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?

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?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
"i can tell you have really strong feelings about X. do you just want to get it off your chest or do you want my input?"
posted by facetious at 8:02 AM on September 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

Crisis-thinking/disaster-planning is a valid (and for some people vital) coping mechanism. So just being willing to accept that catastrophizing is not necessarily unreasonable is helpful. In fact, this type of thinking is common in--and often a predictor of success for--lawyers (There's a study out of the psychology department of UPenn on this--it's in my files at work, but I didn't find anything but a quick blurb online) who have to be able to react to the worst case scenario without panic or doing more harm. So I don't think this is as much about how she feels as it is about rehearsing her reactions, so she can better deal with crisis when it comes.

What might be helpful is asking questions about her plans in the event of the worst case. If Bea needs to leave school, what is Bea's plan? What will Amy have to do to help her through the crisis? I imagine that Amy just wants to feel prepared, so she can stop worrying. At least, that's how many people I know who think like this feel.

Of course, asking whether she wants help finding solutions or just wants to vent never hurts.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:14 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Two thoughts:
1) It sounds to me like she needs a hobby or more of a life. I used to do that kind of crap. Can you say "desperate housewife"? It wasn't healthy, for me or other people. Too much of her mental space is devoted to something that, as you stated, she doesn't have good info on or any agency in. It is like armchair politicking -- only apparently it is worse because she isn't even dreaming up "perfect" solutions (something I did a lot, and I did genuinely help some people but I also eventually got more of a life amd a better boundaries).

I would suggest you gently try to help her get more of a life. Because it looks to me like what she is really telling you is "MY life is empty and a catastrophe, so much so that fretting about real life soap opera material around me is good distraction from dealing with my own unresolvable problems."

2) Is it possible she is in some way directly impacted, not just emotionally? Is she making sure that Carl, the unemploye bum, eats, no matter what? Is it likely that if Darla's marriage melts down, Darla could wind up living with Amy?

If so, then I would work on helping her see what assistance can be provided that doesn't cut so deep for her and also help her see that she can put reasonable limits on her generosity. Help her understand that, no, she is not required to give until it hurts to everyone all the time. Because if this is the case, then her worries are really about her own problems.

If she is helping everyone out, then what she is really saying is "Oh, god, I am so overehelmed now. If things get any worse for any of these people, I will fail catastrophically and then everyone's life will come unraveled and it will be my fault and I just don't know what to do. I can't live with the guilt and besides I actually care about these people.(sob) And I also don't know how I will eat and I feel guilty even thinking of myself...etc..." (Yeah, I was somewhat like that as well.)
posted by Michele in California at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to play the worst case scenario game with my worries, too. I learned to ask myself, "So What?" Many of us catastrophize, but then don't follow through with imagining what would happen next.

For instance:

"So what if Bea flunks out of school?" Well, she'll do the same thing everyone who flunks out does, get a job, work her ass off, and learn some hard life lessons.

"So what if Darla gets a divorce in five years?" Well, her heart will be broken, she'll heal, and then she'll have an opportunity to find a love who isn't a loser.

"So what if Carl doesn't get a job?" Maybe he'll go back to school and get a marketable skill set.

Really, all of the above while worth a little worry, are not universe ending outcomes. People flunk out of school, get divorced, and are unemployed every day. Does the universe stop turning? Nope.

Asking myself "So What?" has helped me realize that. I think the trick is that she is the one who has to come up with the answers to "So What?" You shouldn't hand her the answers.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:31 AM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Maybe something like:

Her: Bea's going to flunk out of school!
You: And if that happened, what would she do then?
Her: Her life would be over!
You: No, I mean, practically, what could she do? Get a job? Move back home? How has she handled similar situations?

Basically, ask targeted "Ok, what then?" questions to get Amy to talk herself into realizing that these people have options, have survived similar situations in the past, and are not on the verge of actual annihilation. It can be a way for her to express her anxiety that something bad will happen while at the same time reassuring herself that other people have resources for coping with bad things.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

On non-preview, what dchrssyr said!
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on September 26, 2012

Be careful about commiserating or agreeing with her. I have a relative who does this and I spent a few months just nodding along and agreeing with them, then one day they whipped themselves into such a frenzy they almost phoned the police on another relative over a minor non-incident. Don't necessarily give her what she says she wants, if she's stuck in an unhealthy mindset then what she wants isn't going to help her.

Now I ask them to follow through and what would they do if that did happen, or if they are being irrational I'll straight up tell them they are catastrophizing. When both options start to tick them off then I forcefully change the subject and refuse to be drawn into it.

It's helped a lot that they've since gone into therapy, I would be aiming your relative in that direction if I were you.
posted by Dynex at 8:36 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

These were some things that someone said to me when I was overly concerned about a friend (although the amount of concern that I had was probably 1/10th of what you describe, but I think this may still be useful:

• Ask her what does she think would help Carl get a job right now and that she may be able to help him with. Let her brainstorm some ideas. When she comes up with a good idea or two, tell her that she should offer that help or have that conversation with Carl. (If you tried the same action in the past with Carl or someone else, tell her how you similarly offered X or Y to a formerly unemployed friend, or whatever similar action that she suggests...this may help her take the step and use her energy to take the step and contact Carl.)

• Is the problem resolved a month later? If yes, then yeah, her energy was used towards something positive and/or the problem resolved itself. If it did not (a likely reason is that Carl wants to do things his way and gently told her that), you can mention that you have had a similar experience when you have tried to help friends in the past; people want to live their own lives and if they need help, they will probably ask us.

