From Exaggeration to Equilibrium: Change Your Words, Change Your World
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Keep it positive and small and life becomes enjoyable again
Last week a lady visited me for a coaching session. She had an excellent job, but by her own admission, she was disgusted with many of her colleagues. That one colleague was extremely annoying, and another was insanely incompetent. In her experience, the department she recently started leading was a hurricane of misery. For that reason, her entire existence was wavering, as this was unbearable for her.
She didn’t need many words for me to understand what her biggest problem was at the moment. If you reread the previous paragraph, you will probably immediately recognize her biggest problem too.
She uses words like:
- extremely annoying
- insanely incompetent
- a hurricane of misery
- her entire existence wavering
This is a cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing or exaggeration. This mental distortion blows things out of proportion, making them larger than they are. For example, if it’s drizzling, someone with this cognitive distortion would say it’s pouring rain.
How exacerbating can become a problem
Catastrophizing or exaggerating may seem harmless, but it can have far-reaching consequences. This was the case with this lady who was clearly on the verge of burnout. If this intense language becomes your standard language, you will actually experience small things as intensely as your language suggests, and that can cause a lot of stress.
After the session, it turned out that she didn’t actually ‘disgust’ her colleagues and found each individual nice and sympathetic. The ‘annoying colleague’ was late once, causing the whole team to wait for him. That can happen to anyone, especially in his case because he had to rush his son to the doctor.
That insanely incompetent colleague had accidentally made one small calculation error in a quote that still needed to be reviewed, and as it turned out, that hurricane of misery was not that bad.
Our language influences our inner reality
When the lady could look again at what was actually happening in the department and could assign ‘healthier’ meanings to it, the stress level also decreased to almost zero. It’s incredibly easy to distort our inner reality through language.
We, humans, cannot understand something if we don’t associate a word or image with it. So when we see a calculation error in a quote, we need at least the word ‘calculation error’ and the image of a ‘quote’ to understand what we are seeing.
Now it makes a huge difference whether we call this a small calculation error, a calculation error, a blunder, a ‘drama’, or worse, incompetence. The quote, it turned out, was 5,000 euros, and because of the calculation error, it should have been 5,025 euros. So it was about 25 euros in the amount of 5,000 euros. Personally, I would choose to call this a small calculation error. But if I label it as incompetence, I would also get stressed. I would then see in my inner reality an image of someone who ruins and messes up everything.
Language has a tremendous influence on how we feel
By adjusting our language to name what something is, or to use positive language, you can immediately notice a difference in how you feel. Your feeling largely depends on the meaning you give to something and the image you have with it.
But language also has a significant influence on team dynamics. The lady who had made the small calculation error, for example, started to doubt herself when she was called incompetent.
By dealing more consciously with language and the meanings we assign to situations or objects, we can exert a lot of positive influence on our own feelings and those of others.
How do you get rid of catastrophizing?
Most people don’t really need therapy to stop catastrophizing or exaggerating. Usually, it’s enough to write down a list of words that you often use to exaggerate something and practice not using those words anymore.
Commonly used words are: Terrible, horrific, enormous, incredibly, ridiculously, overwhelmingly, drastically, astonishingly, extraordinarily, massive, exceptionally, tremendously, outrageously, phenomenally, unbelievably, monstrously, significantly, astronomically, colossally, insurmountable, unbearable, unimaginable, intolerable.
Maybe there are words that you also use a lot. You might also have a more metaphorical way of exaggerating. Then you might say things like:
- It’s raining cats and dogs (It’s raining heavily)
- It costs an arm and a leg (It’s very expensive)
- Scared to death (Very scared)
- I’m dead tired (I’m very tired)
- Cry me a river (Overreacting to a situation)
- It’s a piece of cake (It’s very easy)
- I’m so hungry I could eat a horse (I’m very hungry)
- Over the moon (Extremely happy or pleased)
- I’ve told you a million times (I’ve told you many times)
- He’s as slow as a snail (He’s very slow)
In short, try to make a list of the words that you use a lot when you suffer from catastrophizing and if you can’t come up with them yourself, ask your surroundings for help. Usually, after two weeks of practice, you can develop a much healthier vocabulary.