Thinking the worst: awfulizing and catastrophic fantasies

It’s not just that. If I get it wrong, my boss will lose all faith in me and it’ll only be a matter of time until I get fired. And then nobody will ever give me a job again. Ever. I’ll run out of money and my wife will leave me. I’ll lose my home and end up on the streets. I’ll be in the tube with a one of those little signs and all my work colleagues will pass by and pretend not to recognise me . . .”

This all started with getting ready for a work thing and anxiety has spun out of control into a collapsing sequence of catastrophic fantasies. And the worst thing is you’re the only person ever to do this. Only you’re not actually, awfulizing is very common.

Being in the spotlight, under pressure, having to make difficult choices, taking risks: these things are a part of work for most people. (In fact without these things, work could actually be rather dull). But the potential for things to go wrong can make us seize up like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car. And it’s not the immediate effect of things going wrong that worries us so much as the long-term implications that we can see if one thing leads to another in the worst possible way. Or the most awful.

I spoke a little while ago with a film director who suffered from this syndrome. Not that you would guess it in a million years if you were to see him on set. A cast of thousands, waiting for the drop of his hand to run a scene costing hundreds of thousands to run. The epitome of English sangfroid you’d think to see him but on the inside it’s all churning over at a million miles an hour. What if I time it wrong? What if they just ignore me? And if that happens then . . .

It may even have gone that wrong before, but the world didn’t end and he most certainly survived to fight another day. But that doesn’t mean that the anxiety of anticipation lessens. Performers sometimes suffer chronic stage fright despite a long and successful career. Indeed, some would say that if it ever went away, it would seem like they didn’t care any more and maybe should see it as a sign they should give up.

Catastrophic fantasies aren’t about the actual moment of crisis. It’s the exaggerated consequences that we imagine that paralyse us. We can cope with the thing just fine but not with the things we imagine could follow, like a set of doom-laden dominos, one after the other.

And there is some truth in it: one thing could follow another through a trail of destruction. However, in the vast majority of cases it’s a) highly unlikely and b) something we have the ability to control. But imagining it can be both a severe distraction and the most likely reason for it to actually happen.

This is often the result of ABC reasoning and the interplay of rational and irrational beliefs, where:

A – Activating event or adversity

B – Belief system (both rational and irrational)

C – Consequences (which have the potential to feed into and even change the terms of the original Activating event)

So, an Activating event could be an email from a senior staff member asking you to come and see them in their office. Beliefs that could relate to this could be healthy, productive and open: there may be significance in this and it may relate to recent events (either good or bad).

Irrational beliefs create an element of exaggeration. They may be musturbatory, the tyranny of the conditional tense, saying what ought to be, should be, must be. They can be awfulistic, if it doesn’t go as I’d like it’s awful, intolerable and has appalling consequences. Or damning: if it’s not as I want it to be it reflects on me in a damning and shaming way. The office meeting is one where I must make the most of it, if I don’t achieve my goals it’s irreconcilably awful, and furthermore proves what I suspect which is that I’m no good.

These are all fairly pathological symptoms and the ABC system was developed by psychotherapists to help people on the extremes. However, when under severe stresses at work, it’s quite natural that we might stray into the emotional extremes. These then have potential consequences: I’m so wound up by my expectations of the meeting that I blow it. Or worse still, make an excuse and cancel it.

How do we deal with all of this? Some coaches draw on elements of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT). By talking out the thoughts that arise under duress in a calm environment we can see them more realistically. But my favourite part of REBT is its use of humour.

The point of humour is to laugh at these anxieties rather than to take them seriously. To recognise them, to appreciate that it’s an emotional response that is not particularly unusual or significant and that it’s only power, is the momentum that we alone can give to them. The reason it’s called awfulizing is purposefully derogatory and mocking. The phenomenon isn’t big and important (and don’t you dare start beating yourself up that you’ve let yourself be beguiled by it either. That doesn’t mean you’re worse / better / different from anybody else!)

It has similarities with imposter syndrome, the fear many executives have that the others will realise that it’s only me. I might have the job title, the office and the reputation but once I was an eighteen year old intern who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. But actually somebody does have to do it and in all likelihood, the reason that it’s you is that you know what you’re doing and you really have done it all before.

As is so often the case, talking through the things that worry you with another person puts them in a completely different context. The important thing is to allow time, space and opportunity to do this.

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