My job with my patients is twofold. One is to show them respect andempathy and to help them find workable solutions to their adversities. This is the practical part of my job.
My more significant and elegant responsibility is to help them see that their emotional “disturbance” does not come from the adversity itself, but from their catastrophic thinking about it. I approach this gingerly as I do not want to offend the people I want to help. Once I accomplish this, I help them live emotional disturbance free by ridding their awfulizing, horriblizing, and terriblizing ways of thinking.
But, dear reader, I can almost hear you shout that what I say is ridiculous. Of course, you argue, there are indeed catastrophes in life, things that are truly awful, and people not only have a right, but ought to feel depressed, bitter and anxious about them. To feel otherwise, you say, is perverse and inhuman.
And, to that I say to you, please open your mind and be willing to challenge your pre-existing premises. Let me show you that, if you rigorously apply rigorous logic and refuse to be swayed by sentiment or habitual, automatic thinking, you will see that there are no catastrophes in life. Therefore, no matter the adversity, you need not experience depression, anxiety, or bitterness. Read on.
Living Catastrophe Free
Let me approach this a little bit backwards. I’ll explain the meanings of the concept of catastrophic – the awfuls, horribles, terribles –and then show you why none of these meanings hold water. Remember: be open to challenging your own pre-existing way of thinking.
Meaning 1: It’s 100% bad. When we tell ourselves that an adversity is awful, horrible, or terrible, we do not mean that it is merely unfortunate, troublesome, or bad. No, we mean it is at the very top of the badness scale– 100% bad. You may protest and say, “No, I don’t mean that.” But, if you’re honest, you’ll admit that you really do. In your mind, it can only be horrible if it indeed has reached that pinnacle of badness.
The fact is, though, that it is impossible for anything to be 100% bad. Why? Because, theoretically, it could always be worse. That child could have died a year earlier; one more person could have died on 9/11, another child abuse case could have occurred last year. Beyond that theoretical point is a more practical one; most every one of the so-called catastrophes we face don’t come close to 100% bad. If we were to rate the senseless death of 3000 innocent people on 9/11 at 99% bad, doesn’t the job loss, the failed marriage, or the heart surgery fall well below that? In fact, if you think about it, fully 99.9% of the bad things we face in life fall below the level of 10% bad.
Meaning 2: It ruins everything. This is a second meaning of the words awful, horrible, terrible. That is, if this bad thing happens, then it causes my entire life to go down the toilet, not just now, but forever. So, if I lose my job, I’ve lost everything. But, the truth is that, while this loss is indeed bad, maybe even very bad, I have not lost everything. I still have my family, my friends, my hobbies, my interests, my health, my intellect, my skills, and, quite likely, a future that holds another job. So, losing my job isn’t horrible; it’s just bad, and most all of the rest of the good in my life still exists.
Meaning 3: I can’t stand it. Implied in catastrophizing is the concept of “I can’t stand it.” But, this thought is utter nonsense. As difficult and painful as some things may be, they are always standable. Taken literally, the only thing that is indeed unstandable is something that kills us. Furthermore, telling oneself that an adversity is unstandable just inflames our emotions, creating more upset, and inviting us to further indulge the thought that the event itself is unstandable.
Meaning 4: It shouldn’t be. When you judge some adversity as awful, horrible, or terrible, you also mean that it shouldn’t exist. “Since it’s an absolute horror to be rejected by my wife, it should not happen to me.” “It’s awful to have had that heart attack and therefore I shouldn’t have suffered it.” “Child abuse is so terrible it shouldn’t exist.”
It is tempting to harbor these “shoulds.” But, notice two things: one, they represent a non-sequitur, for, just because something is bad, it doesn’t follow logically that it therefore shouldn’t exist; two, when we escalate a “bad” to a “horrible,” we energize the logic of “should.” The fact is that bad things must exist because all the conditions themselves that make it exist do in fact exist; with the existence of these conditions, this adversity has to — i.e., must or should — exist. Our job, then, is to work to change the conditions that create the adversity so that it no longer exists, rather than wailing that is so horrible it shouldn’t exist.
