Monday, April 19, 2021

7. Joyfulizing vs. Catastrophizing

I think American Psychology is destructive in many ways.  When you create an industry that is funded on people’s “diagnosis” or “disorder,” then you inadvertently create a system where providers are trained to focus on problems, scan for symptoms,  perceive limitations instead of strengths, document what’s wrong instead of what’s right.  These perceptions then contribute to a culture which makes diagnosis an identity, problems a personality, sexual expresson a stigma.  Consequently, people are more likely to say, “I’m depressed,” instead of, “I’m a resilient person who feels a lot of pain.”  They are more likely to report, “I’m borderline,” instead of, “I’m a human being who has developed some problematic coping skills while surviving trauma.”  They report, "I'm a sex addict" instead of, "I live in a society that taught me how to have an unhealthy relationship with sex."  Or they’ll say, “I’m anxious,” instead of “My brain’s neurons are currently firing in a way that is causing me to focus inordinately on fears.”  

In Lessons 31 and 15 I talked about internalizing fears when I was growing up.  I worried a lot. For the first three decades of my life I was stressed out about everything from earthquakes, to burglars breaking into my house, to academic failures, to not having friends, to the Energy Crisis, to the threat of nuclear war, to the AIDS pandemic, to not getting into college, to not getting my psychotherapy license, to not having enough money, to being rejected by men, to more earthquakes, my mind spent a great deal of time anticipating disastrous doomsday scenarios.  

After I turned thirty I had a revelation:  My life was pretty good.  I was living in Palm Springs, making some great friends, had a very rewarding job, owned my home, was earning good money, receiving first rate supervision toward my clinical hours, getting to see my family frequently, and felt very physically healthy.  And yet — I still felt ubiquitous worry.  My mind’s default setting was to constantly scan for something that could go wrong.  It was around that time I came to consciously understand, “OH - wait - my worry has little to do with externals.  It’s just a bad habit my neurons have locked into.”  

When I began studying A Course In Miracles, and the practice of Rational Emotional Behavioral Therapy, I came to get gain a better model for how I could direct my neurons differently.  Both these models offer ways to change thinking to change feeling.  They focus on changing the cognitive cause to alter the emotional effect.  So if you’re regularly anxious for no real reason, you can change that by exercising your mind differently.  In essence, they involve shifting fear to love;  irrational distortions to rational truths.     

I took these theories to heart and began practicing them throughout my thirties.  Just like any muscle in your body, the mind muscles take awhile to get in shape.  But with persistence and patience, those synaptic connections can be changed.  So when my default setting of worrying for no reason would creep in, I became more accustomed to returning to love, pushing away panic, breathing in peace, making clear and healthier decisions.  So far, so good.

But then something even better happened.

Around the time I turned 40, I was listening to a talk Jacob Glass had given in California.  In his speech he asked the question, “How good can you let things get? How good can you feel before you set limits?  How long can you feel joy before you hit your glass ceiling?”   Something about these questions resonated in my central nervous system.

It was during that summer in 2011 that I began taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a daily pill to prevent HIV.  Although it reduces the risk of getting HIV down to nearly zero, I still couldn’t trust it.  For one, it was new protocol that had not yet been FDA approved.  For another the idea of using a pill instead of condoms was just so foreign to me.  It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it seemed too good to be true.  Was it really possible to be in complete control of my HIV negative status?  Could I really have sex without fear for the first time in my adult life?

As discussed in Lesson 50, I struggled with this.  I simply could not decouple sexual pleasure with from catastrophic fear.  Until a year later when Jacob’s question came back to me, “How good can you let things get?”  I realized I was doing it again — the catastrophizing, the worrying, the synaptic stressing.  There was nothing to be worried about. I didn’t have to place limitations on my joy. 

I started feeling good about using PrEP, really good.  The better I felt, the better sex I was having.  The better sex I was having the more empowered I felt. The more empowered I felt, the more I started talking to people about my decision to use PrEP.  The more I talked about it, the more I was asked to talk more about it.  And that’s when the media attention came, that’s when the speaking gigs happened.  I let sex feel good.  I let life feel good.  I let Damon feel good.  I trusted joy.  No more limitations.  No more glass ceilings.  I became more like the ecstatic boy watching motorbikes than the terrified man checking for monsters under the bed.  

In my therapy work I started regularly asking clients, “How good can you let things get?  How much joy can you stand?”  One of my clients recently took this to heart, and came up with the term “joyfulizing” instead of “catastrophizing.”  I embraced this word and have been using it regularly as well.  

Joyfulizing means that instead of using our minds to focus on everything that can go wrong, we concentrate on all the things that can go right.   That we start the day anticipating joy instead of suffering.  That we face hardships, setbacks, rejections, and challenges, from a position of resilience, endurance, and an abiding determination to thrive.   This is the very antithesis of how American Psychology expects us to think;  the dialectical opposite of how profit-based health industries want us to feel.  

At fifty years old, I can honestly say I’ve suffered enough.  I'm done.  I’m not going to be complacent with the systems that want me to think about what can go wrong for myself and for others.  I’ve worried enough about things I can't control, I’ve lost enough sleep fearing boogeymen, I’ve had too many arguments with people in my head.  If there’s karma to live out, I’ve lived it.  If there’s a price to pay, I’ve paid it.  Sorry DSM, I quit you. 

Now my neurons more consistently focus on the things that can go well.  There's still a part of my brain that defaults to what may focus on what can go wrong, ("you'll be tired, you'll be late, you won't be a good therapist today...") but I'm much more adept now at turning that around to, "This is really going to be a great day. And if it's not, I trust that I know how to take care of problems."  

How good can you let things get?  When have you suffered enough?  When do you decide to transcend pathology-based paradigms and break your glass ceiling on feeling joy, purpose, and fun?  The older we get the more we have an opportunity to create our own narratives on having healthy work and play.  Let's do this!

 Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707 

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