You are no doubt familiar with the saying ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. Just think how quickly we get worked up about small issues so that they soon seem like HUGE problems. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. In other words: Mountains can become molehills again. Today, I will explain to you why we consider some things do be much more important than they actually are when viewed objectively – and I will tell you how to put them in perspective.
So what exactly does the saying mean? If you search for a definition, you will find answers such as: Exaggerating a small matter and giving it more meaning than it actually deserves; portraying a trivial issue as being worse than it really is; dramatizing situations; or assigning undue importance to a matter, etc.
As a qualified historian (it was a long time ago…), I think that for once, I can allow myself to take a short historical detour: The saying “to make a mountain out of a molehill” has existed for a very long time. It dates back to Ancient Greece (8th-2nd century BC). The Romans used other comparisons to express the same idea – such as “The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse” (Horace, 65-8 BC) or “turning a stream into a mighty flood” (Ovid, 43 BC to 17 AD). In German, the saying is “to turn a mosquito into an elephant” – so these descriptions are always about expressing extreme contrasts.
So why do we do something that actually harms us? To understand this, you have to know how the human psyche works. We all have certain basic psychological needs – including the need for esteem, attention, respect, security, commitment, self-determination, control and justice. If one of these needs is not met, the memory of being psychologically wounded is stored up deep inside us. The smallest thing can then subconsciously remind us of the feeling we had at that time – a feeling of helplessness, pain, grief, anger, etc. As a result of that old wound, we give a current event that is really not all that serious a much greater importance than is actually the case – in other words: we make a mountain out of it.
How can we make that mountain shrink again? Let’s begin by considering one approach that definitely doesn’t work: If the person I am talking to wants to play down the matter and says: “It’s not so bad”, “don’t get worked up about something small” or something similar. These remarks only provoke even stronger emotions in us. We are offended and retreat into or vigorously defend ourselves – and thus enter a negative spiral.
Take the mountain seriously
The German psychoanalyst Ernst Hanisch recommends one thing: To take the mountain seriously. Try to identify the real problem behind your reaction by asking yourself: What am I afraid of? What is my anger pointing to? What does this situation remind me of? The most sustainable solution is to become aware of the wound so that it can heal, at least partially. Hillary Clinton once said: “Take criticism seriously – not personally.” She added that if there is something true or valuable about it, see it as an opportunity and learn from it and if not, don’t worry about it.
In an acute situation, it is helpful to be able to avoid rash reactions, e.g. by calmly counting to ten before answering or thinking of a pre-defined anti-fury word. Alternatively, you can take a step back and try to think about what the other person might actually meant – and ask the question without being motivated by anger. After all, if someone says A, you may interpret it to mean B or C because it reminds you of something or because you associate it with something that your counterpart did not mean at all. And remember: You don’t always have to respond when someone hurts you. Saying nothing is sometimes a more effective course of action than when you react strongly and use up even more energy.
What is the worst-case scenario?
It can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions if you have strong negative feeling, are worried or find something extremely stressful:
- What is the worst that could happen? And how likely is it that this worst-case scenario will actually materialize?
- What will the situation be like in a week or a year? Will it still be as difficult?
- What can I (not someone else) do to alter the situation? Or is it simply a case of accepting it because I can’t change it? This requires less energy than getting angry for nothing.
The well-known German doctor and comedian Eckart von Hirschhausen recommends that people should not focus too much attention on emotional “big events” (as he calls them) and should, instead, appreciate the many small moments of happiness that one experiences during the day. This is precisely what I want to achieve when I practice being grateful for all the good things in my life (see blog https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2017/02/28/how-i-visualize-gratitude/). Gratitude is a very simple and efficient means of directing one’s thoughts and thus achieving a shift from the negative to the positive. It means that we decide for ourselves whether a mountain will become a molehill again.
As a final point, I would like to share a few interesting quotes on the topic:
- “When you grumble, you turn a mosquito into an elephant.”
- “Things are never the way they are. They are always what you make of them.”
- “Nothing changes until you change yourself. And then everything changes.”
If you would like to discover more about this topic, I recommend the book “Ab heute kränkt mich niemand mehr – 101 Power Strategien, um Zurückweisung und Kritik nicht mehr persönlich zu nehmen“ (in Germany only) by the German psychotherapist Doris Wolf. Good luck with turning your mountains into molehills!
© Claudia Kraaz