When clients come to me upset or stressed, I often suggest they scale their problems. This simple mental exercise can yield great results. Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back, evaluate a problem, and decide how bad it really is—especially in a heightened emotional state.
Let’s say you’ve gotten in a fight with a family member. A range of emotions could be swarming your body: anger, betrayal, defensiveness, and guilt to name just a few. It may sound silly, but imagine yourself taking the temperature of the fight. Temporarily taking a step back from your emotions and putting them on a scale allows you to truly evaluate this temperature. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being a warm bath and 10 being a scorching fire, how bad was the fight? Did the family member say something to upset you? Probably. If so, did they mean it? Maybe. Do you think this incident will sever the relationship? Most likely not. Our emotions tend to skyrocket far past what the situation calls for. When we take a moment to scale the situation, it becomes clear that the majority of everyday problems are tolerable.
People have a tendency to emote at an 8, 9, or 10 when in reality the problem is usually a 3 or 4. Sometimes, a little math can help put things in perspective. Say someone’s emotions are at an 8 because they received a bad grade on a paper; if they’re able to get a bit of distance, they’ll see the problem is closer to a 3. This is a differential of 5, so in this case, the emotion is not consistent with reality.
The ability to put our problems into a relative perspective is a great way to cope and build resilience. I often ask clients to tell me a problem worse than the one they are currently experiencing. For example, John just got fired from a job he had for ten years. His current state of emotion is high and, quite frankly, he cannot imagine anything worse than getting fired. However, I ask him to tell me something worse. This forces him to put the situation into perspective: he is healthy and smart and will most likely get another job. A diagnosis of cancer or another life-threatening illness would be far worse than getting fired. Putting his emotions into relative perspective helps John realize that losing his job is a legitimate problem, but a small one in the grand scheme of things.
So why do people feel the need to exaggerate their emotions? In my experience, I have found that humans crave significance in order to feel they are taken seriously. The more dramatic something is, the more likely it is to be attended to. The person in the room throwing a temper tantrum or crying will usually attract more attention than the person at a mild emotional state. We have a conscious and subconscious need to feel significance, and the more negative or extreme we act, the more attention we get. Just like reality television, drama draws a crowd.
However, this is not the case for everyone. Having a high level of emotion doesn’t destine you for a role on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. If every aspect of life is going well, it’s difficult to properly scale a problem when it arises. If a person’s relationships, career, and health are great, then the traffic jam can feel like a significant problem. When life is smooth, a minor problem will feel like an 8 or 9. In that case, we need to keep the traffic jam at a 2 where it belongs.
Consider this: Are you putting your problems in perspective? If not, try scaling them to keep your emotions in check.