Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Little Thing Called Catastrophizing

Anxiety runs in my family, and while I certainly don't have the most severe case, I do have some and I've learned a few things about it through my family's experiences. Today I want to talk about Catastrophizing, because I think many writers face it in their struggles to get published.

At least I hope I'm not the only one.

You can read more about Catastrophizing here, but basically it's a form of anxiety in which a person immediately jumps to the worst case scenario. It can manifest itself in two ways—present and future—and can severely limit one's ability to succeed. Why? Because you get in a cycle of negative thought process, one that you may then carry out to prove your worries right.

Present Catastrophizing:
This type is kind of along the lines of "making mountains out of molehills." For example, say you check your inbox first thing in the morning and you find two query rejections. Catasrophizing this event would look a little like this:

"If these agents rejected me, then every single one on the planet will hate my book!"

I've never thought that before...*cough*

Here's a few more that you may be familiar with:

"I can't believe I still had 308 'just's in this MS! I'll never, ever be able to make this book perfect. I'm a failure."

"If I don't write this perfectly, my agent will be embarrassed to have me as a client and DUMP me."

"If my editor saw that lame metaphor, he'd nullify the contract immediately."

"ONE STAR REVIEW? Everyone is going to hate my book. It will never sell. I'm doomed."

Future Catastrophizing:
This type is related to the first, but has more roots in mentality and the future. It's a pattern of negative thinking, in which a person begins to believe everything will always go wrong. This type of Catastrophizing is forecasting negative events before they even happen, whereas Present is spurned on by some kind of bad thing that we think is worse than it is.

Some examples:
"I can't go to that conference—no one will talk to me and I won't make friends like everyone else. And besides, even if I sign up for a pitch session, I'll just bomb it and the editor/agent will laugh in my face."

"I can't edit more. That would just be more work for nothing. They obviously didn't like the idea enough to get on board, why waste my time with it when I have other better ideas?"

"I can't really be an author. That's for really good writers and I'm just a hack. People will see through me if I try."

"I can't put 100% in this. If I fail, it'll hurt more than anything. I won't be able to go on if I really try and nothing comes of it."

Quelling Catastrophizing:
I think we all Catastrophize to some degree. People with low anxiety levels can easily recognize the falsehood of these negative thought processes and snuff them out quickly. But people with higher anxiety can sometimes have a harder time talking themselves out of Catastrophizing. It can be a constant battle.

The most important thing in combating this is to recognize when you are doing it, and to talk yourself out of it.

"I will never get published...No, that's not true. I don't know that for sure, but if I don't try then I definitely won't. Trying is scary, but if I want publication that's the only route."

If you think you're experiencing Catastrophizing, try keeping a journal of your thoughts through the day for a week or so. This can help you identify triggers to your negative thinking. Once you have that figured out, it's time to talk yourself out of the thoughts. This can be harder than it sounds.

I personally have found a lot of comfort in friends. When I talk about my triggers and what I'm feeling, I realize how silly they sound. When I type them out in an email, I realize I really do sound like I'm overreacting. This is a very important realization—it removes the doom and despair and anxiety that comes with Catastrophizing.

The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself, as in not even writing it down. The feelings build inside, and if you're not able to talk yourself out of them you can develop a very negative way of thinking that will limit your experiences.

Catastrophizing and Writing:
Hope is basically a requirement for pursuing a career in writing. Believing you can make it keeps you going when things get tough—and they will get tough. Catastrophizing can severely damage your mentality, which will get in the way of your work. Trust me, I've been there.

But the I-will-never-make-it-why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself feelings will come. Unless you're some kind of cyborg or grinch without a heart, both of which probably won't make you a very good writer.

When they do come, it's important to realize that these feelings are false. That's the weird thing about emotions; they can trick you into thinking things that are very far from reality. I guess it's lucky we humans have logic too, just for these types of scenarios when we have to battle ourselves.

