Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Making mountains out of mole hills: catastrophizing stifles change

Her cheeks were tear-stained, her breathing noticeably frantic, and her voice at that pitch only a woman in crisis can produce. She was rambling about what a horrible pet owner she had been because the cat she tried to foster had escaped his new home and was lost. She lamented how her lack of consideration had put him in jeopardy, and in the same sentence how her failings were likely to reoccur as disaster as she embarked on a move to Southern California. "Whoa, that's a pretty big leap," I suggested. In her moment of fear she had resorted to "catastrophizing."

Essentially catastrophizing is when we make assumptions about what's going on based on very limited or circumstantial evidence (usually a crisis or emotionally upsetting event), we assume a more dire conclusion than we have evidence for, and then we react emotionally at a level proportionate to that dire conclusion we made up. Who among us hasn't written the future using a pencil invested in past disasters?

There are two kinds of catastrophizing, one focused on situation ("This project was a disaster. I am a failure and my boss hates me."), and one focused on the future ("I failed my cat and I will fail myself when I move to California.") Neither are very helpful when you are trying to change because both can be paralyzing. Both limit your choices in life, work, relationships and more, both affect your outlook and can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and disappointment.

How to stop
  • Awareness is the first step. Step back and breathe and notice when you are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Jot down the facts about the situation.
  • Check your log for incidents, patterns, thoughts or situations and identify the "situations most likely" to send you over the edge.
  • Enlist the help of a supportive person who has permission to call you on your behavior.
  • Practice. That is, assert yourself to yourself by dousing the fire with a dose of reality. "Wait a second, what does the fiasco with the cat have to do with moving to California?"
Carl Sagan told a story about early astronomers looking at a cloud covered planet Venus. They concluded it must be a tropical rain forest atmosphere much like when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Sagan mused, "Observation, we can't see a thing. Conclusion, dinosaurs." It is always helpful to get more data.
Change and transition requires grounded thinking and thoughtful decisions. It's hard work that can be derailed by making mountains out of mole hills.

No comments:

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.