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Why Do We Go To Extremes?

Happy Wednesday! For all of you following along with the story of Alison, Max, and Dave- today we’re focusing on Max. Last time we saw Max, he was busy thinking (Awfulizing) that, “It would be awful if I don’t get promoted because we lost this client!” As a result, he was feeling extremely anxious and spent the rest of the day updating his resume and searching LinkedIn for new jobs.

As we learned last week, Awfulizing is a type of unhelpful Irrational Belief. We can recognize Awfulizing when we hear ourselves saying how “awful” or “terrible” a situation is (or could be). We can also identify Awfulizing when we catch ourselves running “what ifs” around in our minds. You know, that chain of negative thinking that sounds like, “what if I don’t get promoted?...what if I get fired?... what if I have to take a really low paying job because I’m desperate?… what if I can’t even get a new job?...what if I can’t pay my bills?” You get the idea. It’s that anxiety spiral we can find ourselves spinning in when faced with a negative or challenging situation. In Max’s case, he is thinking that it would be the absolute worst thing in the entire world if he didn’t get promoted.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if Max really believes that he wont be promoted, then isn’t it a helpful behavior to be updating his resume and looking for new jobs?” What’s important to focus in on here is that anxiety is driving Max’s behavior, and while Max thinks that his behavior is helpful, it is actually self-sabotaging.

First, I want to put this question out there about Awfulizing- would Max not getting promoted be the worst thing in the entire world? Probably not. It would be a huge bummer, but I can definitely think of worse situations. We can see that perhaps this “worst thing in the entire world” evaluation is a bit of an exaggeration and not 100% logical. That being said, let’s say that for Max not getting promoted is something that he whole heartedly believes is HORRIBLE and AWFUL. Who am I to tell him it’s not? What I can point out to Max is that if his goal is to get promoted, the more he tells himself how bad and awful it would be if he didn’t get promoted, the less he is behaving in a way that aligns with the goal of being promoted!!! Why?...because instead of problem-solving how to resolve the situation of losing the client, strategizing with his boss and team, and most importantly acting like a team player (all behaviors I would expect a manager or boss to look positively upon when considering a promotion) Max is spending all of his time looking for a new job. I’m sure that Max’s boss wouldn’t be so thrilled if he found out that this is how Max is spending the day. What is Max to do?

The alternative to Awfulizing is a more helpful Rational Belief called Anti-Awfulizing. In REBT, we work to recognize that even if a situation is bad (even really bad), it isn’t AWFUL, TERRIBLE, or 100% the end of the world. Now let’s say you really think of a situation as 100% the end of the world, like Max. It’s helpful to recognize that telling yourself how absolutely HORRIBLE or TERRIBLE a bad situation is will only make a bad situation even worse. Thinking this way will only lead you to feel even more stressed and upset! Our goal isn’t to encourage Max to feel positively about possibly not being promoted, that's not realistic. Instead, we'd want him to experience an emotion that will motivate him to problem-solve, rather than exacerbate the problem or push him further from his goal.

If Max thought to himself, “It would be pretty crappy if I don’t get promoted, but thinking non-stop about how awful not getting promoted would be is only leading me to feel more stressed, and act in ways that do not prove to my boss that I am worthy of the promotion,” he would likely think less about the "what ifs," and feel concerned or worried about his job, but not as anxious. Why is feeling concerned or worried more helpful than anxious? Concern and worry are emotions that tend to motivate us rather than paralyze us, or lead us to unhelpful behaviors like giving-up on problem-solving. Unlike anxiety, worry and concern would help Max to understand that he can still work toward the promotion AND at the same time recognize that if he is truly concerned about his promotion, then maybe he can spend time outside of work thinking of a game plan.

What can we learn from Max? Sometimes situations (or situations we think may happen) may be bad. However, the more we Awfulize about them, we tend to self-sabotage and work against our goals, because we become so anxious about the “what ifs.” If we are so focused on what could happen in the future, we may ignore the bigger picture. Specifically, we may ignore the fact that there may be ways to effectively resolve our present problem. There is no way to guarantee what will happen in life, but what we do know is that continuing to remind ourselves how AWFUL or TERRIBLE something is will only make us feel worse and derail us from working on our goals.

Check back here next Wednesday to find out how Dave and his mid-day Game of Thrones binge watching is working for him.

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