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mindset

Sometimes when my husband isn’t home at the expected time I assume he’s dead on the side of the highway being eaten by wolves.

So far, this hasn’t happened (but that doesn’t mean it won’t).

Hi, my name is Nicole and I am a Catastrophist.

Catastrophisizing is but one of many cognitive distortions we all fall prey to from time to time, sometimes on a daily basis.

Psychologytoday.com defines catastrophizing perfectly into two parts so I’m quoting them:

Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome.

Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.

It’s interesting that anyone thinks like this because it so obviously doesn’t serve us, either in leadership or in our personal lives. Yet we do, because we want so badly for the good to happen, that we put equal amount of energy into fearing the worst might happen too.

Catastrophizing is – excuse the redundancy – catastrophic for leaders. As a leader you need to be a beacon of resilience. And unfortunately…

Excessive Worrying Reduces Resilience

One of the most important traits for a leader is resilience. Inherent in leading, building teams and building a business are setbacks. Actually “setbacks” has a negative connotation to it; really what we should call them are “events that happen that move us towards the events we’d rather happen.”

It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of life in general and resilience is crucial for your personal life too, but when it comes to leadership, resilience or the lack thereof can make or break you.

You therefore want to build an arsenal of tools that support the tendency of resilience. You want sleep, exercise, a good diet, recuperation time, and a growth mindset to focus on challenges as opportunities.

The irony about anticipating stress is that it creates stress, so you immediately bring into your life the very thing you’re trying to avoid when you worry that it will come into your life.

Assumptions and expectations that cause anxiety arise from our past experiences, what we witness from other people’s experiences, and what we see in society from film/TV/books/magazines/etc.

You might have been fired in a past job and assume you will be fired in your new job. You might have seen someone else get fired and assume you will also be fired. You might have seen someone in a movie get fired for something similar to what’s transpiring in your own life and you assume you will be fired too.

These are all fictions and fiction never fully reflects reality.

Furthermore, the future is a landscape that doesn’t exist. Worrying about the future is the same thing as worrying about anything that doesn’t exist. Would you worry that you’re never going to get to visit the country of Alparnia? Probably not, because it’s a country that doesn’t exist.

Keep your mind focused on what exists, which is the moment you are living. It is the only timeline you can control. This will help build a resilient attitude, which will in turn:

  • grow your self-confidence
  • give you a flair for adaptation and flexibility
  • cultivate the belief that you can influence life events

The Benefits of Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Makes you feel terrible
  • Creates the reality you fear most
  • Raises your blood pressure, stress level, and can lead to disease
  • Stresses out everyone around you
  • Makes you look incompetent, non-resilient, and fearful
  • Emotional contagion will spur others to leave you

Obviously none of these are benefits, but I wanted to label them as such to shine a light on our flawed thinking.

There’s an illusion of strength with your anxiety, that it is giving you control over the eventual outcome. Somewhere in the back of your mind you think “If I worry over it I can effect the outcome I want by thinking of everything I need to do to make sure what I don’t want doesn’t happen.” This is neurotic behavior that only attracts what you don’t want, because you’re only focusing on what you don’t want.

What you do want is nowhere in the equation.

Would you go about making a cake by focusing on all the ingredients that you wouldn’t want to be in it? You’d never make a birthday cake with broccoli, cumin, beef, sesame oil, and a microphone. At least not for someone you love.

Worrying about what you don’t want to happen is putting all of the aforementioned ingredients into a bowl, stirring them together, and putting it in the oven, all the while saying, “I hope I don’t make this cake.” And the only thing you’re doing is making it.

Why some of us are prone to anticipatory anxiety and excessive worry comes down to our core beliefs, which I wrote about here.

How to Deal

1. Take a moment to stop the train. You may have to forcibly take a moment to stop doing what you’re doing and just pause. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, and project what you want coming true rather than what you don’t want.

2. Find Something Immediately that Makes You Happy. It can be a video, a picture, a memory, it
doesn’t matter, just go there mentally, visually. You need to replace the anxiety with different thoughts. For me, it’s animals.

3. Full Steam Ahead. The best method is to proceed as though catastrophizing is something you’ve never even heard about. Make small choices towards your goals; keep putting one foot in front of the other towards the end game. This helps focus on the here and now while simultaneously keeping the anxiety at bay. What you don’t want is to sit in a chair ruminating without taking any action and/or taking preventative action towards a reality that doesn’t exist.

4. Make the Choice. The easiest and hardest part of moving past your anticipatory anxiety is making the choice to move past it. You have to want to move past it; you have to consciously choose happiness over suffering; resilience over stagnation; growth over regression; peace of mind over anxiety. It’s a choice, and the good news is you always have that choice available to you. Make little choices rather than huge sweeping ones. So, agree with yourself to make the choice not to have anticipatory anxiety. It’s not easy, and it’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a start.

Let go of the delusion that your worry is controlling the external world and creating desirable circumstances. Worry is not control.

The solutions, as the saying goes, “are in your head.” You may not permanently solve your catastrophizing, but you can learn to deal with it more effectively.

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My colleague and I had no choice but to rent a car one night when a canceled flight left us stranded, five hours away from our destination.

