Monday, April 10, 2020

Really? Is That True?

We're all well acquainted with financial inflation: a fall in the value of money over time. But there's another type of inflation that's far less understood, much more common and infinitely more harmful. It's verbal inflation: people's tendency to use speech that exaggerates the size—or impact, frequency, or emotional nature—of situations and events, making them far sound worse than they are. And it's another situation where slowing down usually provides the answer.

I don't mean boasting or deliberately embellishing something to make it more dramatic or interesting. I want to draw attention to the casual, unconscious way many people exaggerate, especially when they're emotional. This kind of overstatement may not appear to be a serious issue. That's not the case. A habitual tendency to overestimate difficulties—to get problems and failures out of proportion—causes many people to fall short of fulfilling their potential.

You're tired at the end of a long day. Someone in another department promised to send you a piece of critical information—then either forgot or couldn't get around to it. Now they've gone home, no one else knows how to get the data you need, and you're stuck. "They're always doing this," you say. "I can never get the information I need from people in that ******* department. It's typical of all of them. I'm totally devastated by this!"

Of course, what you said isn't literally true. Maybe this is the first time that person has let you down. Maybe it's happened before with others from that department, but certainly not every time, with every person. In your anger and frustration, you've exaggerated the situation from a specific, short-term headache (probably with a definite, understandable cause) into a universal, regular, critical problem with all of them. And are you totally devastated? Well, you're angry and frustrated, certainly, but hardly more than that.

Here's another example. Your boss asks you to make a presentation to a key group of top executives. It's to be about your area of expertise and you're the person who knows most about the issues. You're extremely nervous about the idea. You've never done anything like that before and don't feel you want to cope with it now. "No," you say. "I just can't do that. I'm useless at giving presentations and the top brass always terrify me. I know I'll screw it up. Get someone else to do it."

Verbal inflation again. Maybe you aren't skilled at preparing and delivering presentations. Maybe you haven't done it before; and you're nervous about standing up in front of a group of senior managers—almost everyone feels like that. But you've turned another specific, curable problem (you maybe need help, some presentation skills training and a little coaching) into a universal statement—and one that's no longer about the situation (you're not skilled at presentations, nervous, but can get better with help), but about you (you've defined yourself as useless at presenting to senior people—and suggested you always will be).

Why is such casual and apparently harmless exaggeration so detrimental?

Firstly, other people generally believe what you tell them about yourself, if you do it loudly or often enough. "I don't really know much about her other skills, but she's a total klutz with any kind of presentation. She told me that herself." Like monetary inflation, verbal inflation devalues the currency of communication. It spreads falsehoods about you and undermines your credibility in your own eyes as well as other people's. You may believe everyone always understands you don't really mean what you're saying. They don't. That's another exaggeration.

The second reason is even more dangerous. By casually thinking and speaking in such terms, you're unconsciously setting limits on yourself. The unconscious part of your mind acts on what it hears you saying. You told it you're useless. It believes you, so it'll cause you to act on that belief. "I know I can't learn how to do better. I'm simply useless." If that's what you believe about yourself, there's no point in trying.

And if that isn't bad enough, careless verbal inflation magnifies your emotional responses to the point where you're wasting your life responding to imaginary crises. Remember my first example? The colleague who failed to give you the data you needed? How you were totally devastated by what she did?

All that evening at home, you're going over and over the maddening situation in your mind. "That ****** woman! She knew I needed that data. She's always like that: careless and selfish. Everyone in that department's the same. I'll bet she did it on purpose. You wait till I get to her. I'll show her! She won't do that kind of thing to me ever again." Round and round you go. Anger spoils your evening, ruins your digestion and keeps you up half the night. Each time you repeat the exaggerated picture of the situation to yourself, it seems worse. Now it's not an annoying delay, it's a personal attack on you that threatens your career. You're even more angry—maybe approaching being at least partially devastated.

What's making you angry? You are; nobody and nothing else. The problem is irritating, sure, but you're furious because you've changed it from a specific issue into a massive, long-term threat—simply by your overblown way of talking about it to yourself (and anyone else who doesn't manage to run away fast enough). Every time your emotions begin to calm down, you stir them up again. They're getting stronger and stronger. She hasn't made you so mad, you've done that on your own.

If only you'd slow down and take a few moments to see what's real. You didn't get the data, so something you needed to do wasn't done. Okay, that's it. In a couple of days you'll probably have forgotten about it—unless, as many people do, you keep stoking the emotional fires by going over and over the problem in your mind.

