When Renee was a child, her family had to move around a lot for her father’s work. Every few years Renee found herself in a new community, a new school, and having to make new friends from scratch. It was difficult for Renee to make new friends since she always expected to be uprooted again. Not surprisingly, Renee had become very shy and suffered from mild forms social anxiety.
When Renee was seventeen, her family finally settled in a small town in Colorado. Having been assured by her parents that they wouldn’t be moving again, Renee desperately wanted to make friends in the new community. She especially wanted to have a boyfriend. At the same time, however, Renee was scared of forming relationships.
The second Sunday in their new church, the youth pastor spotted Renee and invited her to their Friday youth group. Renee’s mother encouraged her to attend to make friends with some of the other young people in the area.
When Friday evening finally arrived, the youth group was not what Renee had expected. After some singing and a short talk from the youth pastor, the rest of the evening was unstructured. Everyone grouped together with their friends, leaving Renee to sit quietly in a corner feeling more and more awkward. She began to get frustrated and even a little angry.
Renee didn’t know why she was feeling angry, but unconsciously she was thinking something like this: nobody likes me, I’ve never been able to fit in, and no young man will ever want to have me as his girlfriend. Renee wasn’t consciously thinking any of these things—it was more of an implicit impression, leading to a growing sense of frustration.
After about fifteen minutes later, a young man with bright red hair came up to Renee and introduced himself. He was a friendly boy who seemed to sense that Renee was uncomfortable in this unfamiliar environment. “You’re new here, right?”
“Yes,” Renee replied cautiously. “We just moved to the area.”
“Well, come on, I’ll introduce you to some of the people in our group.”
Renee followed the young man, whose name was Joe, as he helped to integrate her into some of the conversations and activities. But this didn’t help Renee feel any better. Inwardly, she felt resentment towards Joe, although she didn’t know why. If she had stopped and analyzed it, she might have realized that she was experiencing certain half-formed thoughts that ran something like this: “Joe is just being friendly because he feels sorry for me since I looked so uncomfortable. I’m probably just an object of his sympathy because I look so awkward.”
When Renee got home that night, she cried and cried. She was destined never to fit in anywhere!
Renee’s mother, Lisa, was a caring woman who desperately wanted the best for her daughter. But Lisa had trouble understanding Renee, who was so different from herself. Lisa was an outgoing bubbly woman and found it hard to relate to her daughter’s emotions and social anxiety.
One of Lisa’s best friends, Olivia, was coming to visit that weekend. Since Olivia had just qualified to be an LPC (licensed professional counselor), Lisa asked Oliva if she could talk to her daughter.
Renee had known Olivia since a child and always felt comfortable around her. Even though they weren’t related, Renee had grown up referring to her mother’s best friend as “Aunt Olivia.”
The next day, over a cup of coffee, Renee told Aunt Olivia about the incident at the youth group. Olivia was naturally inquisitive and began probing Renee in order to understand her better. At first, Renee couldn’t explain why she felt like she had during the evening at the youth group. However, as Olivia helped Renee reconstruct how she had felt, it gradually started to become clear that her sense of frustration and isolation were partly the result of automatic thoughts like, “Nobody likes me,” “I’m never going to fit in,” or “Joe is just being friendly because he feels sorry for me,” had caused an emotional tidal wave for Renee that left her frustrated and isolated.
“Automatic thoughts are impressions or images that flash through our mind with or without conscious thought,” Olivia explained. “They are usually triggered by events and then lead to various emotional—and sometimes even physical—symptoms.”
Then, moving slightly closer as if to let Renee into a little secret, Olivia explained, “This happens to me all the time. For example, on the morning when I was scheduled to take the National Counselor Examination, I began to break out in a sweat and have dry mouth. I didn’t understand why I was having these symptoms because I didn’t think I was particularly nervous. But then I realized I had been having the automatic thought that if I fail, it will prove I’m stupid, or even that I’m a fake. At other times I have automatic thoughts like “I’m unable to cope” or “Something bad is probably just about to happen.”
Renee was a little surprised to learn that Aunt Olivia also struggled with these types of issues. She had always thought of Aunt Olivia as confident and self-assured. Renee reflected a bit before bringing the conversation back to the events at the youth group.
