Have you ever had a conversation with someone, even someone you’ve known a long time, and immediately get the feeling that they don’t like you or trust you? Have you ever started coming up with a terrible scenario in your head based on those feelings that get blown way out of proportion?
There’s actually a word for this experience! It’s called “catastrophizing,” according to an article from Business Insider. I love the accuracy of this word. We imagine that a catastrophe will occur because of what we’ve assumed someone’s intent to be. Once we imagine one, we can’t help ourselves from coming up with more and more. Often, we don’t even talk to the other person in question to confirm whether or not they are actually acting with the intent we’ve perceived. This is so dangerous in every kind of relationship in our lives. Across the board, one of the top 5 listed reasons for divorce is communication problems, and it can start with something small like this that escalates into a much bigger issue.
I had an experience with catastrophizing recently that I learned a lesson from. One week recently at work, my supervisor tested positive for COVID-19, which meant they obviously couldn’t come to work. The other staff sergeant that I worked with was on leave at the same time. Therefore, that just left me to run the entire section that we usually manage with three people. It wasn’t an ideal situation but I rose to the challenge and was determined to do my absolute best.
Still, I had a lot going on right off the bat. One of the things we do in our section is produce a document every week that’s sent out to the entire wing. As I was working on this document, my commander came to me and said, “Kofi, when you’re done with that, I want to take a look at it before you send it out to the group commanders.”
When he left, my mind instantly started coming up with catastrophes. “He doesn’t trust me. Why else would he want to check my work? He probably thinks I can’t do a good job.” My thoughts ran rampant, assuming that I knew his intent.
One of my other direct responsibilities is making sure the commander is on time and ready for his meetings. Later that same day, we got really close to being late for a virtual meeting with headquarters that our commander was scheduled for. In the military, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” Showing up 15 minutes early is what really counts as “on time,” and while we cut it close, we were able to set up the commander just in time for the meeting.
As I was hurriedly getting everything ready, my commander said to me, “You need to keep me on time and on top of the game.” Again, I immediately went to the worst-case scenario. I told myself that I’d messed up badly. Because it was just me trying to juggle the work of three people, I had been so overwhelmed with other things that I’d completely missed the window where I should have gotten his meeting set up.
After the first half of the day, I walked up to my commander and asked to speak with him. I apologized for the day and everything I’d done wrong. To my surprise, a great conversation followed. My commander replied to my apology with, “No. When I said ‘you,’ I meant ‘you all.’ I am part of that ‘you’ because it’s a team effort and I know you are all by yourself. By the way, that’s why I wanted to make sure that you have a second pair of eyes to check your work because I think it’s important when you’re alone and busy to have at least one other person read your document with you before sending it to an entire wing. As someone who I value and respect, I want to make sure that that image is portrayed in the things you do.”
I was stunned. Here I was, thinking my commander didn’t trust me, when instead he was just trying to help me because he knew I had a lot on my plate.
Imagine what could have happened if I wouldn’t have talked to my commander. I would have continued feeling like he didn’t trust my work, and that feeling could have continued indefinitely until I would have felt uncomfortable working for him at all. Something that started out so small could have ruined our fantastic working relationship just because I started making up this movie in my head based on false assumptions.
So, how do we do keep from doing this, and so prevent damage to our relationships? The article “The Intention Trap” from the University of Virginia states that having awareness of this problem is the first step to overcoming it—which means you’re already on your way there! Once you are aware of what catastrophizing is, you will be able to catch yourself doing it. You need to base your feelings on facts, not assumptions. If you have a negative feeling about a conversation, you should approach the person in question and let them know how you’ve perceived what they said. The key here is to state how you are feeling and not to implicate the other person, as you don’t actually know their intentions yet.
You don’t have to fall into the intention trap. Now that you know it’s there, you can avoid it by having self-awareness and looking at problems logically rather than emotionally. Don’t be afraid to directly communicate with people and let them know how you feel. It may seem simple, but avoiding this pitfall can save you a lot of strife in your relationships.
1. Dodgson, Lindsay. “Constantly imagining the worst case scenario is called ‘catastrophizing’ — here’s how to stop your mind from doing it.” Business Insider, 15 May 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/what-catastrophising-means-and-how-to-stop-it-2018-3
2. “The Intention Trap.” The University of Virginia Health Wisdom & Wellbeing Program, 2021, https://www.medicalcenter.virginia.edu/wwp/positive-practices-to-enhance-resilience-and-improve-interpersonal-communication-individual-techniques-1/communication-techniques/the-intention-trap/