Catastrophizing - The habit of automatically assuming a "worst case scenario" and inappropriately characterizing minor or moderate problems or issues as catastrophic events.

Creating Extremity

Catastrophizing is sometimes referred to as “over-reacting”. Someone with a Personality Disorder may have a range of motivations for catastrophizing, such as:

Drawing attention to themselves;
Drawing attention away from another issue;
To manipulate  bystanders towards a desired course of action;
To “punish” or hurt another person for a perceived hurt;
To justify an action which might otherwise be regarded as inappropriate; or
To produce a desired reaction or response from an individual.

What it looks like

  • A mother habitually rushes her child to the emergency room in response to a minor accident or illness.
  • A spouse accuses their partner of infidelity because they struck up a conversation or friendship with a member of the opposite sex.
  • A person feels abandoned when their partner is a few minutes late for a date.
  • A sibling or parent describes “wants” as “needs”.

What it feels like:

If you have been living for a long time with a person who is prone to catastrophizing events and situations, you may have developed a tendency to roll your eyes and think “Oh yeah, sure”. Underneath this reaction however, you may also fear they can really do you damage. People who catastrophize can sometimes take more than their fair share of time, energy or money because they feel their ‘emergency’ justifies it or because they believe it was necessary to prevent a disaster.

It can feel humiliating to see the reactions of other people to “over-reacting” behavior. You may find yourself trying to compensate for, excuse, explain or defend it to deal with your own embarrassment.

You may also be on the receiving end of some of the assumptions, accusations or conclusions - this can feel threatening, especially if you feel you are being falsely maligned.

What NOT to do:

  • Do not join them in the emotional panic-room.
  • Don’t automatically assume they are over-reacting and completely ignore them – genuine emergencies do happen. Figure out what is real, and work on that.
  • Don’t try to over-compensate for their behavior.
  • Don’t go into crisis mode just to keep the peace. Try to be as calm and objective as you can.
  • Don’t allow yourself to become responsible for cleaning up the mess that someone else’s behavior created.
  • Avoid Circular Conversations -  state your position or perception once only. Then exit the conversation, whether or not they acknowledge that you are right.

What TO Do:

  • Protect yourself and any children from potentially harmful or dangerous behavior. Call the police if necessary. Take any suicide threat or threats of harm to others seriously - let the experts sort out how true those threats are.
  • Get support in the form of someone who can take the focus away from your response and help you objectively navigate the “crisis”.
  • Quickly investigate each situation to establish the facts.
  • Communicate your conclusions calmly and kindly. Tell the person how you see it, what you are going to do about it, and what you are not going to do about it.
  • Protect your resources. Get a separate bank account, if necessary.
  • Get a special ring tone for the person who catastrophizes and let their calls go to the answering service. That gives you time to listen and think without having to react immediately.
  • If you can, look for the feeling behind each crisis and speak to that. If the person feels scared or anxious, acknowledge their feelings rather than validating their behavior.
  • Do your best to let the person solve their own dramas. If someone is trying to deal with a real crisis, they will generally be motivated to help solve the problem and clean up the mess.
  • Get emotional support. Talk to a friend or therapist about your situation. Break the silence. Learn what other people see and hear. Learn about Personality Disorders and how they may be affecting your situation.