“What Happens After?”, the Anti-Catastrophizing Game

One of the strategies that a therapist of mine once recommended to me to stop catastrophizing is a game I call “What Happens After?”.

The thing about catastrophizing is that catastrophe narratives almost always end with the catastrophe. If you’re worried about failing a test, then catastrophizing means imagining that you’ll fail the test, and failing the test is the horrible Worst Thing in the World end of the story. If you’re worried about a breakup, then the relationship being over is the horrible Worst Thing in the World end of the story. I’ve borrowed the “worst thing in the world” phrasing from Cliff at The Pervocracy blog, who writes eloquently about this kind of thinking:

I remember when my first “I love you” relationship ended.  I couldn’t abide the thought.  I screamed.  I cried.  I tried to seduce him.  (While still crying. Sexxxay.)  I threatened to harm myself if he didn’t come back.  I called him until he stopped taking my calls.   The ridiculous thing is, I didn’t even like him that much.  It wasn’t about getting the joy of the relationship back.  It was about avoiding TWTITW [The Worst Thing in the World].

At some point I bawled myself to sleep, and the next morning I woke up and had to pee.  Because even in the wake of The Worst Thing In The World, you still have to pee.   I peed and went to work. It was the day after the end of eeeeeverything, but the bus still picked me up at 7:08 and I still got a half-hour and a chicken sandwich for lunch.  I was in pain, I was in bad pain, but I had thought it would be infinite pain, and it was finite.  It was only a six-foot cockroach.

I can’t say “and then I never believed in TWTITW again,” but it was the start of a journey.  Failing a class helped too, as did getting fired from a job, as did very messily breaking up with a very close friend.  Not because these things weren’t bad.  All of them sucked, all of them cost me opportunities I would never get back, all of them caused real and irreparable harm, yet the morning after… I still had to pee.

The “What Happens After” game is a pretty simple idea: if I’m ever worried about a particular worst-case scenario, I try to imagine what will happen after it. It doesn’t have to be a “plan” for what I will do after the thing happens (although making plans against worst-case scenarios can sometimes also be a helpful tactic) so much as the creation of a narrative, any narrative, that doesn’t stop with the catastrophe.

If I go through a breakup, then the day after that I’m going to have to make myself breakfast, and then I’m going to have to call that friend I haven’t been in touch with, and then I’m going to have to get some writing done or some coding done. The week after that I will have that swing dance thing to go to, and the week after that there is a conference…

The idea is that you just keep writing the story out until you realize that no matter how horrible it might be, the catastrophe that you’re worrying about will not be the end of the story. Somehow, moving catastrophes to the middle of their narratives from the end of the narratives has an ameliorating effect on the anxiety associated with them, at least for me.

Sometimes it happens that I forget to do the “What Happens After” thing, and then situations come up that prove the truth of the exercise to me. That is, something that I’ve worried a lot about happens, and then a bunch of stuff happens afterward, and I realize that the narrative doesn’t end at the disaster’s edge. This happened to me in a relatively minor way just recently.

One of the things I tend to worry about a lot is whether or not I have sufficiently established consent for the things I do with people. My pattern is pretty much to always explicitly ask for things, but it’s not uncommon, even in those cases, for me to worry like this: “I can ask, but this is a thing I really want to do, what if she isn’t interested, but she can tell that I really want to do it and feels pressured and then OH GOD I HAVE PRESSURED SOMEONE INTO A THING?!”

Recently, I had the experience of making out with two friends of mine for the first time. With the first friend, it went very well. I asked if she wanted to make out, she said yes, and then we enthusiastically did just that. With the second, I asked, and she said yes, but when it came to actually making out, I didn’t get a very strong sense that she was into what we were doing.

With the first friend, we made out for a while, and it was awesome, and I felt really good about it afterward. With the second friend, I got an uncertain impression, and decided to hold off on asking or initiating again. This may seem like the obvious way things like this would go, but in my brain it was a bit of an epiphany: “Oh! If I get the impression that maybe someone isn’t as into doing something as I thought, then instead of “OH GOD, DISASTER HAS HAPPENED AND THE WORLD EXPLODES”, what actually happens is I gather some data and use that data to inform how I initiate or don’t initiate things in the future.

Where before, the narrative ended in disaster, it now ends in my having more information and using that information to better understand the situation. Now, with that new narrative, the whole situation is a little less scary. This is how the What Happens After game is supposed to work, and I have found it to be very helpful at times for getting my head out of the “What if the world explodes?!” headspace, and into the “Well, then it will explode, and tomorrow I will still have to pee.” headspace.