Two hours into the drive, we encountered what felt like a monsoon. It was then we discovered that one of the windshield wiper blades was bare metal, sans rubber. Though I am a fan of some alternative music genres, metal scraping on glass is not one of them.

It was pitch black, the only light source coming from large trucks. At times we had to stick our heads out the window to see where we were going. We called the car rental company (a large national chain we all know) for roadside assistance, which amounted to them suggesting we find a 24/7 Walmart. No luck.

Prognosis: we were down one blade for the entirety of the trip, forced to listen to metal on glass wipe back and forth for hours. It was dangerous and excruciating.

When we returned the car, we were given a $100 gift certificate (good for one year) and went on my way. I wanted to ask for a free future rental along with a full repayment of my graduate school loans, but the customer service rep was so nice and empathetic I took the gift certificate.

One year and three days later I needed to rent a car again, but I was told that the gift certificate’s expiration was final and “absolutely nothing could be done.” We can successfully perform a heart transplant on someone but issuing a new gift certificate for a rental car, that’s beyond our human capability. For several weeks after I dealt with reps that told me there was nothing they or anyone could do for me. They saw “one year” and their brain thought, “game over.”

Here was a customer service department deeply rooted in what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.”

If you haven’t read Mindset yet by Carol Dweck I highly recommend it. I have been rather obsessed with the concept of fixed vs growth mentalities she outlines. A fixed mindset being one that, in plain terms, believes change is not possible, whatever the scenario. A growth mindset would be one that believes the possibility of change does exist, whatever the scenario.

If you struggle with your piano lessons at first and have a fixed mindset you’ll think you’re never going to get better, it’s not going to get any easier, and it’s a waste of time. Someone with a growth mindset will approach the task thinking that while it’s difficult now the fruits of their labor will ripen later.

Many of us can feel the hot breath of a fixed mindset when we are on the phone with a customer service representative for a large corporation. If you want something from Comcast or Verizon that involves anything resembling a discount before your plan is up chances are you’re not going to get it, but then tell them you want to cancel your plan and suddenly you are transferred to the customer retention department who are leading the way in growth mindset, albeit much to our annoyance.

It’s understandable why large corporate customer service departments would have rules to follow. Without them, there is no consistency. However, perhaps one of the rules should be:

“Remember that customers are calling because they need help.”

The mantra “the customer needs help” should pulse throughout customer service departments. When people need help they are in a position of vulnerability. Vulnerable people have their guard up, primed to fight, expecting their needs will not be met. It takes very little to turn a situation from bad to ugly or conversely surprise someone with just a modicum of empathy.

A fixed mindset in customer service creates a vacuum. It suffocates the interaction between customer and company. A growth mindset breathes oxygen into the conversation, allowing for empathy.

There is a story I love in Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness where he and some Sketchers reps are hanging out in a hotel room and they want to order a pizza but don’t know who to call. Hsieh has them anonymously call Zappos to prove how amazing his customer service department is. The Zappos rep they speak with does in fact find them a pizza place in their area that will deliver to them. That type of culture starts with the premise that someone is calling you because they need help. Zappos is not in the business of finding pizza delivery, but they are in the business of customer service.

After reading Mindset I am convinced the fixed vs growth mindset debate is at the core of all failures and successes, whether in business or our personal lives. With a tight fixed mindset every time you get into a fight with your romantic partner you will call it quits. You will then get into that same fight in every subsequent relationship. The fixed mindset will prevent you from ever evolving from that fight. The fixed mindset puts a stranglehold on your personal evolution.

A growth mindset will lay the grounds for emotional maturity. Even if you don’t agree with the other person’s point of view you can rise above it and think, “I don’t agree with their argument but what is it they want? Maybe we can get to where we both want to be without insisting the other agrees with us.”

When it comes to customer service, a rep can think, “I have to adhere to my company’s policy but maybe there’s something I can do to help.” It comes down to the individual. How do you want to lead your life? How stuck or unstuck do you want to feel?

If you are a customer service rep and someone calls with a request outside of the company policy it is very easy to simply say “No.” You don’t have to make up your own rules to have a growth mindset though. The reps I spoke with could have thought, “I don’t have the power to issue a gift certificate but I empathize with her experience of listening to metal on glass, and being afraid for her life. Maybe I can help her in some way, maybe I can plead her case to my manager.”

This requires more energy and verve. It requires effort. Work. That’s where the wall goes up. The aversion to effort blocks our human potential. It’s not just about being a good customer service representative, it’s about being a fellow human being, listening to what’s being expressed to you, and having empathy. And energy!

There are of course factors other than company policy at play here: how much reps are paid, the success of their personal lives, everything that has happened to them in their respective lives before getting on the phone. All of those experiences combined with their emotional make-up have contributed to them having either a fixed or growth mindset.

The good news is our stories can be rewritten – and our brains rewired – simply by encouraging, training and helping reps have some freedom of thought.

Which is why it is important to empower your customer service reps to have some freedom of thought. Establish a policy that puts service first and reminds them that people are calling – not because they love to argue and complain – but because they need HELP.

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