“I wasn’t consciously thinking any of those things when I was at the youth group,” Renee responded. “In fact, I didn’t even understand why I was feeling like I was until today when we started talking.”
“That’s exactly the point about ‘automatic thoughts’, Olivia said. “They are not like the types of thoughts we consciously choose. Automatic thoughts are like a non-stop radio playing in the background, rather than an actual CD that you select and choose to put on. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, that makes a lot of sense,” Renee replied reflectively. “I think I have automatic thoughts all the time. But what can you do about it, especially if you don’t even realize a lot of the time when it’s happening?”
“Well, in my own case,” Olivia shared, “I find that being aware of my automatic thoughts is half the battle. Often we don’t even realize the automatic thoughts that are afflicting us. Once you’ve identified the problem, you can do a reality-check by asking, ‘Is there any reason to believe these automatic thoughts?’ I also ask, ‘Is this healthy for me to be thinking these things?’ But ultimately, it’s a matter of asking the Holy Spirit’s help to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. It’s not a battle you can fight on your own, but something you need constantly to lean on the Holy Spirit for.”
Negative Automatic Thoughts
The story of Renee introduces the first of eight thinking errors I want to share in this post: negative automatic thoughts.
If we’ve read verses in the Bible like Phil 4:8 or Col. 3:1-2, then we already know that God wants you to have a positive outlook on life. So why do we find it so difficult? Why do we allow little things to get us down? Why do we obsess over the future and ruminate over the past, while rarely ever enjoying the present? Part of the answer has to do with automatic thoughts, just as Olivia explained to Renee.
Automatic thoughts are not necessarily bad, and are part of how we survive in the world without having deliberately to calculate every situation. The role that automatic thoughts play in survival may have their origin in our distant hunter-gatherer past. The survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended on “problem fixation”: giving constant attention to anything in the environment that might be threatening, lacking or problematic. For example, if there were signs of a snake down the path, their survival would depend on being able quickly to recognize the signs. If they had a bad experience with a neighboring tribe in a certain area, their brains would need to remember the place of danger. In short, our hunter-gatherers ancestors would have needed to remember everything that went wrong, to analyze their environment for potential problems, to constantly scan their experience for things that are abnormal or lacking, and to remain mentally vigilant at all times. Even when they were conserving energy by being still, their minds would never have the luxury of being still, but would need always to be thinking two or three steps ahead so as never to become vulnerable.
You and I no longer live in a world hedged about by constant danger. However, even when our lives are safe, our brains easily default to this primordial condition of continually scanning our experience for problems. The habits of analyzing, ruminating, worrying, planning, remembering, analyzing, evaluating and problem-fixation have become so second-nature that these types of thoughts often occur automatically independent of conscious choice.
Most automatic thoughts flow out of our mind as quickly as they come, leaving a residue on our unconscious. If even 15% of the thousands of thoughts that arrive in our brain every day are negative then that amounts to hundreds of negative thoughts in a single day. For most people the negative thoughts reach well into the thousands. Over a lifetime, this accumulative load of negativity can begin to have an impact on our health, our relationships with others and even on our self-identity.
To start observing all your automatic thoughts would be paralyzing, just as it would be impossible to get work done on a computer if a person was constantly watching what the operating system. However, just as a computer’s operating system might get infected with a virus and require special attention, so our automatic thoughts require special attention when they become toxic, as was the case with Renee.
How do you know if your automatic thoughts are toxic? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but a good rule of thumb is this: if a thought causes you to lose your peace, or if you find yourself becoming more and more frustrated, angry, agitated or stressed, perhaps without even understanding why, then there is a good likelihood you are being afflicted by negative automatic thoughts. Another way to tell if thoughts are toxic is whether they are problem-solving or problem-forming.
Some of the most toxic automatic thoughts include:
- Negative views about the self. Negative views of the self often arise from a self-schema rooted in negative early experiences. If we had parents who criticized us, or if we were exposed to bullying at school, this can wire the brain for automatic thoughts that come in the form of negative reflexive self-statements. Common automatic negative self-statements include, “I’m unlovable,” “I’m worthless,” “I’m ugly”, or “It would be better if my personality was more like so-and-so.”
