“Some business men who become bankrupt set to and start a new enterprise. Others cast themselves from a window on the thirtieth floor.
The latter category behave as though there were no second chances in life, as though they were entirely dependent for maintaining their self-esteem upon the success of whatever enterprise was currently engaging them, without taking into account past blessings or future possibilities.
It is as if any love or recognition which they had won in the past counted for nothing; as if there were nothing inside themselves to which to turn, no sense of being intrinsically valuable.” — Anthony Storr, Solitude
This article was originally published in The Startup, Medium's largest publication for makers.
So much of living is based on defaults, habits, routines, automatic responses.
The choices which are not really choices. Disregarded decisions. Doing things the way they’ve always been done. Thinking what you’ve always thought.
Default actions. Pressing snooze the second the alarm rings. Making coffee as soon as you arrive at the office. Going straight to your inbox after switching on your laptop. Pulling out your phone in a queue. Asking how are you?
There are figures floating around about how much of our day is taken up by habitual behaviours- around 40–50%. But I think it goes deeper than that. These defaults don’t just manifest in obvious behaviours. They’re also there in our thinking, our response to stress or crisis or failure.
Catastrophic thinking is one such default.
The image Storr gives of a bankrupt business person leaping from a window, believing themselves to have no future and disregarding their past, is an extreme example. But it’s so easy to slip into the mindset of always assuming the worst.
What is catastrophic thinking? It goes like this:
You call your cat, she doesn’t appear straight away and you assume you left a window open and she’s fallen out. You panic, start running around the house calling her name, and then she emerges, yawning and rumpled, from under the bed and blinks at you.
A friend is late for meeting you and doesn’t answer your call so you start thinking she must have been hit by a car, starting imagining what it will be like to blame yourself for the rest of your life because it would never have happened if you hadn’t arranged this. And then she shows up a few minutes later, she was just held up and didn’t answer your call because -duh — there’s no signal on the subway.
A coworker doesn’t answer an email and then you realise another coworker hasn’t answered your email from yesterday either. You panic, you think you’ve done something terrible, you’ve fucked up, you’ve been fired, you’ve done something so awful that you’re going to get blacklisted and never work again. Just as you start debating which organ to sell first, you hear from them both and it was just coincidence, they were both just busy.
It goes on and on. It becomes a default. Any tiny setback or mishap or mistake and it’s the end of the world. Everything is a sign that you’re going to die alone and broke with no friends. No matter how well things so, you’re always anxious. You’re always imagining death and destruction and misery.
Aren’t we humans good at creating our own little private hells?
Catastrophic thinking was, and still is actually, my personal default mode. My imaginary worst case scenarios are so creative and meticulously detailed that I should just become a screenwriter. I am good at that shit.
On the surface, I am very lucky and have a nice life. Not perfect, but pretty damn good. Supportive family. Work I love, with people I admire. A very small number of amazing friends. The best cat. Decent health.
And yet…it always feels so fragile. It always feels like everything could collapse at any moment. I lost everything, everything, once before and have spent years working to rebuild it from scratch. The result: catastrophic thinking as a default.
But the nice thing about being human is that so little of our behaviour is inbuilt. Most of it is learnt. We are born as blank canvases and the world fills in the rest. Our defaults are malleable.
There’s a mind hack from Stoicism that can go a long way towards overcoming the panic induced by catastrophic thinking.
Most of our suffering happens in our minds, not in reality.
If you fear the worst and then it happens, you suffer twice. And the worst does happen, occasionally. Very occasionally.
When it happens, we want to be — in Seneca’s words- free, lofty, fearless and steadfast. Calm. Able to deal with it. The Stoics certainly weren’t against thinking about worst case scenarios, but they saw them as a means of preparing, not panicking.
Something happens. You imagine a catastrophe. Then, instead of freaking out, you acknowledge that it could happen. And if it does, that you’ll deal with it — because that’s what people do, we deal with shit, even when we don’t want to or think we can’t.
Dealing with it will require tranquility of the mind. So you focus on calming down and clearing your head. Then, if it does happen, you’ll be better poised to handle it. If it doesn’t- and it probably won’t- you’ve saved yourself the preemptive suffering.
That’s the idea I’ve been hammering into my own head lately.