It’s 1 a.m. on a Wednesday and you’re struggling with a thesis sentence under the fluorescent lights of Davis Library. You alternate between writing single words and deleting them, changing Pandora stations, and topping off your water bottle every five minutes at the fountain just to get out of your seat.
The 27th incarnation of your thesis statement is less coherent than a drunken frat boy’s pick-up lines. It will never make sense, and you will never be done with it. You will never be done with this paper. You will spend the rest of your life sitting at this table, elbow-deep in cracker crumbs and spilled soda, moving words around until the pads of your fingers bleed and your eyes roll back into your head. And you will become a stop on the campus tour, gnashing your teeth at wide-eyed applicants. Until one day when you finally bleed out through the 10 stubs on your hands that used to be your fingers and they donate your brain to the biology department so someone can figure out why you couldn’t. Write. One. Sentence.
Many psychologists would classify the thought process above as an instance of “catastrophizing.” Catastrophizing, one of dozens of thought-processing errors, is a way of thinking in which a person either makes a small error and immediately assumes that such will snowball into an apocalyptically terrifying outcome, or envisions making an error in the future and anticipates the End of Days without reason. Traveling down either of these catastrophizing paths puts thinkers in a bad place mentally, disabling them from managing their life in the present.
During finals, many stressed-out and sleep-deprived students not only catastrophize, but also dismiss, maximize, deny, avoid, become hopeless and generally create mental environments for themselves that cause them to spend more time biting their fingernails than actually doing their work. But don’t worry; if you’ve sensed yourself become a little less rational than usual, we’ve got some ways for you to calmaté.
Example: “I’m stupid. I can’t write this paper.”
The Error: When someone labels herself, here with a negative appellation, she limits how she can think about herself. The way we see ourselves often affects how we engage with the world. Therefore, if you think you’re stupid, you’ll act stupidly, because how could you expect yourself to be anything else?
Change It: Brush your hair, put on pants that aren’t sweatpants, acknowledge the fact that you got into UNC-Chapel Hill, and take responsibility for your brains. You’re a smart cookie, so act like it! No one is ever just one thing. We’re dynamic people who can take control of our lives and change things we don’t like. You’re not having trouble with this paper because you’re stupid: you’re having trouble with this paper because you’re hiding under the pretense of false inability. You’re not stupid, but the fact that you’re fixated on how stupid you think you are? That’s stupid.
2. FORTUNE TELLING:
Example: “I failed my midterm, therefore, I’ll absolutely fail my final.”
The Error: Fortune telling, like catastrophizing, happens when someone believes she knows how her life will play out based on past events. She thinks that, because she’s been in a similar situation, her current situation will have the same outcome.
Change It: From a philosophical perspective, once something’s happened, it can’t happen again. You will never live through your own version of Groundhog Day. Instead of making grossly irrational projections about the future, consider how the present and the past are different: you’ve been through a similar event before and know (approximately) what to expect, so you can learn from your errors and adapt. You’re in control; don’t blame your circumstances!
3. UNREALISTIC COMPARISONS
Example: “That girl’s been studying at least as long as I have. I can’t leave the library until after she does, or else I’m not as dedicated to my studies.”
The Error: You work hard. You expect a lot from yourself. In fact, you expect yourself to be great. And all that is well and good, until the reason you do all this is because you expect yourself to be great relative to other people. When we make comparisons, especially when we don’t have any background upon which to make those comparisons, we’re setting ourselves up to lose. How can we compare ourselves to someone we don’t even know?
Change It: Competition’s not bad, but if ‘losing’ ruins your self-esteem, you need to take a step back. First, regard the situation: Consider that you might not have all the facts. What if she got 12 hours of sleep and is good to go for a few more hours, but you’re working on 5 hours of sleep? What if she’s been on Facebook the whole time? Second, even if you are relatively comparable with someone, life’s not a competition-- if you’re only doing things to be better than other people, it’s possible that you have self-esteem issues. Are you only worthwhile if you can get a better grade than Susie? Then that’s the thing you have to work on, along with just finishing your paper.
4. NEGATIVE FOCUS
Example: “I can’t figure out this one problem in my study guide, which has 30 problems in it. I’m so screwed!”
The Error: When you have a negative focus, all of the great things in your life take a backseat to that one pesky not-so-nice thing that’s got you down. It’s tough to enjoy things when you insist on letting minor issues control your thoughts.
Change It: You got one problem in your study guide wrong? So what? You got the rest of it right. You’re alive. You’re intelligent enough to be expected to study. You’re a Tar Heel. You’re in America. You’re within miles of Alpine Bagel Cafe and the Yogurt Pump. You understand English (mostly). Apparently, you also have Internet access and surfing capacity, so you’re probably eligible for at least minimum-wage telemarketing jobs.
Example: “This is the most important test I will ever take.”
The Error: Maximizing the importance of a situation will stress you out. It’s easy to focus narrowly; if this test is the only thing you’re thinking about right now, the likelihood that you see it as the be-all-and-end-all is pretty high.
Change It: Unless it’s a pregnancy test, the repercussions of this test will be manageable. So what if you bomb it? So what if you get a C in a class? If getting C’s isn’t the norm for you, because you’re used to getting A’s and B’s, your GPA will not plummet dangerously. Even if it’s the GMAT, you have multiple shots. Try to keep your perspective on life balanced and don’t get sucked into any one thing. You’ll go mad if you make anything more central to your life than it really is.
You are a beautiful, smart, worthwhile butterfly. I’m not pandering to your ego. You really are. So don’t give yourself an easy way out of knocking the socks off of life by sucumbing to circumstances. Thing is, life’s probably not as bad as you think it is, your test is not as ‘Giant-Tumbling-Boulder-from-Indiana-Jones’ as you think it is, and you’re more capable than you’re letting yourself think you are. Nothing is as hopeless as it seems, and your final exams will not define you.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t study; if doing well in college will help you get on to a career path you're interested in, keep taking things seriously. But keep in mind that it’s okay to make a rare mistake, and that if your mistakes occur more often than ‘rarely,’ there are people out there who will help you get back on the track you want. More importantly, don’t think worse of yourself if you’re not where you want to be yet. And no matter what, there is ALWAYS a way to make a situation better.
But still try to recognize your thought processing errors before you start biting people and typing in strange tongues.