THE VIRTUES OF A VIVID IMAGINATION
This past weekend my family and I went rock climbing where we met a lovely family whose children are around the same age as ours. On Monday I decided to send a message, inviting them to a lunch a few weeks’ hence. When after 4 days I had STILL not received a reply, my highly deductive and flawed reasoning concluded that no answer is an answer! More than that I assumed that not only did they not like us but must thoroughly dislike us and want no more to do with us. This assumption which I had committed to fact was shattered this morning, when they responded, apologising for the delay, and letting me know they would love to come and were looking forward to it! Talk about jumping to the wrong conclusion!
This is a small illustration of how my mind can sometimes work and I know in this I am not alone; one bad presentation and I imagine that I will never, ever be asked to present again; one lost customer is a signal that every other client is marching out the door and when that happens, I will have lost my business, lock, stock, and barrel! This is followed up with an image of a penniless and destitute Stuart spiralling into the nadir of depression. I am not tortured like this every day but enough times for me to be aware of it and draw attention to it. I am also aware that I can project this on to others...my daughter doesn’t get a place at the university she wants...and then if I am not careful, I am in some place in the future where she never gets a place...no sooner thought than now two in the family are destitute and so the mad cycle continues.
Maybe you are the same? Everyone has occasional negative thoughts and small doubts that can spiral out of control as our imagination runs wild. Thinking gets out of hand and becomes disproportionate to reality. Thus, a relatively small thing – an error, disappointment, source of embarrassment or an unanswered message becomes in your mind, much bigger or more significant than it is.
The technical term for this tendency to imagine the worst case scenario is catastrophising and is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to justify the thought. This kind of thinking can be destructive because it can create unnecessary and persistent worry which can spiral out of control leaving you with heightened anxiety and depression! There was an advert on British television a few years back for an insurance company which promised ‘We won’t make a drama out of a crisis’. To a chronic catastrophiser, that’s just asking for trouble!
Evidently, catastrophic thinking needs to be managed, otherwise you will drive yourself crazy. We know from the field of Psychology that traits that are generally viewed as positive can also have a ‘dark side’ and those generally viewed as negative can have their ‘bright side’, depending on changes in context. Based on this, our idiosyncrasies such as catastrophising shouldn’t be brushed away or discounted for two reasons: Oftentimes we can learn a lot from our persistent negative thoughts. It may give us an insight into old beliefs and core values which generate fear and emotional responses. Like the proverbial iceberg, so much of what is in the picture is below the surface – unseen and often undetectable. These "icebergs," according to Martin Seligman must be examined to determine how meaningful, accurate, and useful they are to the individual in the present situation they are confronting. Flexibility in being able to question and change these beliefs and values is often the key to managing catastrophic thinking.
Secondly, and personally relevant, this tendency to think about the worst possible outcome is a great motivator for action and can result in positive outcomes, albeit at the great price of angst.
So, when I fear I am losing my business for whatever reasons, I try harder, think smarter. Even though every inch of me wants to run away or stick my head in the sand, I focus on reducing risks, scanning the environment for opportunities, becoming more prepared and ready. I become more careful with relationships for fear that I offend. I plan better, I create contingencies and so it goes on...
If we can accept the good, the bad, warts and all within ourselves, I think it makes us more complete and more realistic, making us constantly strive towards self improvement and above all teaching us resilience. I can’t necessarily get rid of my doom-laden imagination but I can be aware of it and use it to my advantage, with the knowledge that it is how the universe is. It’s the yin and yang and that makes us whole, as described below.
When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created.
When people see things as good, evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other. High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
When coaching clients, I often work with people to help them accept both their bright and dark sides When we don’t understand both faces of our single coin, we only have half the information and that gets in the way of us not only understanding ourselves but accepting the good and the bad and comprehending how things flow from one to the other. It’s a primal form of self-preservation and betterment because if we don’t have the prescience to dream up the impending disaster, we’ll be stuck in our fool’s paradise, convinced that this is as good as it gets. Whereas any catastrophiser worthy of their salt will know perfectly well that if something bad hasn’t already happened, it’s probably just about to, so it’s all hands to the pumps and women and children first!