I think most of us do this at least occasionally. Most of us raise alarms about things that are minor, exaggerate problems that aren't really as big as we make them out to be, complain about things that really don't deserve that attention. There are exceptions: people who never exaggerate or make things bigger than they are, people who never overreact to situations, worrying that they will become something other than what is real. But most of us, especially when it comes to telling our own stories, do, at least on occasion, make them out to be bigger, more dangerous, more significant, more threatening, and more in need of help and support than is completely accurate.
It's usually pretty easy to see this in other people. And sometimes, as a result, this need to exaggerate can really backfire. I have one person in my life whose exaggerations border on, and sometimes slip into, outright lies. We all know this about her, we all see it. As a result, very few people actually respond to her alarms of personal distress. So, she ups the story even more the next time, trying to get the responses out of all of us that she is seeking: the care, the support, the concern, the expressions of love. Instead of the care she wants, however, she is usually met with eye rolls, with attempts to "talk her down", and sometimes with even direct confrontations, "You know that isn't true. Here is the real story." I can't imagine that any of that feels good to her. And yet she continues to weave these stories that bear no semblance to the truth in her quest for support, love and care. She needs that, she needs it deeply enough that she manipulates the truth attempting to obtain it. But this method is not working for her and she can't seem to get out of that rut of seeking it in this way.
As I said, it is easy to see it in other people.
Yet, this observation, this vision into how one person's exaggerations give her exactly the opposite of what she wants, this insight into the failure of the extended stories, does not seem to change or stop those around her from continuing to exaggerate from time to time as well. I include myself in this. I realize that while I can see that it is not helping this woman at all, that insight does not prevent me from occasionally exaggerating and seeking attention with a built-up story of my own.
And that causes me to think. Why is it so compelling that we seek attention in this way? What is it that makes some people do this when others don't seem to have that same need?
At the base, at the heart, this crying wolf is a call for attention. It is a call for care and support and love. At its root, the cry of "I've had it rough!" is one that includes, "Pay attention to me and tell me I'm loved! See the pain I've felt, acknowledge it, and tell me that it is worth your care and your comfort!" Most of us have insecurities, and one way to act that out is to cry for attention and care in this way. Those who truly don't have a feeling of lack of love, those who feel they are loved enough, held enough, cared for enough, undoubtedly don't have the same impulse to gain attention and care by exaggerating stories. Of course there are other ways people ask for this affirmation and attention too. Social media feeds this at some level by inviting people to share minute details from their day, by "counting" the number of friends one has, the number of likes one receives on posts, the number of comments made. The whole "bridezilla" thing comes from a deep need for attention and care as well.
Some people might say, "Well, this is the human condition: one of feeling lonely, alone, vulnerable, and needy for others to love us and care for us." Maybe. But I think it is absolutely true that it is the condition in white Western culture, where we value individuality to the point of forgetting our dependence on one another. We live in our isolated boxes and we interact with the world only when we choose to do so, usually when we are feeling that need for connection. But just as we don't really feel our thirst until our body is almost dehydrated, I'm not sure that we recognize our need for connection until we are drowning in our loneliness. Additionally, we have so many rules about what is socially acceptable that it is hard to be genuine and therefore to connect with people who really see us, let alone who then can really love us for who we are. Which brings me back to the exaggerations.
When we exaggerate, when we tell stories that aren't true or even aren't completely true, when we "cry wolf" we will not receive care for what is real. We might succeed in capturing attention, but that attention is not for what we really have experienced. At some level, I wonder if that doesn't add to the sense of loneliness and isolation. We are receiving notice, but it isn't really for us, for what is real, for what we need. It is like drinking salty or caffeinated drinks when we are thirsty: it only deepens the thirst.
My commitment this year is to be authentic in all things. To laugh more, cry more, reach out more, not with stories that are exaggerated, but with the honest, "I'm needing a friend right now. Can you be with me" words. But I have a secondary commitment as well. And that is to try to hear underneath the exaggerated stories that come my way and to hear the cries for care and attention that they really are. My commitment then is to try to offer that care more to those who would seek it in this way, not so much in response to the stories, but in response to their beings. We all need care and love. And I plan to give a little more to supporting those around me in special need.