Catastrophizing as a Form of Self-Protection?

Considering the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic, and the fact that we’re in the final weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t surprising to come across doom-and-gloom pronouncements virtually everywhere.

If you have a tendency to catastrophize – to dwell on the worst possible outcomes for every scenario – the constant state of red alert may be strengthening your tendency to brood over all the terrible things that could happen, whether tomorrow or next year.

Generally, catastrophizing isn’t helpful. It’s one thing to make plans and provisions, as best you can, for when something may go wrong. It’s quite another thing to get swept away in darker and darker thoughts about the future, and to obsessively visualize the most terrible things happening. Your mind is in turmoil over things that may never happen.

In a strange way, catastrophizing can make you feel powerful and helpless at the same time. Powerful, because you feel as if you know the future, every detail of it. About 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the video I’ve shared at the top of the post, there’s a part I want to highlight: the idea that catastrophizing may serve a protective function, because you feel as if you’re using it to fight against uncertainty and save yourself from future disappointment.

Basically, you feel like nothing bad can shock or overwhelm you because you already expect it. But how much power does brooding over catastrophes actually give you?

Catastrophizing may protect you from taking all kinds of risks. However, some of these risks may be worth taking, such as learning a new skill, or approaching someone to ask them out on a date or hopefully become their friend. Thanks to catastrophizing, you imagine nightmare outcomes even for situations that are mildly or moderately risky. Maybe you fear rejection, for instance, so you imagine harsh and humiliating outcomes to keep yourself from approaching someone and potentially exposing yourself to their indifference or dislike.

What if something terrible does happen? Even if you’re overestimating the possibility of horrific outcomes, there’s still a chance of catastrophe. What then?

For one thing, you can’t know exactly how everything will play out. Even if you imagine a horrible scenario, it won’t unfold exactly the same way in real life. There are factors you aren’t thinking about and twists and turns you can’t anticipate.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. For example, you may be underestimating your capacity to deal with a terrible situation. Maybe you’ll be able to act in ways you can’t currently imagine or haven’t even considered. Maybe there are avenues of help you don’t know about, other people who will assist you or resources that will become available to you. Even if what you fear is a recurrence of something, maybe this time around you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with it, in part because of the knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained.

When you’re catastrophizing, you may confuse the intensity of your thoughts with the certainty of your knowledge. Turmoil doesn’t mean truth. For better and worse, you can’t predict everything. But it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of the worst thing happening and underestimate our own ability to respond to it better than we can imagine.

I wrote this post in part as a reminder to myself, and also because it may be helpful to other people in this crazy year and beyond. One of my friends told me that in the midst of catastrophizing she tries to at least get something out of it – like thinking of a solution to a future problem or thinking of something she can change in her life now. The challenge is to not let the thoughts become obsessive and paralyzing.

Huge Song Recommendation List (That I Plan to Keep Updating)

This post has two main purposes: to help me keep track of songs I’d like to keep revisiting, and to share song recommendations with other people. I hope you find something here to enjoy.

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Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers); Ain’t She Sweet (Gene Austin); Alive and Kicking (Simple Minds); All of Me (Billie Holiday); All or Nothing at All (Sarah Vaughan); Alors On Danse (Stromae)

American Pie (Don McLean); And She Was (Talking Heads); Angel of the Morning (Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts); Angels (The xx); Angie Baby (Helen Reddy); Anthem (Leonard Cohen)

April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel); At Last (Etta James); At Seventeen (Janis Ian); Autumn in New York (Billie Holiday); Autumn Leaves (Edith Piaf)

Continue reading “Huge Song Recommendation List (That I Plan to Keep Updating)”

Dangerously Pretending That You’re Separate From Your Body

Maybe at some point I’ll write a longer post about this. For now, I just want to point out strong tendencies I’m seeing on multiple fronts – in commentary on sexuality, pregnancy, dieting, surgery, and other topics – where the body gets treated as something separate from you as a person.

The tendency to think of the body as an inert meat sack. Or as a mere machine. Or simply as a glove you’re wearing, nothing more. That the “real you” isn’t connected to your body.

That you can have all kinds of things done to your body or do all kinds of things to your body – physical harm, modifications, deprivations of different kinds, sexual acts you’re gritting your teeth to endure, the commodification of organs or the body as a whole – and that somehow this will leave your mental well-being untouched. (Or at least, you can move on quickly if you just don’t think about it too much.)

Ignoring the body is easier than ever with all the distractions around you. Is your body persistently sending you signals that you’re always ignoring? Even if you think your body is “misfiring” in some way – for instance, warning you of a danger that you don’t think exists – it’s still important to make note of how your body communicates with you. Maybe the danger is legitimate. Or maybe you’re experiencing an anxiety that you need to learn how to understand and soothe. Regardless, it’s important to engage with yourself. Ignoring your body isn’t a long-term solution. Any underlying problems don’t go away.

