OK, fine, the sky IS falling.
September 26, 2012 7:54 AM Subscribe
What are some good, supportive conversational strategies for dealing with someone who's catastrophizing
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I've got a relative (let's call her Amy) whose character over the past few years has taken a turn for the pessimistic. Despite herself being a successful person with a pretty fortunate life, she's got a couple of key concerns about friends and relations that frequently stress her out-- not really stuff amenable to solution, but more general impending worries like the overall health of people she loves, and what she fears will be the ultimate consequences of various of their poor life decisions.
When we hang out, she seems to want to talk to me about these fears, but these conversations usually entail her running through vastly darkened scenarios of the situations she's worried about-- talking about how Bea is worn away to a thread these days, she never gets enough sleep and she's probably going to be flunking out of school, Carl will never get a job now that he's been unemployed for nearly two months, what on earth is Darla going to do now that she's married to that loser, he'll certainly be leaving her five years from now and where will she be then, etc. Mind you, some of these concerns are valid-- Carl's not particularly employable, maybe Darla doesn't have a wonderful marriage and Bea's grades haven't been great or whatever. But many of the worst-case scenarios she discusses aren't remotely plausible given the actual severity of the problems. And because these are third parties we're talking about, we're dealing with very imperfect information and a complete lack of agency over any of the issues on the table.
When things head in this direction, I've been having difficulty figuring out how to respond to her concerns. It seems callous and unhelpful to agree with the disaster-scenarios ("Totally, Bea will be dead or expelled before the year is out"), but when I try to point out, however gently, the logical reasons for taking a more optimistic view, Amy just accuses me of being selfishly indifferent to our family members' plights. Once I just out and said that I don't know why she insists on imagining the worst all the time, and she got really angry and called me a "terrible listener."
Since these thoughts, logical or not, are clearly coming from a real emotional place (and yes, it is legitimately painful to have loved ones who're not 100% happy and healthy), I'm wondering if anyone has suggestions for better ways for me to support Amy emotionally when she starts this kind of catastrophizing. Just to clarify: I am NOT looking primarily to protect my own well-being by setting firm boundaries, cutting her off, or whatever. I love Amy, she's not an intrusive conversationalist, and I'm happy to be her sounding-board if she needs one, but I really need some sort of script that'll help me give her whatever it is that she's trying to get from these talks. I could take the Rogerian route and guide the conversation therapeutically to how she feels about all this, I guess, but she's a pretty practical, results-oriented person and I doubt she'd follow me there.
tl;dr: in conversations, my relative tends to get stuck in pessimistic disaster-scenarios about family members. When someone's venting to you about how worried they are about [X semi-realistic but still fairly unlikely thing], is there a supportive and helpful way to respond, that doesn't involve either dismissing their concerns or confirming their fears?