Awfulising: Are you making mountains out of molehills?

How often do you rate something as awful, terrible, or horrible? Sometimes people use such words in a superficial sense: 'Wasn't that a terrible play?'; 'Look at that awful outfit she’s got on', and the like. But often we do attach a significant meaning to them. We imply to ourselves that something is the worst that could ever happen, or it’s the end of the world.

You can awfulise about things that have happened in the past, things that are happening now, and things that may happen in the future. Typical self-talk may involve:

  • I feel terrible.
  • It would be awful if ...
  • This is the worst thing that could ever happen.
  • It’s the end of the world.

All things in moderation

Old habits die hard. We often see only two alternatives - our problems are either serious, or there is nothing wrong at all (an example of black and white thinking).

There is a better way: learn to think in moderate terms. That means avoiding extremes (either positive or negative) which are out of proportion to what is going on and that hurt unnecessarily. Do not minimise your difficulties, though. Avoid so-called ‘positive thinking’. What we are talking about here is realistic thinking - seeing things as they really are.

In real life, very little is ever 100% bad - or 100% good. The trouble with awfulising is that it often implies something is as bad as it could be. But how often is this the case? Someone once asked me, for instance: 'What could be worse than dying in agony over a whole hour?' Well, the answer to that is: 'To die in agony over two hours!' (or three, or four, or a whole day - or more). You can undercut awfulising by viewing what is going on in relation to other - possibly worse - events.

I am not suggesting you deny reality by telling yourself that 'it could be worse.' Rather, see things that are unpleasant, uncomfortable and inconvenient as just that and no more - not as the end of the world. Then you will avoid adding unnecessary emotional pain to the real problems you do have. In other words, keep things in perspective.

Mountains Back to Molehills

See the list of typical catastrophising thoughts below. Alongside each is a more realistic alternative.


In-perspective thinking

It’s terrible to be treated like this. It’s unpleasant and uncomfortable to be treated like this.
This is an absolute disaster. This is serious. But it’s not the end of the world.
I could not imagine anything worse. This is bad - but, in reality, it’s better than some of the alternatives.

Helping yourself

Here are a few strategies to help you change from awfulising to realistic thinking:

  • Learn to catch yourself doing it. Know the cues to watch for: words such as 'awful', 'terrible', 'disastrous'; and feelings like anxiety and hopelessness.
  • Challenge exaggerated thoughts. Reduce extremes and get things back into perspective. When worrying about forthcoming ‘disasters’, ask yourself: 'What is the worst that is really likely to happen?'.

In other words, get those mountains back to the molehills they really are.