Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Catastrophizing Ultimately is Really About Expectations

If my parents ever disagreed, it was often about politics, religion or money.

In fact, as life-long Republicans, if they couldn’t come to agreement on who they would vote for, my dad would famously say that they just as well not vote then because they would just cancel each other out.

Their marriage lasted 36 years, but during that span, mom usually prevailed when it came to money and religion, but it is the latter that ultimately brought their union to an end.

They are both gone now but a survey of Americans last year found that about 35% of Americans today also find it difficult to discuss politics, and even then I suspect what they hear is influenced by adversarial listening.

Religion falls close behind at 32% but taxes and personal health fall to 21% and 20% respectively.

According to a 2013 poll by Market Pulse on behalf of Wells Fargo, it is finances that Americans find most difficult to discuss (44%) even more than death (38%.)

Ironically, although 71% today learned the importance of saving from their parents, only slightly more than a third (36%) of parents report discussing the importance of saving money with their children on a frequent basis and a large percentage not at all.

American couples find it as hard to discuss money as they do discussing sex.

More than religion, it may have been my father’s struggle with deep episodes of depression as well as my mom’s emotional relationship with money -- spending it that is -- that ultimately pulled them apart.

My dad suddenly showed up to visit me in Alaska after the breakup.  He was deeply depressed but it wouldn’t be for another twenty years before I could talk with him about his depression.

He never let it affect his work but during these episodes he would often sit for hours in the dark without talking.  When I was little, it would scare me.

I know now that he was struggling with deep bouts of feeling inadequate, just as he probably was during his visit to Anchorage after his break up.  I could have said so much that would have been helpful but back then I was more prone to change the subject.

In his extraordinary book entitled, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns, a Stanford researcher who helped develop Cognitive Therapy, notes that we really don’t know yet how the brain creates emotions.

Reflection on our own thoughts can either be a powerful stimulant to insight or a spiraling cycle of negative thoughts.  Learning to foster the former and intervene to break the latter is a challenge everyone faces I suppose.

My mom’s emotional relationships with money and food fed into a set of expectations that were very different than my dad’s.  That’s what they really needed to discuss.

I’ve always envied, in a way, the people whom I have come across in life whose “my way or the highway” way of thinking and rationalizing seems so effortless.

Most often though, whenever I was obligated to stand up to someone like this I failed to discuss expectations and instead sailed into analysis.

Occasionally, before catching myself through reflection, I would fall into the all or nothing or black and white thinking trap as well.

A foundation built on clearly understanding expectations is the most essential element for fruitful strategic partnerships.

It is no different with another couple in dispute, Germany and Greece.

French economist Thomas Piketty who wrote, Capital in the Twenty-First Century a book that deals with the evolution of inequality and wealth concentration, reminds us that Germany is being more than a bit hypocritical when it comes to Greece.

Greece was among a number of countries in 1953 that stepped forward to forgive 50% of the massive bailout given to Germany following WWII.

He makes a good point.  Of course, what led to Germany’s indebtedness in 1953 and to Greece’s problems today are very different but no less “moral in stance.”

“Until 2009”, according to Piketty as reported by Chris Harlan on Wonkblog, “Greece forged its books.”  But he notes that austerity measures are forcing the burden on subsequent generations who were not part of that.

Similarly, the post-WWII government in Germany was trying to dig out from under a mess left by the Nazis.  Greece and other countries could have insisted on repayment, creating the same austerity forced on them after WWI which led to WWII.

The struggle regarding Greece’s bailout today is really about expectations more than it is money.

The “catastrophizing,” as cognitive behavior therapists call it, on both sides is just another form of all or nothing thinking.

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