On the brink of catastrophe, 'round the clock
August 12, 2017 6:53 AM   Subscribe

My family-- individual members, as well as as a unit-- tends to feel like it is constantly on the brink of catastrophe. The description of generalized anxiety disorder doesn't resonate with me. Are there other terms that might describe this kind of mindset or world view, so that I can learn more about reshaping this way of thinking? Do you have any suggestions for reshaping this way of thinking? I am trying to identify sources of chronic stress in my life, and I think this could be one of them.

My family is very fear-motivated and even if the matter at hand is overall benign, the framing tends to be catastrophic. In childhood, it would manifest as being told things like, "if you don't do x, you'll end up in dire situation y." For example, "If you are sloppy, nobody is going to want to interact with you and you won't have any friends in the future." I think this could be cultural (???) -- for example, one of my childhood songs literally translates to, "If you don't read books, you will become blind/unable to see." However, I also know people who have a similar cultural background and do not seem to have such a negative world view.

I don't think my parents were necessarily unrealistic about things, because to be fair, they escaped generations of poverty and starvation and all sorts of political and social chaos-- things that could very understandably contribute to a negative world view. But it's just kind of self-defeating that it becomes applied to otherwise generally benign, present-day matters as well. For example, my parents visited me last weekend and instead of expressing happiness at how nice my new neighborhood and job and apartment was, they freaked that I didn't yet have a couch: "You don't have a couch yet?! How can you invite people over your place and have a normal social life if you don't have a couch? You shouldn't go anywhere during your upcoming vacation so that you can get your life together and get a couch."

Personally, I don't find myself actively worrying about day-to-day matters, and I don't think my parents are hand-wringing, anxious people. It's more that their intrinsic framing of daily life feels catastrophic, and that has become their (and possibly my?) norm. I'd say that the problem isn't so much about active worrying than it is about an insidious pessimism and lack of confidence about our position in the world. In other words, the overarching feeling of, "we just barely made it out alive!" and a general sense of underentitlement, is different than worrying about leaving the stove on, or worrying about specific interpersonal interactions, or test anxiety.

Some things I think could be at play are acculturation stress combined with PTSD and/or C-PTSD? I've also read articles about how primates who are relatively low-ranking within their social hierarchy have low-level chronic stress and I wonder if this would be applicable. What do you think? Are there other essays or articles or things I should be looking into to learn more about this specific dynamic, and ways I can reduce this thinking in my life? Thank you.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (8 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'll be watching this thread with interest. I see a similar thing on one side of my family, sort of a catastrophizing, always-fearful tendency that's also combined with terrible, pervasive sadness and a total lack of emotional resilience. (This person is an eldest child of Holocaust refugees, and before that there were generations of Pale Jews just waiting for another pogrom, so it's not entirely surprising; there is a whole raft of mental health problems that appear in second-gen survivors, even folks who never lived in Europe themselves.) But the effect of this attitude is so emotionally poisonous, and its juxtaposition to our safe and privileged life in the United States is so out of place, that it's very hard to take.

Anyway, my point is I don't know if there's a name but I know the thing you're talking about, or at least a similar thing. So, about dealing with it: once you spot it for what it is, it becomes much easier to reject. It's all about framing, as you said. And, the fact that these are your parents and that as a result you have a natural tendency to define yourself in opposition to them can help you as well. Give the thing a name - "there goes the fear badger again" or whatever you want to call it - and it will be easier for you to deliberately build a different framework for your own thoughts and reactions.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:44 AM on August 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think of these things as second-hand coping strategies.

One of my parents is fearful and hypervigilant because she's the oldest child of two alcoholics and was the most responsible person in her house at age ten. She taught me a lot of genuinely valuable things that she'd learned from her own childhood — about how to stay calm in a crisis, about serving others and finding joy in work, about financial planning and the importance of saving money. She also taught me some things that must have been valuable to her at age ten, but haven't served her adult self (or me) very well — like intense defensive pessimism, the aim-low mindset that you call "underentitlement" and a friend of mine calls "pre-compromising," panic-level attention to small problems, and obsessive denial about big ones.

(And for that matter, she taught me a lot of things that are sometimes healthy and sometimes unhealthy, like "Never assume you're fully prepared or fully competent, always be ready for unreasonable expectations and challenges beyond your abilities." That one's saved my butt a lot of times, and it's pushed me to study hard and always be improving my skills. It's also sometimes kept me from speaking up or acting when I really did have a perfect handle on the situation.)

I think consciously or unconsciously she wanted her daughter to have all the talents and skills that had kept her alive and sane when she was young. So she passed them all on, and some turned out to be gifts, and some turned out to be burdens. And I'm sure if I have kids I'll pass some of them on to them in turn.

I'm still figuring out how to address this stuff in my own life. One thing that's helped has been reading stuff for abuse survivors and adult children of alcoholics — I'm not in either of those categories, but in a lot of ways I was taught to think and behave like someone who is, and sometimes the things that work for them work for me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:16 AM on August 12, 2017 [18 favorites]

Catastrophizing can be part of an obsessive mindset. OCD works in part around the idea of avoiding catastrophe -- the "compulsion" part can be about doing some action, or thinking some thought, so that a bad outcome will be avoided. It's not about checking the stove eighty times because of the stove specifically, but to avoid the outcome of burning the house down. Rick assessment and taking actions to ameliorate risk are things we all do, but in the case of OCD or obsessive thinking, the level and causes of risk, and the steps needed to address the risk, are way off-kilter. Completely disproportional and unrealistic. And the "obsessive" part is what leads this to be not just a one-time thought or response, but to think about it all the time, over and over, to always start from that place of avoiding utter doom and failure.

That's one thing your description made me think of.