Talking about the body sometimes gets you accused of “reducing people to body parts,” but this usually isn’t the case. The body is made up of complex, interconnected systems, which of course include the brain. People’s experiences of worthiness (vs. degradation) and well-being are deeply connected to their bodies. Mistreatment, whether from others or perpetuated by the self, undermines the self.

Self-Image and Hills to Die On: Some Insights into Social Media Behaviors

I’m reading Influence by Robert Cialdini, and some parts of the book have been unsettling. Influence discusses strategies that are effective at changing people’s behavior and beliefs. Of course, not all techniques work on all people in all situations. But because they’re often effective enough, you’ll typically see them wielded by salespeople, political activists, cult leaders, and other folks who are deeply motivated to be persuasive.

One of the insights in the book is that people will often become the instruments of their own change. You nudge them towards a particular path, and they do the rest. Their brains begin to reinforce certain associations, build certain habits, and concoct rationalizations. People can easily overestimate how much control they have and can come to believe that an idea was their own all along.

I’ve also come across passages that provide insight into behaviors often seen on social media. The book initially came out in the 1980s, and the revised version I’m reading now was published in 2007. I think this was before the major social media sites became mainstream, so I don’t know if the author will bring them up at any point. But even though these excerpts don’t refer specifically to Twitter or Facebook, they’re still insightful about the way people often behave on those sites:

Continue reading “Self-Image and Hills to Die On: Some Insights into Social Media Behaviors”

Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” in some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.

Does Hitting Something Else Stop You From Hitting Yourself?

Self-harm can take on many forms. Among them are self-inflicted slaps and punches.

Even with the pain, bruises, and possibility of internal injuries or permanent damage, stopping this behavior can be difficult:

  • The self-inflicted hitting may have already become habitual or compulsive.
  • The behavior has been serving as a reliable (though damaging) way of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as intense fear, anger, and self-loathing.
  • The idea of seeking help often fills people with shame or embarrassment.

One way to resist and weaken the impulse to self-harm is to come up with other techniques that replace the self-harm behavior (e.g. squeezing a stress ball, doing jumping jacks, taking deep breaths and counting them, repeating a mantra or talking to yourself until the urge to harm yourself fades). Sometimes, the suggestions include hitting something else – some soft object – to avoid hurting yourself.

Does Hitting Something Else Work?

Some people try to avoid hitting themselves by hitting a pillow, couch cushion, or mattress. This seems like a good idea, and of course it’s better to hit the cushion instead of your own leg, arm, or head. But reacting to intense emotions by hitting things, even objects, doesn’t necessarily help in the long run.

The underlying association between ‘overwhelming emotion’ and ‘hit something’ may become reinforced and strengthened, and you could wind up turning it on yourself again. In the absence of a soft object, you might punch a wall and injure yourself.

Also, people often assume that hitting objects will calm them, when instead it may inflame their underlying emotions even more, making them angrier or more upset. So be careful about using this as a long-term strategy – especially as a solo strategy, and especially if you don’t want to rely on any sort of hitting as a coping technique.

This advice isn’t absolute. For example, you may find that a workout with a punching bag helps you a lot. However, there’s a difference between 1) incorporating an exercise routine into your life that you commit to even in moments when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotions and 2) heavily relying on hitting during the intense, overwhelming, and painful moments that prompt self-harm behaviors (and you’re not always going to have a punching bag nearby, though maybe a bit of shadow boxing is one alternative in that scenario).

Another point to consider is whether the hitting is part of something constructive. For example, some people cope by making something out of clay. The sensations of punching, kneading, and squeezing clay gives them some relief. Maybe this is better than hitting a pillow, because you’re creating something with the clay. The hitting is part of a productive, creative act.

In any case, here are some additional points to think about:

– Be aware of the possibility that punching other things may have drawbacks (though again, it’s better to lay into a pillow than your own body).
– Try to stay attuned to what you’re feeling when you rely on the strategy of punching or hitting something else. It may be helpful to some degree, particularly as a form of immediate release. But maybe you don’t feel much calmer or in control for long, if at all, because there’s still a difference between reacting to emotions in a less controlled way vs. responding to them with more control. And the underlying problems remain.
– Develop additional strategies for managing self-harm behaviors. Confront the issues underlying your self-harm and how you understand and respond to emotions. Speaking to a reputable, compassionate therapist or counselor can definitely help, or you can start by texting a helpline or calling one (this is something that can be done fairly quickly, even in the middle of intense emotions).

Verbs That Inflame the Senses!

A while ago, I was reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and came across a description I liked of a cat that “oiled against” the main character’s ankle.

“Oiled” captures a slick movement and a shivery, slick, clinging sensation. A moment where a cat brushes against someone’s ankle becomes even more unsettling.

Months later, when I was reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found a noun-to-verb usage that I really liked: “The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letter box…”

“Rattlesnaked” conveys the movement of the slithering newspaper, and the sound it makes when traveling through the letter box. (Although I’m not 100 percent sure this was the author’s intention, the verb also makes the newspaper seem like a venomous creature – and given its contents, maybe it is.)