- Negative views about the world and environment. If we were exposed to danger in early childhood, or if we have unresolved trauma from earlier in our life, this can lead to negative automatic thoughts about the world around us. The world begins to be perceived as a threatening place, and we look upon others—perhaps even people who love us—with suspicion. Common examples of this type of thinking are perspectives such as, “Everyone is probably judging me right now,” “no one values my opinion,” “nobody likes me,” “everyone is out to get me.”
- Negative views about the future. Automatic thoughts about the future lead to a constant sense of foreboding, and a sense of dread waiting just around the corner. Some common automatic negative future-statements include, “things can only get worse from here,” “I’m probably going to lose my job,” “I’ll never be able to learn what I need to know.”
In each of these three cases, a person will suffer from disordered emotions because of the disordered meanings they are ascribing to the events, as in the following diagram.
Interestingly, this type of negative thinking does not necessarily correlate to what is actually happening in a person’s life. If someone is weighed down by negative thoughts, they tend to be tormented by their brain even when things are going comparatively well. Similarly, if someone’s brain is filled with positive thoughts like gratitude and compassion, they tend to have peace of mind even when things are going wrong in their life.
So where does one begin in combating disordered meanings about the self, the world and the future? As Olivia explained to Renee, we start by simply being mindful of the meanings we are ascribing to events, shedding the spotlight on automatic thoughts that might otherwise go undetected. Once we recognize the meanings we are ascribing to events, then we can begin the process of taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5). Many of the early Church Fathers spoke about this type of mindful vigilance as a way of reigning in our disordered thoughts and feelings, as Fr. George Morelli explains.
“The early fathers of the Eastern Christian Church talked about the vigilance of the mind and heart [nepsis], which is similar to the cognitive-rational-emotive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be ‘mindful’ and thus learn to control their thoughts and feelings…. Once we detect a habit that we have that is harmful, or an emotional reaction we have that is damaging to ourselves or others, we can choose to place ourselves “at the head of the column,” to be mindful, watchful, vigilant and to prepare a counteraction: an alternative competing response, a different interpretation of the events around us and a different feeling about the whole incident. This is would be applying the technique of Christian mindfulness.”
One very common distortion is to look at an entire situation or set of conditions and hone in on specific negatives while overlooking positives that might balance things out. How many times do we think about our day, our job, our friendships or family relationships in a way that filters out what is good while giving inordinate attention to what is bad? It’s easy for negative details to become so magnified in our thinking that we filter out more positive aspects that could bring things better into perspective. Filtering often happens in married relationships, where a wife will become so accustomed to her husband’s good qualities that she will overlook those qualities, allowing his imperfections to become magnified in her thinking.
Filtering can also occur in the other direction, when a person filters out negative aspects of a situation, ignoring problems that actually need to be addressed.
The point is to let our thinking and reactions be based on fact, not on an outlook that is unreasonably pessimistic or optimistic. To be overly optimistic is to filter our problems that need to be faced; to be overly pessimistic is to filter out the things we can still be grateful for in a given situation, despite the problems.
The English Puritan teacher Richard Baxter (1615 –1691) often had to counsel husbands who were filtering out the good qualities in their wives, giving unbalanced attention to what was negative. In Baxter’s “sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love” he wrote as follows to husbands:
“Take more notice of the good, that is in your wives, than of the evil. Let not the observation of their faults make you forget or overlook their virtues. Love is kindled by the sight of love or goodness.
Make not infirmities to seem odious faults, but excuse them as far as lawfully you may, by considering the frailty of the sex, and of their tempers, and considering also your own infirmities, and how much your wives must bear with you.
Stir up that most in them into exercise which is best, and stir not up that which is evil; and then the good will most appear, and the evil will be as buried, and you will more easily maintain your love. There is some uncleanness in the best on earth; and if you will be daily stirring in the filth, no wonder if you have the annoyance; and for that you may thank yourselves: draw out the fragrancy of that which is good and delectable in them, and do not by your own imprudence or peevishness stir up the worst, and then you shall find that even your faulty wives will appear more amiable to you.
Overcome them with love; and then whatever they are in themselves, they will be loving to you, and consequently lovely. Love will cause love, as fire kindleth fire. A good husband is the best means to make a good and loving wife. Make them not froward by your froward carriage, and then say, we cannot love them.