There are forms of OCD that relate to thought patterns rather than behaviors, so that's where you could look for more information. The internet calls it "pOCD" -- "pure OCD."

One way to get through this is to just try out the thing inspiring fear--take an exploratory, experimental mindset. "I know it feels like doing this will lead to THAT BAD THING, but... what if we just try it out and see what happens?" Usually the bad thing won't happen, and you mindfully notice that, and let your brain deal with it, and over time it becomes easier.

You can also get these things on paper so you can process more objectively and make a decision. What's the situation you're dealing with? What are the possible outcomes -- most positive, least positive? Which are the most likely? What course of action will you take as a result? Perhaps your family would be open to that kind of discussion.

For me a big part is to understand that the stress and dysfunction itself is part of the process, and that it's not good, it's hurting us, so that itself is a part of the consideration -- how do we move forward in a way that doesn't involve that pain and stress?
posted by ramenopres at 9:52 AM on August 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Google terms like multi generational transmission of trauma. This has been a fertile field of study, looking at the legacy of slavery, the holocaust, world wars, 9/11, and on.

The basic theory is that a traumatized individual or community can't talk about a traumatic event, because it's too painful or because there are no words for it. This trauma then becomes manifested in non-verbal, affective ways, like heightened sensitivity or a sense of forbidden danger, to the generations who did not directly experience the trauma themselves.

In this way, the traumatic event continues to be present as something that people are unconsciously reacting to, even though it's not physically present. The past stays with us.
posted by jasper411 at 10:06 AM on August 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

This describes my childhood and my interactions with my family as an adult so perfectly that I could have written it. I've long wondered how to describe this particular dynamic. All of the individual members of my family have anxiety disorders (mostly OCD) but the general sense of unease and anxiety, this feeling that everything could fall apart at any moment that pervades every interaction, every moment I spend with them seems quite distinct from that.

I don't quite know the answer but over time, I've been able to isolate a major part of it to our immigration experience. My parents came to the US with very little money, no jobs, few social connections and a lot of unfamiliarity with the culture. Sometimes, when they completely panic at something that externally doesn't seem like a big deal, I can see that it comes from their memory of being in this country without any safety net, any floor to catch them if they fell. They still feel very fundamentally like outsiders.

When I was in my late teens, I had a costly medical emergency and I remember my father, in the hospital, saying something like, "We've made it this far in America without any problems but finally, this one thing is going to take us all down"--and my parents had been in America for like twenty years at this point and had entered the upper middle class. They still have this sense that any success they've built in this country is extremely fragile and the slightest misstep could destroy their lives because they don't have a foundation, no history or memory or a sense of place to ground them here. I saw in one of your questions that you're Asian--if your parents are immigrants, there might be something similar at work.
posted by armadillo1224 at 10:33 AM on August 12, 2017

I think family constellation therapy (also called systemic constellation) might be helpful to you. It's group therapy.
Basically, you and a bunch of strangers assume the parts of your family members according to how you describe them. Various unexpected discoveries are made. It helps you understand how family dynamics got to where they are now and how it relates to you.
I'm sort of underselling it. Various friends of mine have described it as deeply illuminating / life changing.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:03 AM on August 12, 2017

I think not having a couch is a sign to them that your life is out of balance. Either you're only using your apartment for sleep and working too much, or you're sleeping too much, or you are feeling poor. These are all worries they can't express so they freak out about the couch. They're telling you to take care of yourself, essentially, and freaking out that youre not.

They're, erm, couching it in "be a good host" language because some cultures (speaking from personal experience) dont acknowledge doing things for yourself. It only makes sense to do things for survival, status, and for other people. But I think hidden there is the idea that by doing things for the accepted reasons you secretly end up pleasing yourself.
posted by charlielxxv at 11:54 AM on August 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sorry I’m late to the game here. I relate to a lot of this. I remember that you’re Asian from previous posts, as am I. My mom has a very similar kind of thinking, my dad less so. They are both Chinese from different Asian countries. I’ve said before in previous comments that my mom is crazy, and it’s because she’s been through a lot. Growing up poor in a big family in a third world country, immigrating to Canada by herself for university, abusive marriage, raising a kid with a disability (my older sister). In short, mom has a lot of undealt-with trauma. One aspect of my childhood was growing up being fearful of the world, because my mom seemed to have this fear-based view of the world, of having fear as the motivator. That if you don’t or you do do [x], you have to think about the consequences. And you have to worry about what other people think of you. As you can imagine, I grew up with shit self-esteem. Whee!

I also think there is a cultural factor. For e.g. One day I met up with two friends, a married couple. Both Asian. My friend is born here, her partner was born outside Canada. When it was time to part ways, I said I was going to Grocery Store. They were on their way home uptown, and offered to drop me at the same chain store uptown. I said it was ok, that I would just go to the one downtown. Friend’s partner says, “Oh, you don’t want to go to the Grocery Store uptown because it’s not good?” or something like that. It was a very bizarre assumption because I had never said anything like that; the downtown one was just more convenient to me location-wise. I found myself annoyed by her statement. I realized later this was the sort of thing my mom would say, to assume something in the negative.

With the couch example, I see that as they thinking you need to keep up appearances or something. You have to conform to all the other young people with apartments, etc. You have to be a good host, you have to make guests comfortable. Part of Asian thinking (if I can be monolithic for a moment) is that collective thinking; not thinking about yourself and thinking more collectively. I’m not describing this very well because I don’t know it very well!

I don’t have many resources to offer; maybe post at r/AsianParentStories and see if anyone there has insight? Also read books on Asian American identity and consciousness - I think it’d help to read voices who have been there, who have reflected on their experiences and have done some theorizing on it.
posted by foxjacket at 11:15 PM on August 18, 2017

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