life right now, and yes I have been “panicking” about being clumsy rather than asking the questions you ask here. Thank you.

    • Jamie Cargill Jamie Cargill

      And sometimes it IS you….

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