Give them examples of amiableness in yourselves; set them the pattern of a prudent, lowly, loving, meek, self-denying, patient, harmless, holy, heavenly life. Try this a while, and see whether it will not shame them from their faults, and make them walk more amiably themselves.”
The thinking error of emotional reasoning occurs when we allow our feelings to drive our thinking, or when we treat our emotional reactions as if they are self-authenticating. Often our emotional reactions are correct, but we cannot know that simply on the basis of how we feel. We need to first check if our feelings are rooted in fact.
Here are some common examples of emotional reasoning:
- “What he did made me feel hurt; therefore, it must have been wrong.”
- “If I’m this scared about moving, then I shouldn’t do it.”
- “I know my spouse is behaving inappropriately, because otherwise why would I feel jealous?”
- “I feel like I can’t cope with this; therefore, I can’t cope with it.”
Polarized thinking (also known as “dichotomous thinking” or “splitting”), happens when we divide the world into extreme black and white. For example, you might think that all conservatives are good people and all liberals are bad, or visa versa. Or you might observe something another person said and conclude that they either have a trustworthy character or an untrustworthy one. Or you might reflect on something you did and conclude that you are a total success or a total failure, smart or stupid, good or bad. But most people and situations are not so black and white, and it’s easy to make sweeping judgments that overlook the role context plays in informing a person’s behavior. For example, someone who is untrustworthy at one time—perhaps because of a particular situation or context—does not mean the person necessarily has an untrustworthy character.
Polarized thinking is closely related to the all-or-nothing fallacy. Sometimes a person will look at a potential project and think that unless they can do it perfectly, there is no use working on it at all. Or we might approach problems with our spouse by thinking that unless problems can be solved perfectly, they are not worth trying to solve even partially. By contrast, a mature person is able to live with ambiguity and accept that sometimes people and situations are too complex to be divided into black and white.
Overgeneralizing happens when we hastily infer a pattern out of a single incident. It is closely related to what psychologists call “selective abstraction”, whereby we draw conclusions on the basis on just one of many elements of a situation. For example, if something bad happens in the morning, a person might think, “Now I’m going to have a bad day.” Or if you make a mistake at something, you might be tempted to think, “I always fail when I try new things.” If something unpleasant happens in a relationship, people sometimes think, “We never get along” or “he’s always doing things like that.”
Although generalizing can sometimes be rational when there is evidence to support it, we have to be careful not to infer negative patterns out of isolated incidents. When we overgeneralize, we are prone to overlook important factors of context that may account for why things happened as they did. This often happens in marriage, where a husband or wife will overgeneralize by using a single causal explanation to account for all the problems in the relationship.
Overgeneralizing can often lead us to label ourselves or others with attributions like “idiot”, “stupid”, “failure.” It can also overlap with polarization in influencing us to hastily assume that a person’s behavior must be a symptom of their intrinsic character instead of a result of external circumstances.
Sometimes overgeneralizing influences the expectations we bring to relationships, distorting our sense of what is normal and causing us to measure people by unrealistic standards. Overgeneralizing can also result in us internalizing unrealistic expectations about ourselves, magnifying the negative aspects of our experience and creating patterns out of them.
Here are some particularly unhelpful overgeneralizations that often distort our relationships and self-understanding:
- “Children normally rebel when they become teenagers.”
- “Normally people grow stupid as they enter their 70’s and 80’s.”
- “A normal Christian wife submissively allows her husband to boss her around.”
- “Men don’t express their emotions.”
- “Women aren’t able to control their emotion.”
One of the most common thinking errors is the tendency to compare ourselves to others. It isn’t always wrong to compare ourselves with others, especially if it leads us to imitate the behavior of role models, such as Christian heroes and saints. Moreover, comparing ourselves to others can help us maintain humility about our own talents, accomplishments and spirituality, as we take inspiration from others who have made further progress than we have.
However, much of the time we engage in comparisons, it serves no positive purpose and actually blocks us from experiencing contentment. Instead of being content with the gifts God has given us (1 Tim. 6:6), we begin envying the possessions, lifestyle, wealth and opportunities God has bestowed on others.
Over the years, psychologists and economists have done a lot of research about comparison, and its impact on the human brain. Their research shows that by comparing ourselves to others, we sabotage our own happiness and make detrimental decisions. Here is a smattering of some of this research.
