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Hunting the CatEx

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 64 - May 2001

Let me begin with a cautionary folk tale from Central Europe. A wealthy farmer, his wife, their daughter and her suitor are sitting at dinner, when they run out of wine. "Daughter, go and fetch some of our best wine," says the father. The girl grabs a jug, goes to the cellar all starry-eyed – there's a proposal in the air – and starts to draw wine from the barrel. Then she notices a sharp hatchet hanging overhead, and her heart sinks. "When we're married, we'll have a little boy," she tells herself, "and one day my husband will send him here to fetch some wine, and the hatchet will fall off the wall and kill him" – and she bursts into tears and sobs her heart out, while the jug is overflowing. Upstairs the father gets impatient and sends his wife to fetch the girl and the drink. But when the wife hears why her daughter, ankle-deep in their best wine, is sobbing, she, too, begins to cry bitterly. Finally the farmer and the suitor descend to the cellar, by now awash with wine, and when the young man hears why the women are sobbing, he is so appalled that he flees, never to return.

Daughter and mother were the victims of CatEx, the brief form of catastrophic expectation, a self-sabotaging attitude which unfortunately is not limited to the anti-heroes of folktales. In fact, I regularly come across it among some of my clients, who cause themselves much anxiety and distress by expecting the worst of all possible scenarios. CatEx is equally powerful in both trivial and important situations. The woman who recently sat next to me in a restaurant, ordered an omelette and said, "I bet it's going to be awful", is a good example of the trivial. But if someone goes to a job interview expecting to be rejected, or embarks on a course of treatment for a serious condition expecting it to fail, CatEx becomes a dangerous enemy, holding the key to all negative self-fulfilling prophecies.

Its mechanism is simple, if not immediately obvious. We tend to overestimate verbal communication to such an extent that we don't notice the many non-verbal signals and messages that we send out all the time through body language, tone of voice, and so-called accidental acts and omissions, attracting the very thing we dread. It's as if each of us were a two-way radio station, transmitting and receiving at an unconscious non-verbal level; and if the basic message is of the CatEx variety, the response is certain to be negative.

Exploring the roots of this self-destructive mindset in some clients, I find that – not surprisingly – they go back a very long way, normally into an early childhood that was blighted by a heavy, brooding home atmosphere, with a depressed or missing parent; or else the small child experienced some disappointment which it could not handle. In any even, the net result was a loss of trust and an all-pervading sense that the world is a dangerous, unsafe place where things tend to go very wrong, and there's nothing one can do about it. Sadly, this conclusion, correctly reached by a small child, can remain alive and well and fully active many years later in the adult who still reacts to certain situations with the anxious, helpless pessimism of long ago.

In one of those minimalist Zen stories that sum up vast truths in very few words, the desperate seeker asks the Wise Man, "Master, how do I find liberation?" "Who is binding you?" comes the answer. In non-Zen terms, once the origin of the client's CatEx is understood, there is only one question to ask: what is the difference between then and now, between the small, powerless child who had to view life through the dismal glasses of an unhappy family, and the autonomous, intelligent adult who is free to find another truer perspective.

The difference is that now there is a choice which wasn't there long ago; what is needed is a clean cut between past and present, so that in due course CatEx fades and makes room for a realistic, accurate assessment of facts and situations, no longer based on fearful assumptions.

The process is not quick. It needs patience and vigilance, especially under stress. No one is immune to the occasional lapse, which has its uses, by preventing us from falling into a state of mindless, unrealistic optimism.

I believe that the power of negative assumptions and blighting CatEx is only finally broken when we manage to raise the problem to a higher level, beyond the ego. In transpersonal psychology, that level – the spiritual dimension built into everyday life – offers us an overview that leads us beyond the purely personal, and once we reach that stage, we are able to trust – not anyone in particular, not even ourselves, but the process of life itself, the incredible, beautiful order of the cosmos of which we are an inseparable tiny part.

Once we've caught a whiff of that trust (oh no, at first it's not a permanent condition), CatEx loses its power. What is, is, and we deal with it as best we can. And, with a bow towards the Zen master, we can calmly state that no one is binding us any more.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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