The Catastrophe of Awfulizing

The Catastrophe of AwfulizingNothing in your life is a catastrophe.

Nothing is awful.

Sure, many of us have had hard times. Really hard. But I stand by my statement.

What is “Awfulizing”?

To awfulize is to believe something that is objectively bad is so bad that it is awful, that it is a catastrophe, and, therefore, that it cannot be endured or overcome.

We don’t usually say to ourselves, “I am awfulizing right now.” We don’t even notice. We convince ourselves that the “awful” is true and unending.[1]

When we awfulize, we believe something is atrocious, depressing, ghastly, worse than the worst, worse than bad.

But, objectively, can something really be worse than bad? No.

Dr. Walter J. Matwaychuk describes awful as the emotional equivalent of infinity. As a result, awful has no real referent.[2]

A Personal Example

I’ll give a brutally honest and embarrassing example of various thoughts that were swirling through my head a few months after birthing my first child. You’ve probably noticed that I used to obsess about my belly, but perhaps you are ruminating about a different aspect of your body right now. The body part doesn’t matter, but the awfulizing does.

My belly button is gone, hidden beneath the crinkly skin I didn’t even know pregnancy could create. It is a saggy flap. And I look pregnant in everything. When I was leaving the hospital with A, a lady asked me if I was about to have a baby. My face burned with embarrassment. I must look awful. That was 5 months ago and I still look pregnant. I’m going to look pregnant forever!

D [my husband] will never find me attractive again. I won’t be able to wear clothes without wanting to cry. I might as well stay in the house with my screaming baby. I’m sure people are staring at me, wondering if I’m pregnant again, even though they don’t dare to ask. I can’t live like this. I can’t stop thinking about how horrible I look. I need to save money for a tummy tuck. Right now! Even if I can’t save the money, we can go into debt because I NEED my belly to go away!!!!”

Clearly, I wasn’t in the best mental place (my daughter was also colicky and not a great sleeper, so there’s that).

To date, I haven’t gotten a tummy tuck, but I have had two more children — again large. My belly has improved over time, but that belly button still likes to hide, and my tummy sticks out a bit too far for my comfort.

(I did start a tummy tuck fund, but I was told it would be a cosmetic rather than a functional surgery, so I decided to close out the account. A couple years later I actually re-opened the account, this time addressing the possibility of a tummy tuck from a more rational and less fatalist viewpoint.)

I tried every online and in person program that promised to fix my belly before I finally decided fixing my belly wasn’t the main problem.

Obviously.

I was awfulizing.

How to Combat Awfulizing

My belly wasn’t just unfortunate, or bad, or something I wish could be fixed; it was AWFUL, A CATASTROPHE, THE END OF MY ROMANTIC AND SOCIAL LIFE.

I do this to myself. If something is bad, I jump to the awful infinity and make it the end of the world. And then I have to pull myself back, look at the situation, and imagine how it could actually be worse (a downward comparison).

Sure, my belly button is gone and looks pretty beat up by most social standards. However, I could have immense back pain. But I don’t.

I also tell myself,

I wish my belly looked better after having babies, but this doesn’t mean my entire life is defined by this one thing I wish hadn’t happened.

If that doesn’t do the trick, I go further down the comparison scale:

I wish my belly looked better, but I could have given birth to a seriously injured daughter [it was a complicated delivery].

And further still:

Without modern medicine, she might have died. Or, I might have died.

The aesthetic value of my belly would be irrelevant in the grave. Is having a floppy belly button worse than death? Well… no.

This type of reasoning may seem ridiculously extreme, but the initial complaint was also ridiculously extreme, even though it felt so real to me in the moment of my despair. If my belly couldn’t look better, my life couldn’t be better. That was illogical thinking.

Your Turn

Directions: Think of an example of awfulizing or catastrophizing that you have created about something in your own life. Keep it short.

For example, “I awfulize about my body by…”

If you can’t think of a personal example, think of someone else you know. Then, explain why this situation is not awful, but simply bad. Then, gain perspective by imagining how it could be worse.

For example,

My blown apart belly makes me feel bad, but it is not awful. Awful means worse than bad, but what does worse than bad even mean? Nothing. Even if my belly is “bad,” it is not a catastrophe. One body part doesn’t define who I am as a person. I may have a less than perfect belly, but my children are healthy. I may have a squishy body, but I am still alive after my daughter’s harrowing birth. My belly is unfortunate, yet is is not awful. It is only one element in a larger and more complicated life. Therefore, it is not the end of the world. It is simply something I would prefer to change.

You can write this in Word, in an email, or old school on paper. If you would like me to read it, feel free to email it to meredith@motherfigure.com.

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  1. Awfulizing by defining some event or circumstance as “falsely catastrophic” is a concept from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which got many tenets from classical philosophy.  ↩
  2. Walter J. Matweychuk, “Understanding Awfulizing,” Rebtdoctor.com, 3/08/2014.  ↩

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