Hundreds of thousands of people suffer physical and mental pain—even cause themselves major health, psychological and relationship problems—because they exaggerate a specific issue into some life-threatening, universal crisis—then can't or won't let it go. Whenever their emotions start to wane, they stir them back into life by re-running all the hurt and anguish, like some horror movie they're watching for the hundredth time. Who's causing their misery. They are. Who's ruining their lives? Right again. They're doing it to themselves.

Suppose you told yourself something like this: "It's a pain about that data. There's nothing more I can do tonight. I'll find out the problem in the morning. It may be something simple. If it isn't, I guess I'll worry about that when it happens."

You go home, have a pleasant evening, a good meal and sleep soundly. Next day, you talk to the person who caused you the problem. Maybe she forgot (people do). Maybe her child got sick and she had to rush home before she could sort out the data you wanted. Maybe she does hate you and enjoy seeing you thwarted (unlikely, but possible). Whatever the cause of the problem, you can now respond accordingly. Wouldn't that beat tearing into the office and chewing her out in front of everyone—only to find the data was on your desk the whole time but you missed seeing it?

When things go wrong—or you're asked to do something you're not skilled or comfortable doing—here's what to do instead:
  1. Slow down.
  2. Avoid describing the situation in an exaggerated way (even inside your head).
  3. Let your emotions settle.
  4. Look at it squarely and realistically.
"Oh, I'm a bit nervous about making such an important presentation. I haven't much experience doing that." That allows people to help you and avoids implying you're a congenital idiot in an important aspect of communicating. "Rats! I really needed that information. I guess I feel mad about it. Still, nothing more I can do. I'll sort it out tomorrow."

People under pressure are the most prone to verbal inflation because their emotions are already primed for a hair-trigger response. By allowing themselves to get carried away, they add to the pressures and rarely solve the original issue. It's another situation where slow is better than fast or instant. Slow allows you to see the reality, not just the exaggerated version produced by your emotions.

The next time you hear yourself say—aloud or in your head—"That's always happening!" or "I could never learn to do that!" or "I'm absolutely furious!" call an immediate halt. I very much doubt any such statement is literally true. Stop, breathe, and let it all go. If you're very worked up, take a walk until you can see things in perspective again. Focus on the reality, not the exaggeration. Don't make the worst come true by creating an emotional, self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Photopoppy said...

Not to mention, frequently exaggerating situations gets noticed by people around you. If you've gone off about how critical that data was and how damaging it is not to have it around colleagues, it affects them and their ability to work effectively. After a reputation has been made, people may avoid bringing you critical information or leave you out of critical conversations because they don't want to have to deal with the tendency to over-react.

1:28 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Photopoppy.

That's a great comment. People are often wary of dealing with anyone who has established a reputation for sounding off emotionally and over-reacting.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous said...

The article is all very true, but the people I know who tend to do this are exactly the people who don't know how to let their emotions settle. This advice is rather like telling a depressed person to cheer up.

12:31 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I think almost everyone knows how how let their emotions settle; they don't do it because they don't want to--because they're getting a "reward" by keeping those emotions stirred up.

It's also true there are people whose condition is beyond their control, but they're the exception. For the vast majority of people, habit, a sense of self-importance and a belief it's the right thing to do keep them stirring the emotional pot.

Even the word "depressed" has become subject to inflation. For every person who is clinically depressed (a terrible affliction), there are tens of thousands who do need to be shown how to cheer up. That's my point. Things usually aren't as bad as we make them sound.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous said...

Agreed. Further, it is often the exaggeration/catastophization which speeds the descent into depression.

9:20 AM  
zoneblog1 said...

Many people really don't have a clue as to how their behaviour affects others, and would resent you even mentioning it to them. We live in a severely disfunctional world, and most folks just don't care what others think anymore. Customer service sucks, fast food quality has degenerated, the right-of-way goes to the pedestrian only at risk of life & limb, and people of all ages are rude and belligerent in public. No one realy cares anyway at work...If I missed three days (at most places I've worked) my home phone would still never ring. Of course that works both ways.? To have a friend, you have to be one? The real value of what was originally said above has to do with personal growth, and makes one part of the solution, rather than the problem.

12:53 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Anon. You're right.

4:16 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks too, Zoneblog1.

Sometimes the world does look very bleak, but I try to hang on to a more optimistic view of the potential of human nature.

10:04 PM  
Erik Rydeman said...

Great article! Obsessing over situations is truly not very Zen.

Zoneblog1: Your comment begs the question:
"Really? Is that true?". ;)

9:21 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

If we could only reduce the amount of obsession in the world, the results would be little short of miraculous.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:28 PM  

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