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 confessed 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?
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.
2 Techniques to Combat Catastrophizing
1. Focus on self-acceptance.
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.
Self-acceptance isn’t just a good idea in theory — it has very tangible benefits. In one study, Kristin Neff 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?”) or self-accepting (“That was a mistake — but I’m only human, and these things happen”). And here's a helpful question to ask: “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 100 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.
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.