From time to time we’re all a little guilty of embellishing a story. But sometimes, when we’re unhappy or stressed, there’s a tendency to magnify the negative aspects and discount the positive. It’s possible to get trapped in this mode of thought and it can be difficult to move forward. Here are some examples of exaggerated thinking styles and some possible alternatives.
Have you ever found yourself using words like ‘disastrous’, ‘devastated’, ‘ruined’, ‘impossible’, to describe either the way you feel or situations you’re involved in? If so you may be using language to exaggerate situations; a process called catastrophising. Listening to the way people use language is an important way of detecting how they are coping with issues in their life such as rejection, work pressures, failure and the like. So while the use of ‘catastrophic’ language can say something to others about the level of anxiety a person feels, it can also be an important way to self-monitor our own anxieties and do something about it.
We may not always be able to change the situations we find ourselves in but we can make adjustments to the ways we perceive them simply by making a more conscious effort to modify the language we use. Will it really be ‘a disaster’ if something isn’t done on time, or will it be a nuisance? Do you really find something ‘impossible’ to do, or might it be useful to ask for a little help to solve the problem? If you feel under pressure, anxious or depressed, try listening to the language you’re using. If it does have a ‘catastrophic’ edge try fine-tuning it to a point where the words and the outcomes are less dramatic. You’ll experience less stress and see more options for solutions.
Another example of exaggeration is over-generalization. Here we leak our thinking style through the use of sweeping negative statements that often have little if any basis in evidence. For example, can someone really ‘always’ be wrong? Can they ‘never’ say or do the right thing? If something bad happens once does it really mean you should give up trying because all future attempts are bound to result in failure? If this were true a huge proportion of the population would never find a partner, or pass their driving test, or give up smoking, or ride a bike. So many things in life require some trial and error and a development of skills before we can feel a little comfortable with them. Over generalizing can say something about our anxiety for trying things again. It’s a negative thought process that blocks forward movement.
In many ways my last example stems from the previous two. This is a process called labeling where we reach conclusions about ourselves and choose to ignore alternatives. Unfortunately we’re as prone to labeling others as we are to ourselves. So if we start to think of ourselves as ‘useless’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘a loser’, we’re effectively painting ourselves into a corner and ignoring alternative options. Labeling is a form of stereotyping and we all know how clunky and inaccurate this is. You know the sort of thing, ‘all rich people are . . .’ ‘all drug users are . . .’ Life is far too rich and complex for such negative labels, so if you find yourself thinking such self-limiting thoughts it’s time to step back and consider the broader picture.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.