When it comes to writing and publishing, the best is advice is usually the simplest:

Keep going.


  1. I enjoyed this. I have a severe anxiety disorder. And I felt like I was the only person in the world to jump to such extremes!

  2. This describes me to a T. I should try that journal thing to locate my triggers. Great post!

  3. This is why I love you :)

    It's so difficult to keep this in mind, as the catastrophizing (I cannot for the life of my say that word...) seems so LOGICAL in my head. But when I tell people about it, as you said, it sounds so...not logical. It's a dark cycle, but one that must be broken!

  4. Great post! It's funny to hear my 'inner voices' posted on your blog - lol. Thanks for the ideas on how to manage that kind of thinking. I needed the help this week for sure!

  5. Ones I have actually thought:

    -"ONE STAR REVIEW? Everyone is going to hate my book. It will never sell. I'm doomed."

    - "I can't edit more. That would just be more work for nothing. They obviously didn't like the idea enough to get on board, why waste my time with it when I have other better ideas?"

    2 out of infinity ain't bad, right? (Meaning, I'm not a lost cause Catastrophizer?)

    LOVE your last line. Thanks, girl!

  6. The last line is the key. Keep going and have friends around to make the ride more fun--and doable.

  7. I have never heard of catastrophizing, but a couple years I had insomnia pretty bad...I would pretty much stay up all night worrying about stuff that didn't really matter. Anyway, good to see that you have a fair amount of control over your anxiety :)

  8. It's like you KNOW. :P

    I do it too, and most of the time I notice it and can start thinking positively, but sometimes I don't and things just seem to get worse and worse. Thanks for the post, it was great and timely as well. :)

  9. "Catastrophizing" is such a great word. You've pretty much described my life here. One of my friends says I always zoom from A to Z in a matter of seconds.

    I wonder if writers are more prone to this than other people? We certainly put our characters in worst case scenarios as a matter of course.

  10. The marketing part ALWAYS wears me down. I start dreading the computer when it's on my list, preferring to go back for the 15th revision of my fourth novel rather than send anything out.

    I am going to print this off and post it on my fridge. Then I can get a pep talk any time I try to avoid the query side of things. Thanks!

  11. I agree that everyone runs into this problem eventually. I do it to myself as well, make things worse than they are. What I try to remember is all of the successes I have had. That way I can cancel out the negative thoughts and fill my head with positive ones.

  12. Thank you. I'm an unfortunate expert in catastrophizing. I always jump to the worst case scenario, probably because I've been burned so many times before. Of course I have had successes but being the expert negative thinker I am, I tend to forget about those.

    I also know this extends to job hunting as I'm super catastrophizing the past few weeks as I submit resumes all over the place...and get rejected everywhere. It's kind of like querying, especially in this job market and in one of the hardest hit areas of unemployment in my state.

    It's hard but I have to try to break through the negativity. Your post helps :)

  13. Shakespeare, I know what you mean. Marketing terrifies me!!!

  14. Cue the pity pint of ice cream & two days off from anything to do with the book after working myself up into a horrible mood from a chapter refusing to be edited. All those hours alone writing certainly don't help these silly thoughts go away on their own.

  15. Your catastrophizing is castratophizing you.

  16. I have anxiety too - and I do this all the time. I try not to let it affect my actions though. I try to type through the 'failfailfailfailfail' monologue in my head!

  17. Just take a deep brath and relax :)

    That's what I always tell myself!

  18. Dude, you're awesome. I really needed this post.


  19. I've just discovered your blog today. It's very interesting, but I've got to say that it's hard to read because of your template. So I'm just going to subscribe to your blog and read it through Google Reader.Keep up the great blog.

    I wish I was a ninja.

  20. This is so true. I definitely play games and tricks with myself (as if I'll never realize the trickster or gamer is ME!) One thing I'm glad about: these games never prevent me from submitting!

  21. Hi. My name's Andy. And I'm a catastrophizer.