Crazy Thinking

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

A few weeks a client told me about leaving a sensitive document related to compensation on a copy machine. He found the document back on his desk with a note from his manager telling him he had found it and wanted to see him first thing in the morning.

My client called me and told me he was “freaking out” about leaving this document on the copy machine and that he had made a terrible mistake. He kept imagining that everyone in the company knew of his blunder, he’d probably be fired on the spot, and maybe even sued by the people whose names and salaries were listed. I worked to settle him down and talked through the best way to approach the meeting with his boss.

The next morning, he followed up with his manager, listened carefully to what his boss had to say and took full responsibility for the error. The boss accepted his apology and plan for avoiding this problem in the future.

While my client was understandably concerned about his error, he exacerbated it by imagining the worst possible outcomes that might result from his mistake. That kind of thinking is called “catastrophizing” and represents what is known as a cognitive bias or cognitive distortion.

These distortions create behavioral inefficiencies when we are facing some kind of challenge and keep us from thinking in a more rationale manner. There are scores of these biases that include things like “jumping to conclusions,” “all or nothing thinking,” and “minimizing our successes.”

In some instances, imagining the worst possible consequences can be helpful in examining all possible outcomes, but more often than not it just creates anxiety and stress. The more we can become familiar with our own “crazy” thinking, the better we can help ourselves to find our resilience before we have to face our stress.

© Richard Citrin, All rights reserved, 2016


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4 thoughts on “Crazy Thinking”

  1. “Cognitive inefficiencies” Yes, that’s the case when a quarter of my brain is panicking “disaster! disaster and it’s your fault!” and half my brain is trying to ignore, work through, or calm the panic. It’s about all I can do to breathe and get through the day.

  2. Mike Capsambelis

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for this well-timed message, given recent political outcomes. I can’t help but to imagine the worst case scenarios; catastrophizing is the right word for it. Although it can help motivate action and preparation, it’s mostly just exhausting and demoralizing. So much better to be patient and thoughtfully proactive about the things we can control. I’m trying. 🙂

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