- Comparison Influences Spending and Saving Habits. Economists have found that our attitude towards spending and saving tends to be dictated, not by our actual income, but by our income in relation to others and in relation to our own past peak income. In other words, our attitude to money is conditioned both by the possessions of those around us as well as what we’ve been used to having.
- Income Comparison Leads to Unhappiness. Data published in 2010 from a Europe-wide survey found that people who compared their incomes to others were less happy with what they had. The comparisons that were most damaging to happiness were when people compared their incomes to friends from school and university. Other research conducted in other contexts found that social comparisons in an “upward” direction (that is, when we compare ourselves to people we deem superior to us) is associated with decreased self-esteem and decreased wellbeing.
- Social Media Breeds Envy. A study published in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology showed that the more time someone spends on Facebook the greater likelihood that person will compare him or herself to others and experience depressive symptoms as a result. This type of comparison often happens on an unconscious level so that we are not always aware of the source of our depression. Another study, published in April 2015 in the same journal, found that individuals with low self-esteem were more likely to experience envy when viewing attractive Facebook profiles.
- Unhappy people enjoy seeing other people miserable. Unhappy individuals tend to increase in self-confidence when other people do worse, and tend to conceive happiness as existing at other people’s expense, leading them to denigrate the fortunes of others. Unhappy people tend to view happiness as a zero-sum game, whereby we are endlessly competing with those around us. This social comparison model of happiness (happiness equals what I get minus what others get) leads many people to actually prefer less optimal outcomes in order to be above other people. By contrast, happy people tend simply to enjoy what they are given without comparing themselves to others. A truly happy person can enjoy the blessings in her life, but also take delight in the good things other people
Eric’s father constantly criticized him. Now that Eric is in his young twenties, he finds it hard to believe he is lovable. When his fiancé, Annette, interacts with other men, Eric becomes suspicious and begins imagining all sorts of terrible things that she must be thinking.
Michelle’s teenage son, Stuart, is going through a severe period of rebellion. He has even got in trouble with the police on three different occasions. When Michelle draws any sort of boundaries for Stuart (for example, prohibiting drugs on the property or insisting that he doesn’t play heavy metal music around his younger sister) Stuart becomes abusive towards his mother. On a handful of occasions, Stuart has even hit Michelle. When he is being violent, Michelle thinks she knows what is really going on in Stuart’s mind, having convinced herself that the real reason her son hits her is because he loves her. “After all,” Michelle keeps telling herself, “because he loves me, I’m the only person he feels comfortable really being himself around, which is why he takes out his frustration on me in the form of violence.”
Every time Emily goes to the beach with her youth group, she wears a one-piece bathing suit while all the other girls dress in bikinis. When they’re not in the water, the other girls typically watch music videos on their smartphones, although Emily enjoys reading novels. One of the girls once asked Emily who her favorite music group was and she said that she only listens to classical music. Emily senses the other girls are treating her differently, but she couldn’t understand why until her friend Amy shared some of the things they were saying behind her back. This included comments like:
- “She thinks she’s so good.”
- “Emily obviously isn’t comfortable with her own body,”
- “I know Emily’s parents used to homeschool her, so she’s probably one of those little-house-on-the-prairie type of traditionalists that always goes around judging other people.”
Miranda’s husband, Jackson, is always criticizing her. Earlier this week when Miranda made Jackson’s favorite meal for dinner for him, he replied, “You’re probably only doing that because you feel bad for how you treated me last night.” On Sunday when Miranda was hurrying the family to get ready for church so they wouldn’t be late again, Jackson said, “The only reason you don’t want to be late is because you’re worried what other people will think of you.” When Miranda was reading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, Jackson replied, “you think you’re so gaddamn smart when you read books like that.” When Miranda challenges Jackson about these assumptions, he typically twists her words against him, using her explanations as a basis for a further accusation, such as “You’re just too sensitive”, or “gosh, why are you so defensive all the time?”
The common thread running through each of the above scenarios is mind-reading. Mind-reading occurs when we make assumptions about what another person is thinking or what is driving their behavior. You’ve experienced mind-reading if you’ve even been with someone who responded to things you say by announcing what you really meant, or who interacted with you as if they understood your thinking, motives and intentions better than you do yourself.
