Awfulising - what a word! It was invented by Albert Ellis to describe a tendency of the mind to catastrophise situations when we meet adversity, especially when things are going against our wishes or our goals. When we are faced with a threat, be it real or imagined, it’s common to ‘awfulise’ or ‘catastrophise’ things not being the way you want them to be, adding an extra layer of distress to an already difficult situation for you.
The tale of the two arrows
Awfulising is the mind’s equivalent of a ‘second arrrow’. What’s the second arrow, you may be wondering? The idea comes from an old Buddhist parable of a man walking through a forest when he is randomly struck by by a hunter’s arrow. The pain of the first is unavoidable, the second arrow is the additional suffering he may add to his experience by going on the ruminate on the event. For example, this shouldn’t have happened, it’s truly the end of the world that this happened. The second arrow is the response to the adversity, which we can learn to manage… Bad things can happen.
In REBT-CBT, we acknowledge that there can be some circumstances beyond our control, but learn that we can manage our response to the second arrow, when we add our own pain to the original injury. Awfulisation is one such arrow we might add to our difficulties. We tell ourselves that something is end of the world bad, that’s it is awful, terrible, specifically that it is off the scale bad. What do you think is the impact of going about your day with a habit of awfulising…?
Here’s an everyday minor example: My printer isn’t working… This is absolutely terrible, how am I going to manage now? How do you think this person is feeling now? Does it help to think these kinds of thoughts? What is a more realistic and helpful way of putting this?
Think of the person above, whose printer wasn’t working. (Okay, I’ll admit, it was me!) What could I have said instead which would be altogether more helpful? Yes, it is true that this is highly inconvenient and a hassle, that this has come at an awkward time, but there are worse things… It is bad that this has happened, but hardly the terrible thing I was leading myself to believe. What is the result of calming oneself with more flexible thinking…? Yes, still some frustration and concern, but a calmer mind means a better ability to problem solve, instead of rooting around switching the printer on and off again with no results.
How to tackle awfulising
It’s always worth stepping back and contemplating your mind chatter when it comes to the everyday habit of awfulising.
Here are some suggestions you could try if you notice you have a habit of awfulising… You could ask yourself, is this situation a truly a horror or just a hassle, an everyday tussle or terrible, impossible or inconvenient?” Any which way you look at it, when we awfulise the everyday adversities, we make life harder than it needs to be. Awfulising sends the message to our brain that the threat is worse than bad, and ramps up our negative emotions, and affects our actions.
It can be helpful to try out a different perspective when it comes to awfulising. You might consider what are the consequences of awfulising or catastrophising your difficulty? You might reflect on the reality of the difficulty - you can practice being genuinely compassionate to yourself about that, because all of us have difficulties one way or another.
Lastly in some situations, you may even be able to cast the net wider and consider three good things which could come about as a result of the problem? (A tough one, but often we can find something unexpected.)
Many times, just acknowledging that you are facing something that is bad and difficult, but reminding yourself of the temporary nature of this challenge and that although it is bad, it’s certainly not end of the world bad, can take the sting out of things. This can alleviate the second arrow.
If there’s an arrow that’s come your way, looking to see whether you are in the habit of awfulising can help to cushion the blow of a second arrow you’ve provided for yourself.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist working in Bath, UK. Read more about CBT under the tabs above, or delve into the Resources to see if there’s something helpful you can find for yourself.