Exaggeration: why we make a mountain out of a molehill

Reading time: 5 minutes

In French, we have an expression to describe a situation where someone makes too much of a minor issue: “C’est une tempête dans un verre d’eau.” It’s a storm in a glass of water. Funnily enough, British people talk about a storm in a teacup, and American people talk about a tempest in a teapot. Dutch people say: “Van een mug een olifant maken.” Turning a mosquito into an elephant. In Turkish: “Pireyi deve yapmak.” Making a camel out of a flea. It’s fair to say exaggeration is pretty universal. But why?

The many faces of exaggeration

Overreacting, catastrophizing, magnificating, maximizing, overplaying, overblowing… We have many words for exaggeration. However, all forms of exaggeration mostly fall under three categories.

The three main causes of exaggeration
  • Cognitive distortions. These unconscious mental processes cause people to perceive reality inaccurately. Distorted thinking patterns can lead to overestimation (exaggerating the likelihood of an event) or catastrophizing (exaggerating the importance of an event). While most people experience cognitive distortions, exaggeration as a form of cognitive distortion is most common in emotionally-charged situations, where it may help cope with anxiety by giving the individual an inflated sense of control. For instance: “I was always top of my class in literature, I don’t need to prepare for this writing competition” (overestimation) or “Everyone thought my presentation was terrible, I will never gain the respect of my teammates, and I will never get a promotion” (catastrophizing).
  • Manipulation. Exaggeration can also be a more conscious process. At a young age, children start amplifying achievements and obstacles in order to seek attention. “Exaggerating what one feels by magnifying the emotional expression: this is the ploy used by the six-year-old who dramatically twists her face into a pathetic frown, lips quivering, as she runs to complain to her mother about being teased,” writes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Other forms of manipulation such as bragging and boasting are common at all ages to seek attention. When used to “manipulate” someone, exaggeration is not necessarily intended to hurt the other party. For instance, many friends use flattery and inflated praise among themselves as a form of bonding, and adults tend to praise children to increase their self-esteem (which may backfire but is rarely done with bad intentions).
  • Pathology. Finally, exaggeration can be caused by mental disorders and pathologies. Exaggerated all-or-nothing thinking is extremely common in depression. Narcissists display a grandiose sense of self-importance. And catastrophizing is associated with paranoid behaviour.

While the pathological forms of exaggeration require professional support to regulate, exaggeration caused by cognitive distortions or manipulative behaviours can be managed with a conscious effort.

How to spot and stop exaggerating

Exaggeration is such a natural behaviour, it can be hard to catch yourself or others doing it. While most exaggeration doesn’t lead to bad outcomes, it’s good practice to try and be more aware of it and to consciously try to make our statements as objective as possible. Here are five ways you can spot and manage exaggeration.

  1. Be careful with adverbs and qualifiers. Whenever you hear yourself or someone else say “incredibly” or “the best” or similar qualifiers, ask yourself: do these add value to the statement? Are they a true reflection of reality? It’s much harder to exaggerate when forcing ourselves to cut the fluff.
  2. Consider more realistic synonyms. Are you “starving” or just “hungry”? Are you “exhausted” or just tired? Is the challenge you are facing “impossible” or just “difficult”? Swapping words can make your statements closer to reality. Added bonus: when you do think a task is impossible, people will tend to take your warning more seriously.
  3. Be comfortable with vulnerability. It’s okay to admit we don’t know, or to say we don’t have anything of value to add to a conversation. Instead of trying to impress your interlocutor, focus on building an authentic connection. This will create a virtuous circle by avoiding a ping-pong game of exaggeration, where each person tries to top what the other said.
  4. Correct yourself. Even if you make a conscious effort to not exaggerate, you will sometimes catch yourself embellishing a story or bragging about an accomplishment. This Redditor gives a good example: “That book was so amazing I read it in two days… No, actually, it took more like two weeks, but I was so immersed and enjoyed it so much, the time flew by.”
  5. Ponder why you exaggerated. Even if you sometimes exaggerate, it’s good practice to reflect on the reason why you did it. Maybe you exaggerated your skill levels with your boss because of a lack of self-esteem, or you gave inflated praise to a friend to make them feel better.

Self-reflection is not about shame or guilt: don’t be judgemental, just kindly consider the reasons behind your reaction. Sometimes, you will realise it was one of the rare times exaggeration may have been helpful. Either way, it will make it easier to manage in the future.

P.S. There are many ways to describe someone turning a minor issue into a much bigger one across cultures. See this Twitter thread for a collection of amazing local expressions.

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