When we mind-read, we often fail to sufficiently distinguish the intent of someone’s behavior from the impact of their behavior, being overly quick to infer the former from the latter.
Mind-reading is often practiced by people who suffer chronic insecurity, as in the case of Eric. Often people who suffer from insecurity may think things, “she must have really thought I was stupid when I said that,” or “I just know everyone at the party was judging me because of my tattoos.”
Mind-reading also tends to be prevalent among people who are controlling and verbally abusive, as in the case of Miranda and Jackson. For more about abusive mind-reading, see the text box below.
Often mind-reading is practiced by people who are enablers, as in the case of Michelle who convinced herself that the real reason her son was hitting her was because he really loved her. It’s easy to read into someone else’s behavior or words various interpretations that make us feel better, but at the expense of reality.
When mind-reading becomes chronic, a person may end up habitually twisting another person’s words to confirm their preconceived interpretations, making authentic communication impossible.
Since the majority of human communication is non-verbal, it is inevitable that we will pick up implicit meanings and that we will interact with people by intuitively “reading between the lines.” This type of “empathic accuracy” is helpful in relationships and should be distinguished from mind-reading, which involves premature rigid assumptions that blocks healthy communication. One way to distinguish between empathic accuracy and mind-reading is the impact your behavior has on the other person. If you have empathic accuracy towards someone, this helps that person to feel heard and understood, while fostering their sense of connection with you. By contrast, mind-reading stifles healthy connection, making the other person feel like they are being trapped in definitions and categories that stifle who they really are, rendering genuine communication impossible.
The more you get to know someone, the more temptation there is to second-guess what the other person is thinking. Although this is a natural, and even beautiful, part of having a close relationship, it can spill into unhealthy mind-reading. To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario. Steve returned home after a long and tiring day at work. His wife, Jennifer, had also had a long day. She had intended to have a warm dinner waiting for her husband, but all day she had been harried by unexpected distractions. When Steve came home, all that was waiting for him was a big pile of dishes. A few minutes after his arrival, Steve asked Jennifer, “What did you do today?”
Angrily, Jennifer responded, “You only asked that because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner! You aren’t actually interested in my day at all.”
In this exchange, Jennifer is mind-reading, imposing a narrative onto Steve’s words that may not be accurate. To be sure, Steve might have been asking his question as a subtle way of finding out why there was no dinner, or maybe he was genuinely interested in his wife’s day. It may even have been a little bit of both. Whatever may have been Steve’s real meaning, it would have been better for Jennifer to respond with another question, perhaps asking something like, “Honey, are you asking that because you are genuinely interested in how my day went, or only because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner for you?”
Again, the point is not that we can never read between the lines to pick up non-verbal cues. Often we really do intuit what other people are thinking, especially when interacting with people we know well. For example, in the above exchange, if Steve had asked, “What did you do today?” while looking at the pile of dishes and rolling his eyes, then Jennifer would have good reason to infer a subtext to his question. But even when you are pretty sure you know what another person is thinking, hold it lightly and don’t be afraid to check in with the other person.
Catastrophizing is closely related to overgeneralizing. It involves inferring a dramatic pattern from insignificant events or interpreting undesirable circumstances as the worst possible outcome. For example, we’re often tempted to put a catastrophic context around our own shortcomings (“the fact that I did that means I’m a complete failure is a mother”) or to dramatize other people’s mistakes and shortcomings (“the fact that my wife believes that about me just proves we’re incompatible” or “only a manipulative and controlling husband would say that to me”).
One of the most common forms of catastrophizing is when we forecast disastrous consequences about the future. Here are some common examples of catastrophic forecasting:
- “Things have gone so smoothly for so long that tragedy is bound to be just around the corner.”
- “If I go on a diet, I’ll probably just gain weight.”
- “If I compromise with my wife in this one area, then everything I’ve worked to achieve in our marriage could begin to crumble.”
- “The fact that I can’t pay this bill proves we’re on the road to bankruptcy.”
