Issue 7 of Responsibility syndrome
People with an excessive sense of responsibility are often more afraid of failure than others. It could almost be described as a phobic fear of failure.
One common issue associated with this particular tendency is something called catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking is when you automatically, and often for no apparent reason, imagine the worst possible outcome of even trivial situations. It often starts out as a negative thought (“If I don’t hand in this assignment on time, my boss will think I’m a slacker”). This negative thought gives rise to an automatic follow-up thought (“What if I get fired?”, “I will lose my apartment!”), which in turn activates the body’s threat system (faster breathing, tensed up muscles in the jaw, shoulders and arms, and an increased alertness for potentially threatening situations).
When the body’s alarm system has been activated, the road is paved for still more negative thoughts and imagined catastrophes. If this happens often, it may lead to avoidance of all situations that could potentially lead to a failure. So – how can you deal with catastrophic thinking?
As usual, dealing with the problem starts with becoming aware that you are catastrophizing. The next step is to try to break the vicious cycle. One way of doing this is to try to note which situations give rise to catastrophic thinking and make sure to expose yourself to those situations with an open mind. When catastrophic thoughts pop up, note them and try to keep your breathing calm and your body relaxed.
When you have “caught” a catastrophic thought, try to follow it to its conclusion. People who ruminate and worry about failure often have a hard time following their thoughts all the way to really imagine the worst possible catastrophe and its consequences. This is a form of avoidance which is reinforced (rewarded) by the fact that you think you’ve escaped the anxiety of truly visualizing what you are afraid of.
Note what gives rise to your fear of failure in everyday life. Try to also be aware of any catastrophic thinking and how your body reacts to it.
Simply noting and paying attention to thoughts and bodily sensations may seem like a silly exercise, but it’s actually quite challenging. And what’s more, the act of paying attention in itself is often enough to break an unconscious vicious cycle of negative thoughts.
When you catch a catastrophic thought, try to think the whole thought. Daring to follow your thought to its conclusion doesn’t increase the risk of your fear turning into reality. This is what psychologists call an exposure exercise. In this context, exposure means that you put yourself in a situation or state of mind that is frightening (but not dangerous) to gradually get used to the thing that scares you. Just like when someone who suffers from arachnophobia practices going down to a basement where he or she has seen a spider before.
For example: “I won’t be able to finish this assignment on time. Something bad will happen if I can’t stick to the deadline. My boss might think I’m a slacker, and I might even be reprimanded. If it happens again, I could even get fired. If I get fired I won’t be able to pay my bills, and I’ll have to move in with my parents. If that happens, I won’t be able to get a girlfriend and end up alone”.