These kinds of verbs, which include nouns transformed into verbs, deliver a memorable sensory impact. In your own writing, you can use them to add more flavor to the text and to capture multiple sensations or feelings in one word.

But it’s important not to use them too much. If you insert them into every other sentence, they start distracting the reader. They each become less memorable and effective, and you give the impression that you’re trying too hard as a writer, that you’re straining too much to produce a certain effect. If you want to, try using these verbs here and there, in moments that stir the senses and keep the reader hooked to the world you’re building with your text.

When You Tell Yourself “I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is a common thought. The question is what to do with it.

Whether or not you “should” be feeling a certain way is less important than what you’re going to do with the feeling. You recognize that you’re feeling angry or sad or envious or gleefully vindictive. Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all in a situation that seems to call for strong emotion. What follows?

If you start to dwell too much on whether you should or shouldn’t be experiencing a certain emotion, a few things usually happen:

  • Your stress levels go up more. An additional layer of stress settles over a stressful situation.
  • You feel guilty, inadequate, unworthy, or strange.
  • You get distracted from thinking of ways to best respond to your emotion and to the situation you’re in.

It doesn’t help that sometimes other people tell you what you should be feeling. Depending on what the situation is, they may want you to feel love or happiness or grief, and when you don’t meet their expectations, they don’t react well.

Focusing too much on the “shoulds” isn’t helpful. You feel a certain way. Rather than beat yourself up over the feeling itself, think about what you can do with it.

Maybe what you need is to just keep going about your daily routine. Other times, you may need to talk to someone you trust, and sometimes you may need to reach out for urgent help. In many cases, what helps is to write, draw, go for a walk, listen to music, garden, read, knit, hug someone who will welcome your hug, work on a project, or sign up to volunteer in your community. You may need to develop habits of thinking and behavior that help you with overwhelming emotions. (For example, some people find that unplugging from social media for a while helps them become more calm and level-headed when confronting various problems in their lives.)

Brooding on “should,” however, doesn’t help you change anything. Standards of “should” may be arbitrary or based on ideas you don’t have to subscribe to. An unusual reaction to something isn’t necessarily a sign of a mental health issue (and if it is, beating yourself up over it won’t help). Experiencing emotions that are ungenerous or crude doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on such feelings or that your feelings will never change. Also, you don’t have to feel a certain way simply because of your sex, race, or other demographic characteristics. Even if the people around you all express the same kinds of emotions or sentiments, the reality is messier. They aren’t all feeling the same way, definitely not all the time.

“But I shouldn’t feel this way…” Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t,” the fact is, you do. So what do you do next?

One of the Best Assignments I Ever Got in College

In a development psychology course, the professor told us to find two things:

1) A newspaper article about a research study in child development.
2) The actual study itself (written up in an academic research journal).

We then had to do the following:
– Read both the newspaper article and the research paper.
– Evaluate the strengths and flaws of the study. (Some examples: How did the researchers select the sample, and was the sample size too small? How did the researchers define the concepts, phenomena, or behavior they were studying? What were the weaknesses in the statistical analyses?)
– Note discrepancies between the claims made in the study and the way the newspaper article reported these claims.

This was an eye-opening assignment. It helped show me the profound effects of study design and statistics on research findings. And how newspaper articles can misrepresent these findings, usually in the headline and opening paragraph of the article – the parts needed for grabbing attention through bold claims. Also, the parts people usually don’t read past.

I recommend this as an exercise in critical thinking. Research papers are often behind paywalls, but not always (sometimes, a professor will have a copy on their site). And if you’re already a college or graduate student, you may be able to access journal papers for free using school library privileges.

Another Great Site for Learning Math at Home

For online math learning, I usually recommend Khan Academy. But it’s good to find other resources too. I recently came across Schoolyourself.org, a great site that could be helpful to you or your kids for math studies.

Using the site is free. You don’t even need to log in to access the lessons, though logging in allows you to record your progress. (I haven’t yet set up an account, but I think there are also more opportunities to review material if you’re logged in.)

From what I’ve seen so far, here’s what I like about this site:

– The videos are interactive. During each lesson, the video stops at various points, and you’re asked to solve problems. This means you can’t just listen passively. You need to be able to show that you’re paying attention and can figure out what’s going on.

– The lessons check that you have the relevant background knowledge. For example, at the start of the video on raising numbers to a negative power, you’re tested with a question on dividing exponents and given a chance to review if you’ve forgotten.

– Basic math doesn’t get overlooked. For instance, the algebra unit includes videos on arithmetic principles. This is helpful to students who are starting algebra but may have forgotten certain rules about multiplying negative numbers, for instance.

One drawback to the site is that it’s a little “calculator-heavy” in its approach. If you want to study how to multiply or divide decimals by hand, you may need to look somewhere else for a review.

But overall it’s a useful site that I recommend as a supplement to your math studies.