Meaning 5: It’s beyond 100% bad. If you think about it, 100% is all there is of anything. There is no more. An athlete can only put out 100% effort, not 110%. A person can only love 100%, not 120%. One can hold no more than 100% motivation, not 130%. 100% of anything is all there can be.
Similarly, an adversity can be no more than 100% bad. 110%, 120%, or 130% badness cannot exist. So, for something to be awful, horrible, or terrible, it must transcend bad, that is, be 101% bad or more. That’s an impossibility. So, awful, horrible, and terrible are magical concepts that cannot exist. Catastrophes simply don’t exist.
There you have it, dear reader, the logic to prove that you think irrationally when you rate an adversity in your life as something awful, horrible, or terrible. You do not need think in these terms, no matter how serious the adversity. it is difficult, but if you use the logic I’ve supplied, that is, truly and diligently apply it to your life, you can prevent yourself from facing two adversities for the price of one – the adversity itself, plus the emotional pain of depression, anxiety, and bitterness about the adversity.
Sear This Into Your Mind
• Everyone will experience adversities in life. No one is an exception. No one is immune.
• Adversities do not destroy happiness. Though frustration, disappointment, sadness, and grief naturally and appropriately come with adversity, depression, anxiety, and bitterness does not. These come when we catastrophize about our adversities – when we awfulize, horriblize, and terriblize about them.
• Awful, horrible, and terrible are magical concepts that are illogical, unprovable, and debilitating. They mistakenly communicate to us that the adversities we face: (1) are 100% bad, which they aren’t; (2) ruin everything in life, which they don’t; (3) make everything in life forever bad, which, again, they don’t; (4) shouldn’t exist, despite the fact that they should because they do, though we abhor them; and (5) climb into the magical realm of 101% or more bad, which is impossible. Simply said, we can only face some degree of badness in life, never anything awful, horrible, or terrible.
• To eek out every ounce of happiness we can, we would be wise to eliminate the concept of catastrophe – all awfuls, horribles, and terribles – from our thinking. Live a catastrophe-free mentality.
• The antidote to catastrophizing is perspective. This means seeing things only as bad as they are, certainly never 100% bad, never awful, horrible, or terrible.
I hope by now I’ve convinced you about both the ridiculousness and foolhardiness of catastrophizing. If so, you might want to devote yourself to the following practices, all of which can reduce your unhappiness and enhance your happiness.
1. Get clear about the distinction between bad and horrible. Bad refers to something undesirable, and can rate anywhere from 1% to 99% negative. But, very few things ruse worse than 10% bad, and nothing rises to the level of 100% or more bad, ruins everything in life, and is unstandable. Awful, horrible, and terrible mean the opposite: this adversity is 100% or more bad; it ruins everything in life, now and forever; it’s unstandable, and it shouldn’t exist.
2. Make a list of the adversities in your life. On a scale from 1 to 99 (with 99 being the worst thing imaginable, 75 being paralyzed from the neck down the rest of your life, 50 being the loss of two limbs, 25 being open heart surgery, 10 being a broken leg, and one being a scratch), determine – exactly and precisely — the degree of badness these adversities represent. Be intellectually rigorous as you do this, refusing to succumb to awful, horrible, and terrible. See that your adversities, while bad, don’t ever ruin your life.
3. Count your blessings. Without denying the existence of your adversities, also see all the good that is in your life, blessings you can enjoy while you rue the adversity.
4. Look to the future. What can you create in your life that can give you pleasure and happiness, even though your adversities may endure? List these and work toward them.
5. Remember that you can stand anything. You may not like it, but it is always standable. Give up this nonsense way of thinking.
Happiness doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes you must work – on purpose – to be happy. A big part of being happy is ridding yourself of those beliefs, such as catastrophizing, that block your happiness and bring you down. But, you are worth the effort, and I support you fully in your effort.
Thank you so much for letting me share my ideas with you. It is my sincere desire that they be helpful. Remember that you can always contact me by email should you ever desire to do so.
I look forward sharing my next blog with you. In the meantime, live healthy, happy, and with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org