The Inner Critic’s Partner in Crime: The Catastrophic Thinker

We all know the inner critic .  He is that voice in your head that is constantly criticizing everything that you do, berating you, and generally keeping you from following your dreams.  Sometimes the inner critic is lazy and just criticizes some offhand comment you made.  But other times, the inner critic is really fired up and can go on and on (fire your inner critic) about how worthless your efforts are in anything and how much better it would be for you to just throw your hands up in the air and give up.

As insidious as the inner critic can be, there is an even more sinister voice in your head that can not only keep you from achieving your goals, but also keep you in a state of perpetual stress and panic. That is the voice of the catastrophic thinker  – the inner critic’s evil twin brother.

While the inner critic is telling you that whatever you do will simply not be good enough, the catastrophic thinker is filling your head with thoughts of the doom that will be visited on you from not doing what the inner critic is trying to keep you from doing. He is a master of diversion, turning your focus from your to-do list to the consequences of your inaction, which only serves to paralyze you further like the proverbial deer staring into headlights.

The catastrophic thinker uses a three-step process to put you into a paralyzing state of stress and panic.  First, he makes a simple observation.  He might start off by telling you that it seems to be taking you a long time to get to your goal  – whatever that goal may be.  This could be as simple as finishing a project or as lofty as getting your dream job.  Or he might point out, quite innocently, that there are 46 items on your to-do list, and that quite a few of them seem to have been on there for an unusually long time.  Second, he starts to draw comparisons.  He points out that “other people” haven’t seemed to take as long to finish this task – that “other people” have long ago achieved what you are working towards. Finally, he introduces time – tick tocking away – and seals the deal with conclusions – which are the perceived consequences of your tortoise-like pace.  This last step is the grande finale for the catastrophic thinker and he pulls out all the stops.  His consequences are always huge and life-changing – losing your job, getting fired, ruining your reputation – basically failure on a scale not before seen in human civilization.

What keeps the catastrophic thinker in business is that no matter how insane his ideas – and make no mistake about it, they are truly insane –  you believe them.  And while his ideas may not be likely at all, they are always very slightly possible.  The catastrophic thinker makes you believe in these remote possibilities with a passion often reserved for world explorers summiting Mount Everest.

The catastrophic thinker is a pathological liar with a flair for the dramatic.  He is the relentless pessimist inside of you.   He can produce villains and heroes faster than you can say beetlejuice. Before you know it, the catastrophic thinker is labeling people as “difficult” and conditioning your response to them.  If you give him free rein in this,  you will be spending your day reacting in the same ways to the same stimuli just like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

The catastrophic thinker creates unproductive and unnecessary stress in your life. He needs to be stopped.  

And he can be stopped, just as your inner critic can.  You can shut down the catastrophic thinker when he takes control of your brain by taking some deep breaths or going for a quick walk around the block.   You can make it difficult for your catastrophic thinker by setting realistic expectations.  

But your greatest weapon against the catastrophic thinker is to simply stop believing him.  Just because you think it, does not make it true. Challenge the catastrophic thinker as if you were presenting a case to the Grand Jury. Where is the evidence?  Where is exhibit A?    Nothing stops a catastrophic thinker faster in his tracks then a little bit of rational thinking.  

Believe it or not, we can be way more productive if we are not stressed out all the time.  Freaking out and constantly working at an andrenaline-fueled pace is just not good for you.  It’s not good for your health, it’s not good for your productivity, and it’s definitely not conducive to your overall happiness and well-being.  Boot the evil twin brothers to the curb and, in the immortal words of Dale Carnegie, stop worrying and start living.

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