In fact, I exaggerate from fear that you won’t believe me, and if you don’t believe me, I won’t get my way.

Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián sets the scene; “exaggeration is a branch of lying, that wastes distinction and testifies to the paucity of your understanding and taste”.

We have all done it. Why?

When experiencing the fear of not winning, belonging or being believed, we’re prone to exaggeration. Exaggeration includes the use of hyperbole, superlatives, catastrophising, and its most toxic form, gaslighting. More about these shortly.

I exaggerate when believing that an honest statement of facts will not convince others and compromise my desired outcome. In his article Exaggeration Fuels Conflict Michael Karson notes, “One reason we exaggerate (“you never think of me”; “you always leave the lights on”) is because an accurate statement fails to elicit the response we think is appropriate to the occasion. ... Another reason we exaggerate is because we don't believe the righteousness of our own cause.” Karson adds, “often, we are too quick to assume that other parties are too unreasonable to be empathized with and characterized in ways they will agree with.”

Karson is highlighting that our propensity for exaggeration is often based on an assumption that ‘they are wrong’ or ‘won’t get it’, and consequently, I need to exaggerate to be convincing and get my way.

We catastrophise when viewing or presenting a situation as considerably worse than it actually is. “If I fail this test, I will never pass school, and I will be a total failure in life.” We also catastrophise in the hope of convincing others of the severity of our concern so they agree and take our anxiety away, or, to immunise ourselves from full accountability of something. If the conditions around me are so catastrophic, I cannot possibly be expected to deliver quality on time, or be expected to reconcile with another in a conflict situation.

When someone really wants another to be wrong and get them into big trouble, they may resort to the worst state of exaggeration, gaslighting. Gaslighting is described as a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.

If I say it with enough conviction, it is so. If I say it loud enough, they will believe me. If I threaten you, you will comply. Gaslighting is destructive to people and organisations, often irreparably. And, we often don’t consider that gaslighting is not only of others. What about gaslighting-of-self? Think of your self-depreciating beliefs and imposter syndrome.

Let us be cautious of publicly displaying our frustration with a company or person we believe has disenfranchised us. My knee-jerk today, can leave costly damage to the reputations and wellbeing of others way beyond tomorrow. I may get over it; those I’ve gaslighted may not.

Before tweeting that tweet, or defaming a neighbour on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, or telling your boss about an underperforming colleague without ever having engaged with that colleague, think about the possible consequences. As much as I can’t un-say things, recipients can’t un-hear what I say either.

As exaggeration is prone to creating misinformation, drama and crazy making, how do we avoid it and the destruction it can cause?

Tell the truth. Be authentic.


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