Home Mind & Brain How to Stop “Musterbating”, “Shoulderbating”, and Catastrophising

How to Stop “Musterbating”, “Shoulderbating”, and Catastrophising

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“Musterbating” is the process of people telling themselves that they must do this or that. “Shoulderbating” is when people tell themselves that they should do this or that. Catastrophising is the process of mentally turning an event, real or imagined, into a catastrophe. Too many people “shoulerbate” catastrophise and “musterbate”. It literally drives them crazy. 

What do those terms really mean, in practice? Why do people do it to themselves? What happens when they get a grip of you? How do they become a habit? How can you stop them? Even better, how can you replace them with mental habits that help you? What are the thoughts that are better for our mental welfare?

If your inner voice has become a relentless task master, imposing never ending obligations on you, your wellbeing is almost certainly being harmed. 

What starts out, usually in childhood, for most people, as reasonable demands made on us all by parents, teachers, and wider society, can be internalised and amplified to the point of self-imposed toxicity.

“Musterbating”, “shoulderbating”, and catastrophising are distorted versions of what were initially empowering and helpful thinking patterns. 

To illustrate: It is helpful to drink enough water to remain hydrated and eat healthily. It is less so when a person “must” drink a certain type of water, “must” drink that water at a fixed time, and “must” drink the water in a specific glass. 

When a person gets anxious, stressed, obsessive, or depressed if or when their “must” cannot be fulfilled, that is “musterbation”. 

Slightly less serious but still damaging is “shoulderbation”. When a person feels they ‘should’ do this, ‘should’ think that, or ‘should’ feel the next thing, they put themselves under undue and unpleasant pressure.

Humans seem to be the creatures best able to plan for the future. Doing so requires us to imagine all sorts of scenarios and how they might play out. It is reasonable, and empowering to anticipate problems that could impede our plans and aspirations, and then decide how to either remove or mitigate those obstacles. Scenario anticipation is an essential skill. 

When it goes too far, when the worst possible cases are anticipated, and, as a matter of course, when every situation is viewed as a disaster in the making, that is catastrophising. 

Why do people musterbate, shoulerbate, and catastrophise?

People only engage in any behaviour long-term if it is rewarded in some way, internally or externally. What could be the reward for musterbation, shoulderbation, and catastrophising? 

They give the illusion of being in control, and looking after one’s own best interests. Catastrophising gives the added illusion of self-protection. 

As with most delusional states, they have a foundation in truth. Hoarders, for example, feel the need to keep vast stocks of their chosen hoarded items, to deal with the risk of things going wrong. Their hoarding gives them a sense of being in control. 

Of course, there is a point at which the hoarding is the thing that is going wrong: the person cannot live a normal, happy life because their delusion controls them. 

The same is the case with musterbation, shoulderbation, and catastrophising; there is a point where the illusion of control becomes delusional, and the delusions of control take control. 

As those delusions (unknowingly) backfire, they create more and more stress; they become habits that harm; they hinder the ability to adapt, to be flexible, and to cope with life’s inevitable challenges.

When catastrophising, shoulderbating, and musterbating, become ingrained habits, they are extremely harmful to well-being in a multitude of ways. They can and do:

  • Create chronic stress and anxiety. The heightened state, the sense of pressure, the relentless “musts,” “shoulds”, and worst-case scenarios keep our stress hormones in overdrive, with all the physical harm we know that causes.
  • Lower self-esteem. When we constantly feel like we are not good enough, have not done enough, or have not anticipated every possible “go-wrong-scenario,” it chips away at our self-esteem and confidence.
  • Lead to decision paralysis. Expecting any and every decision to be the tipping point into disaster makes it nearly impossible to decide on anything. The constant fear of making the wrong choice is overwhelming, paralysing.
  • Block access to opportunities.  People who can foresee every possible disaster following from any course of action, but do not have sufficient risk mitigation awareness or skill, will see every opportunity as a threat, and avoid it. Some of the brightest people on the planet have, thus, have rendered themselves serial under-achievers.

Even worse, imagine how stressful it would be if a person had a sense that they should or must do this or that, and they also catastrophised that if they did this or that, it would lead to their doom. How much stress would that cause? Does it sound like a recipe for mental illness to you? It is!

How can you free yourself of musterbation, shoulderbation, and catastrophising?

  • One step at a time. To go from dysfunctional to empowering behaviour, it is best to choose one action at a time. Here are several of the steps known to be effective.
  • Challenge your thoughts. When you hear yourself using a “must” or “should”, question its basis in reality. Is what you are compelling yourself to do or not do, truly essential, or is it self-imposed pressure?
  • Remind yourself of choice. In reality, there is no “must” or “should”; there is only choice. If you drive a vehicle, you choose to stay below or at the speed limit because you choose to be safe or to avoid a needless penalty. You go to work because you choose to contribute to society, to earn a living, and help others with the money you earn.
  • Positive affirmations. Counter your self-imposed, self-harming obligations and negative self-talk with positive statements such as “I choose to…”
  • Focus on “could” and “want”. Some people will tell themselves, “I must go to the gym.” They could reframe it as “I could go to the gym if I have the energy,” or as, “I don’t have the energy for a workout today, I want to do gentle stretching and flexibility exercises, instead.”
  • Reality-check your catastrophising. Take each of your worst-case scenarios and write them on a piece of paper. Then ask yourself, “On a scale of 0–100, how likely is this to happen?” and “What are the most realistic outcomes?” If you want to go into more detail, you can ask: “What are the factors that would have to happen, and in what sequence, for the worst case to happen?” “How realistic is that sequence, on a scale of 0–100?”
  • Focus on self-acceptance. You have survived as you are until now, which means you are just fine as you are. We don’t need to be perfect to be valuable.
  • Choose self-compassion when things go wrong. You will make mistakes, which, of course, means that you have the opportunity to learn and improve. Accept that everyone makes mistakes, and be kind to yourself when things, inevitably, don’t go perfectly.
  • Be present in the present. If your mind is on yesterday or tomorrow, it is not where life happens – here and now, today. Yes, plan for the future. Yes, learn from the past. But don’t allow either to spoil your enjoyment of here and now.
  • Adopt an attitude of gratitude. If you are reading or listening to this, you are alive and motivated to learn about life, and you have access to electricity and an electronic device. We are living in the best time in human history, despite all its problems. Focusing on what is wonderful in your life and appreciating it, is a great way to overcome catastrophising, shoulderbating, and musterbating.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. Instead of seeing possible future challenges as onerous obligations or as potential catastrophic failures, view them as opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Visualisation.  Visualise and emotionally feel yourself living a life of balance, where your thoughts and habits help you rather than harm you. Feel what it is like to be free of self-imposed, onerous obligations.

Now that you have a handle on catastrophising, shoulderbating, and musterbating, what steps are you going to take, today, to free yourself from them and improve your well-being?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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