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What is the Worst that Could Happen?

This is a post about the importance of optimism. I recently came to appreciate the role that optimism, or lack of it, plays in my life.

My outlook on life is largely shaped by the last few things that have happened to me.  I tend to take my most recent experience, and extrapolate a continuation of that into the future.  If a couple of good things have happened to me in that last day or two, I tend to think that trend will continue and I am very positive about the future. And that is great because when I feel positive and optimistic, I also tend to be more confident, I assert myself more clearly, and I take more risks.  These traits help me to perform better at work and at home.

The opposite of this also occurs.  When I have a couple of negative things happen in a row, I tend to extrapolate that and feel very negative and pessimistic about the future.  I find that I am in a ‘bad mood’ and I tend to do things which are unproductive.  I take fewer risks, I act more cautiously, and I tend to try to be more politically correct.  I also project negative feelings and intent on others and I isolate from them.

Most of the things that influence my mood are external to me, and that is a problem.  For example, I have noticed lately how much the ups and downs of the US stock market affect my mood and outlook.  The market has wild swings of 3-4 % in a day and +/- 10% in a week.  When the market goes up, I feel positive about the future.  When it goes down, I feel pessimistic about the future.  The irony is that while the change in stock market may affect my meager retirement savings, it has absolutely no impact on my life today.  Right now, it makes no difference if it goes up or down.


The real challenge for me is that I tend to put more emphasis on the negative than the positive.  This is especially acute when there are a couple of negative events in combination.  For example, consider the hat trick when the stock market goes down, I get into an argument with someone, and I learn that my job may be at risk.  This is when I cannot see anything but negativity far into the future.  I see myself isolated, out of work, unable to meet my financial commitments, and ultimately going bankrupt.  And though the consequences are improbable and far into the future, I feel them today in the here and now.

The irony is, my feelings of pessimism in the here and now cause me to act in ways that are not only counter-productive, they have the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecies. That is, my negative thought patterns cause me to behave in ways that ensure the negative things that I fear actually happen in the future.  If I think negative, I make negative things happen.

By the way, there is actually a name for this behavior and it is called catastrophizing.  Catastrophizingis a form of cognitive disorder, also called stinking thinking, defined in Wikipedia as:

Catastrophizing – Inability to foresee anything other than the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.

So what do I need to do to overcome catastrophizing?  Here are some of the things that I need to do that you might also find helpful.

  1. Get in touch.  One of the most important emotional intelligence skills is to be aware of our feelings.  This catastrophizing behavior is one way for me to dodge my feelings.  Some feelings are painful and on some subconscious level, I want to protect myself from feeling them.  By focusing on the stock market or other external events, I can avoid feeling scared or hurt or angry right now.
  2. Recognize what I get out of the behavior.  By focusing on external events and potential negative events in the future, I get to avoid feeling my feelings in the here and now.  On some level, I am also lowering my expectations.  When I think that failure is imminent, I give myself permission to stop trying.  I give up on my goals and on myself.
  3. Cut it out!  My mentor will often say to me, “stop indulging yourself”.  He’s right – sometimes I need to just recognize what I am doing and stop it right then and there.  I need to give myself a shake and get over it.
  4. Laugh at myself.  I find that laughter tends to help me feel better pretty much any time.  It is especially helpful when I can look at myself and see how ridiculous I am.
  5. Orient to the truth of my life and feel grateful.  For me this is about reminding myself of the successes I have had over the years and feeling grateful for them.  Some people use a gratitude list for this.  I have never experienced anyof the various negative or catastrophic events that I fear up to this point.  In fact, I have actually had many successes and positive experiences.  When I stop and focus on the positive things that I am grateful for, it is easy to ignore or push the negative events out of my mind.
  6. Learn from everything.  One of the great lessons for me from the Mindset book by Carol Dweck is that we can continually learn and grow, even from negative events in our lives.  When I see life as an extended learning process, I let go of success and failure and tend to be more grounded in the here and now.

As always, I am interested in your reactions and comments.  If you are interested in learning more about stinking thinking, I’ve written about the following cognitive disorders in my book:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Always and Never
  • Being Negative
  • Filling in the Blanks
  • Should Statements
  • Personalization and Blame



This Post Has One Comment

  1. Cathy (Becker) Stahovich

    I’ve always viewed you were a very focused, positive person when we worked together, Anthony. There were a lot of ways your example challenged me to do more for myself.
    That said, I do appreciate and agree with your assessment of this kind of negative thinking potentially resulting in behavior. Staying grounded and focused on what needs to be done — not what can’t be controlled — is a coping mechanism I rely upon when the sky is falling.
    Take care, and warm wishes for happy holidays to you, Norma, and the family!

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