Catastrophizing is one of those autistic traits that when I first read about it, I thought, “Oh, I never do that.”
How wrong I was.
I catastrophize daily. It’s usually small stuff that blows over quickly–I’m not going to get to the post office before it closes which means I won’t get my important overnight package and I’ll have to go back tomorrow and everything will be delayed and I should have left home sooner and why did I take a right out of the parking garage instead of a left because taking a right always means waiting in more traffic even though it’s more direct well obviously it’s because I’m stupid and don’t think things through so it’s my fault if I get there too late but maybe I’ll be able to beg one of the workers who’s closing up to get my package because that worked once before and . . .
Next thing I know, I’m at the post office and it’s not closed. Crisis averted! Except this was a fake crisis, made up in my head because I was catastrophizing.
Snowballing a Crisis into a Catastrophe
I don’t mind minor catastrophizing. It’s annoying but not detrimental to my psyche like serious catastrophizing is. The serious type starts out small–like a case of poison ivy starts with just one little itchy bump–and gradually creeps up on me until I find myself taking a sledgehammer to my self-esteem.
A recent example: Months ago, when I saw people posting on Facebook about putting together presentation proposals for an autism-related conference, I thought, hmmm, maybe when I’m more experienced at blogging I could do that. Then, last month, when I saw people talking about attending the conference, I looked at the website. That looks like a cool event, I thought. Then I closed the browser tab and forgot about it.
Fast forward to the week before the conference. People are excitedly planning their trips and arranging to meet up. Oh, I realize, that could have been me. I could be going next week, but I’m not. Why am I not going? Oh well, it’s too late now.
But it starts to eat at me a little, you know. Why didn’t I sign up? There are no real barriers to going. It’s not too far away. I can take time off from work. There are even rules about socializing, like colored badges that indicate whether you’re open to being approached! Plus, presentations about ASD and people who I know a little from online interactions.
Then the week of the conference arrives and there are lots of excited Facebook posts about people meeting up and doing things together and . . . suddenly I have a giant sad. What’s wrong with me? I wonder. Why can’t I be like those other autistic people who are having fun and meeting each other and giving presentations and and and . . .
Do you see what happened? Something that wasn’t that important gradually became more important until it overshadowed everything else about me. I didn’t sign up for the conference initially because it felt, as odd as this sounds, like something other people do. When I saw everyone making plans, I realized that it was something I’d like to do, but there was the practical barrier of “too late.”
Then, somehow, I completely forgot about the logistical reasons for not going and turned it into, “I must be a freak because I can’t do what everyone else is doing. What’s wrong with me? I’m a terrible failure of a human being.”
Which isn’t true. When I write that and read it back, I know it’s not true. And yet. It’s still whispering at the back of my mind.
Black and White?
Catastrophizing, like perfectionism, is a result of thinking in absolutes (black and white thinking). Either I’m great at something or I’m a failure. I’m going to get to the post office on time and everything will be fine or I’m going to be late and everything will be ruined.
In reality, there are other options. I might get to the post office on time only to discover my important package has been lost. I might get there late and have to return in the morning, but besides being a little late approving the materials, there are no real consequences to the delay. Or, like in the past, I’ll get there two minutes after they close but the manager will retrieve the package for me if I ask him politely.
I don’t know why autistic people are so prone to thinking in absolutes. Combine that with our superhero-level perseveration skills and the combination can be rough on the self-esteem. I’ve been trying for a while to dial back the catastrophizing but it feels like an intractable problem. Even that feeling is probably catastrophizing. Maybe taking it apart and looking at the pieces will help:
Catastrophizing is illogical. It leads to dire future predictions based on something that hasn’t even happened yet. If X happens then the dreadful Y will happen, which will lead to the even more horrible Z. But look at the first word in that sentence: if. X hasn’t happened yet and there’s no guarantee it will, so why the heck am I already worrying about Z!? Logically (and statistically) the odds of X-Y-Z happening are much smaller than the odds of X happening. And X hasn’t happened yet!!
Catastrophizing sets up a false choice. Thinking in absolutes creates a false choice between only two alternatives: a great one and an awful one. In reality there are many possible outcomes between everything is perfect! and everything is terrible!
Catastrophizing poisons the water. Autistic individuals are supposed to be bad at generalizing but when it comes to catastrophizing, we’re experts. I did this bad thing, ergo I must be a bad person. No! Good people do bad things. Good people screw up or are too scared to do things. You can be unhappy with something you’ve done while still being happy with yourself overall.
Catastrophizing thrives on inaction. Thinking, thinking, thinking. That’s what catastrophizing is, right? A bunch of thoughts, one worse than the next, feeding off each other. One way to stop them is to take action. Do something distracting. Call up that friend and find out if she really hates you or she’s just been too busy to ring you. Treat yourself to a triple chocolate cupcake. Anything to get out of that rut of thinking thinking thinking.
Catastrophizing can be a proxy. Sometimes unrelated anxiety, fears or vulnerabilities feed catastrophizing. Anxiety about an upcoming job interview gets expressed as obsessive thoughts about an uncertain romantic relationship or an aging pet’s health. Is the thing you’re catastrophizing about really your biggest concern or is it a handy distraction?
Catastrophizing is an emotional magnet. It attracts negative energy and holds it in place. The things we catastrophize about are often the “weakest link” in our emotional universe. For me, my social skills are my weak link. If I’m in major catastrophizing mode, it most likely involves my ability to relate to other people.
Catastrophizing thrives in secret. It’s hard to catastrophize out loud because it’s such an irrational act. The minute I say, “I’m a failure at being a person” to someone else, they’re going to poke all kinds of holes in that statement. But in my head, I can just keep reinforcing the negativity ad infinitum.
Catastrophizing is rewarding. This is confusing because I don’t understand how such a maladaptive, self-destructive habit is so self-reinforcing. Maybe it’s a way of preempting the worst case scenario? Maybe it’s because self-pity feels good? Maybe it feels like creating certainty in an uncertain situation, even if that certainty is an awful one? I don’t understand why, but catastrophizing has a self-soothing effect, even as it makes me feel terrible.
It’s that last point that blows all the rest out of the water. I can look at all the logical reasons that I’ve listed to justify how detrimental and unproductive catastrophizing is, but then I get to number 8 and I’m right back where I started.