This person seems really anxious about this, a bit more than normal. Perhaps gently suggest CBT? It may help her break this cycle and loop.
posted by Wolfster at 8:38 AM on September 26, 2012

I don't know whether this is Amy's situation, but I also worry extensively about things that might happen to my loved ones. This is kind of a conditioned response: over the years I've repeatedly wound up being the person who had to provide large amounts of money quickly, take someone to urgent care, offer someone a place to crash, fly across the country on no notice, etc. when the melt-down finally happened.

Having that kind of thing happen quite a few times has caused me to feel preemptively concerned about the worst possible outcomes of my relatives' choices, even though intellectually I am aware that they are grown adults and that it is not healthy for our relationship for me to think like they're my teenage children. I honor their right to make their own decisions and I really have no desire to police their lives, but feeling like I'm "on call" means that I worry about what could happen and what I need to prepare for.

What crush-onastick says above about wanting to have a plan in mind rings true for me. I usually stop devoting so many mental cycles to these situations once I've figured out what I should do if the feared outcome turns out to happen -- or else concluded that this particular problem is genuinely not going to be up to me to resolve. "That probably won't happen" is less consoling than "if that did happen, here is the emergency plan I would follow" or "if that did happen, it would be X who needed to take care of it, not me." Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. But once you're actually prepared, you can stop worrying.

So, like I said, I don't know if Amy's issues are coming from a similar place or not, but my partner copes with my worries by helping me think through these hypothetical outcomes and what, if anything, I would do if they happened. Once I've done that, he reminds me that there's nothing more I can do about it right now, and changes the subject. And typically that works.
posted by shattersock at 9:21 AM on September 26, 2012

And one more thing:

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

...this in particular is similar to my situation. As I've become more stable and successful myself, I feel I have (and am asked by relatives to take on) a greater responsibility for family who are doing less well. I worry way more about this stuff than I did when I was too broke to do anything.
posted by shattersock at 9:23 AM on September 26, 2012

I'm all about plans B through Q. Husbunny catastrophizes all the time.

So I just go through what the plans are, then he feels better.

First, repeat back what she said to you, so she knows you're listening.

"Bea is working hard and losing sleep, and you think she may flunk out of school. If that happens what do you think she'll do?"

Then keep repeating back what she says, laddering a new thought.

"So if she flunks out you think she'll come back home? How would that affect you?"

"You think that if she moves back home with you, that it will be a strain on your finances and you don't want her in your space? What other thing might she do then, if not move in with you?"

You're validating her concerns while guiding her to options and other ideas.

It's not perfect, it's an absolute drain, but it's better than being frustrated while your cousin predicts disaster and destruction at every turn.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:49 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would look at Amy's reasoning as to why she feels the need to intervene when things go wrong? Is she afraid of social disapproval if she doesn't help out? Is there absolutely no safety net (eg unemployment benefits) where Amy and her family lives? Perhaps she should look into:
- learning to say NO to relatives who want to sponge off her when times get tough
- standing up to the rest of the family/ friends/anyone who are pressuring her to be the Responsible Rescuer, especially if that means others aren't doing their fair share.
-teaching Bea/Carl/Darla to think through the consequences of their actions themselves, and maybe encouraging them to set up a financial or emotional safety net
- focusing on the process rather than the results - e.g. Bea will not get bad marks and flunk out of school because she has been doing x hours of study per day and has attended x number of lectures and has set up a study group with classmates for the weekends etc.; finding out what others in Bea/Carl/Darla's shoes are doing to make to sure they are keeping pace at least with Mr(s) Average.
-having more faith in society as a whole and Bea/Carl/Darla's decision making abilities specifically.
-finding ways to distract herself, especially if the worry persists after she's done all of the above.
posted by EatMyHat at 11:06 AM on September 26, 2012

"Sounds like you've got lots on your mind. It can be so stressful to worry about our loved ones and the unpredictability of life! How are you coping with that kind of stress?"
posted by barnone at 3:41 PM on September 26, 2012

I'm prone to catastrophising, and my partner is generally the person I talk to. We've talked a lot about how these conversations go and how they can work. I find that conversations with my partner generally go better if she starts out by asking what kind of conversation I really want. Much like facetious' suggestion, it usually helps both of us if we clarify at the outset if this is (a) me needing to vent, (b) me wanting earnest discussion or (c) me just needing reassurance. Each of those situations requires a somewhat different response from her.

The hardest situation to manage, from her point of view, is the "earnest discussion" one. Because even though I want to talk it through, I'm not usually in my calmest state, and I'm pretty prickly in that situation. With that in mind, phrasing is critical. Although it's generally a really good plan to work through specific consequences of the thing I'm worried about, I personally loathe the "so what if X?" construction that dchrssyr suggests. To me, "so what if X?" is not in fact a question: it is an assertion that "X doesn't matter". And I get defensive pretty quickly because I feel that I'm not being taken seriously. I tend to respond much better to jaguar's framing, which is basically a "okay, if X happens, what then?". To me, this comes across as a more neutral fram

My point here isn't that dchrssyr is wrong and jaguar is right. On the contrary: they're both advocating the same basic strategy, and I think it's a good one. The point I'm trying to make is that, if you do follow this approach, it will be important to tread carefully and use a particular choice of words that Amy won't respond poorly to. And that's something that you might want to talk to her about, since it's pretty idiosyncratic.
posted by mixing at 4:27 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

fram = framing. Sigh.
posted by mixing at 4:28 PM on September 26, 2012

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