• Ask a Therapist: On Magnification and Minimization

    Q: Sometimes I feel like I have overreactions (or underreactions) to things and I’m not sure how to help myself “right-size” my thinking and responses.  Can you help?

    A: Disproportionate reactions can come in many forms including magnification and minimization.  Typically, when your reaction seems like it is not fitting – either too big or too small to suit the situation – it can make you feel stuck in a negative processing loop. Ideally, the goal is to right-size or respond in a way that is proportionate to the circumstance but there are lots of reasons why that may be difficult for you to do.

    One of the most common ways that people struggle with this distorted pattern of thinking is to magnify the negative and minimize the positive.  We all know how easily we can hang on to criticisms or negative comments as compared to compliments or positive feedback. Unfortunately, there is a way that our brains tend to amplify the former and downplay the latter which creates an imbalanced emotional response. In this case, it is important to remind ourselves what is true and come back to a more accurate and reasonable interpretation of the events or comments of others.

    The converse can also happen and it is equally problematic from a mental health standpoint because it is similarly unbalanced.  In this case, painful experiences or hurts are dismissed, ignored, or reframed too quickly in order to amplify the positive and often to avoid feeling hard feelings. In some situations this might be referred to as toxic positivity because, in an effort to magnify the “good” in a situation, you are inadvertently dismissing the experience of feelings of grief or anger that are necessary to a healing pathway.

    When people minimize their own sorrow or that of others it can send the message that they either shouldn’t care or have distressing feelings or, if they do, they should repress them in order to move on. The problem with this approach is that it overlooks the important information that our deep feelings are giving us about our pathway to health in that situation.  While working with hard feelings is, of course, hard, it is also necessary in our human experience and essential to our overall well being.  If we dismiss or minimize negative feelings in an attempt to simply “get over it”, we will find them coming up in other ways in our bodies and responses to others.

    In general, it is important to consider what it means to “right-size” our responses and reactions so that they are handled appropriately and with compassion.  One simple tip for how to gauge whether or not you are responding proportionately is to use a rating scale.  If a situation calls for a level 2 response but you are reacting at a level 10, or, conversely, if a situation warrants a level 10 response and you are responding at a level 2, you likely have some work to do with your cognitive patterns and your emotional regulation.

    If you are noticing that you have dismissed your pain or that you are reacting with increased anger to situations that don’t warrant it (those two things may even be related), it might be time to seek the help of a therapist who can help you process your experiences and find tools that will lead to a more balanced way of engaging with your life.

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