It can be particularly easy to fall into the error of catastrophizing during times of stress, heartache, physical illness or sleep deprivation. The key is that when you begin thinking catastrophic thoughts to recognize the error and remind yourself that you do not need to be subject to disordered cognitions. It’s always possible to reframe catastrophic-based thoughts with a more realistic assessment of the situation. For example, instead of saying to yourself, “I think this is finally going to push me beyond coping point”, you could say, “I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure a lot more than I thought I’d be able to.” Another way to buttress ourselves against a catastrophizing mentality is to recognize that whatever difficulties we may be going through, it is a normal part of being human. As Jordan Peterson reminds us in Twelve Rules for Life, “it is a rare person indeed who isn’t suffering from at least one serious catastrophe at any given time—particularly if you include their family in the equation.”
One person who has inspired me not to surrender to a catastrophizing attitude is the sporting legend Jim Thorpe (1887–1953). Thorpe was one of America’s most extraordinary athletes, with a career that involved success in football, various track and field events, baseball and even basketball. Throughout his career, Jim experienced numerous setbacks that could easily have resulted in a catastrophizing attitude—including his twin brother dying when he was nine, being orphaned as a teenager and being raised as a ward of the government—yet he refused ever to give into a defeated attitude or a victim mentality.
Jim’s resilient attitude was manifested one afternoon in 1907 when he showed up on the field where the football team for his college, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was practicing. Although Jim was the school’s best track and field athlete, he wasn’t satisfied: he also wanted to play football.
“Go away and come back when you have some meat on your bones,” the trainer Wallace Denny replied in response to Jim’s request to play football.
When it became clear that Jim would wasn’t going to take no for an answer, the team’s coach, “Pop” Warner, reluctantly agreed that Jim could help the men work on their tackling.
The idea was simple: Thorpe was instructed to take the ball and run into a line of men, each standing around five feet from the next, so they could have practice tackling. But Jim had other plans. Wanting to prove himself, Jim shot right through the line of defenders to the touchdown line. After making his way through an entire line of defenders twice in a row, Jim was allowed a spot on the team for the upcoming college football season.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team had to overcome prejudice about Native Americans—often stereotyped as “lazy and easily discouraged”—as they strove to compete as equals with the nation’s top schools. With Jim playing as a running back, the team managed to win the national collegiate championship in 1911.
The next year, Jim had the opportunity to represent America in track and field at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Once again, Jim faced enormous odds. Since Jim was a Native American, the United States government didn’t consider him to be a full citizen. Legally, he was a ward of the state. (It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress granted full citizenship to Native Americans.) This meant that while Jim could represent America at the games, he wasn’t allowed to control his own money and couldn’t access funds that were available to the other athletes on the team. When Jim telegraphed the government agent at his reservation asking for $100 to help finance his trip to Stockholm, the agent replied that Jim should stop “gallivanting around the country” and return to the reservation to work on his land allotment.
At Stockholm, Jim won string of medals and set numerous Olympic records. Despite being labelled by the media as “the greatest all-around athlete in the history of sports,” Jim he was so poor that he didn’t even have a pen to sign autographs with.
Jim continued to suffer setbacks that could easily have resulted in a catastrophizing attitude. In 1913, newspapers discovered that Jim had played minor league baseball in the summer of 1909 and 1910. This meant that Jim was officially a “professional” athlete, even though he had played for meagre pay,. This disqualified him from the Olympics according to America’s strict rules of amateurism that persisted at the time. (It was common for Olympic athletes to play minor league baseball in the summer, but they usually did it under fake names to preserve their amateur status.) The Olympic committee decided retroactively to strip Thorpe of his honors. Someone even snuck into Jim’s room to steal his gold metals and send them back. To this day, Jim Olympic records still do not appear in the Olympic annals, although his Gold medals have been posthumously awarded back to him.
In his later career, Thorpe entered professional sports with gusto until he was forty-one, playing more baseball, as well as being a success in the newly established professional American Football League, (what later evolved into the NFL).
Throughout his sporting career, Thorpe could easily have given in to a spirit of catastrophizing and victimhood, but instead he chose to persevere against tremendous odds. My favorite story about Jim goes back to the time when he was competing at the Olympics in Stockholm. Before one of his events, somebody stole his shoes. Jim was penniless and couldn’t afford to just go into town and buy a new pair. Rummaging through a garbage can, he found some shoes someone had thrown away. They were not a matching pair, and both were of different sizes, but Jim put them on to compete. Since one of the shoes was too large, he made up for that by wearing extra socks. With these throw-away shoes, he went on to win Gold.