Are you a minimizer or a maximizer?

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In the past nine years I've been a therapist, I have met  individuals, families, couples, and parents who present with a variety of problems. From disruptive child behavior, coping with the death of a loved one, in the aftermath of a divorce, or exploring a history of trauma I have helped families find joy, improve their relationships, and learn to lean on another.

Yet the specific type of hardship families struggle with is less important than the way in which they respond to one another during difficult times.

One of the most unhealthy behavior patterns I have seen in my practice is the maximizer vs. minimizer behavior pattern.  

The maximize vs. minimize behavior pattern describes how two or more people relate to one another during conflict.  During stressful times, people in unhealthy relationships will respond in one of two ways:

  1. They Maximize the situation - Maximizers tend to take a hardship, trial, or tribulation and turn it into a catastrophe.  Whether a disagreement with a coworker, a lost item, or glass of spilled milk amplifiers tend to maximize the effects of a troublesome situation.  They may become extremely worried, cry, yell, or completely shut down as the stressor they experienced causes them great overwhelm. A maximizer's motto is: it couldn't get any worse.  
  2. They Minimize the situation - Minimizers respond in the complete opposite way that maximizers do in that they diminish disagreements, difficulties, and stress by downplaying the effects on their well-being, the family unit, or the relationship at play. A minimizer's motto is: it could be so much worse.  
When maximizers and minimizers get together their natural tendencies can drive them apart.  As one person maximizes a situation, the other downplays, and a vicious cycle begins.

Here are some myths associated with these two tendencies:
  • If I admit the stress, turmoil, or importance a particular conflict has on a relationship, person, status, or state of being I will only make the situation worse.  
  • If I downplay the conflict, hardship, or stress a situation has caused it will not be taken seriously or get the care and attention it deserves.  
While most people tend to gravitate towards one tendency or another (to overdo or pooh pooh), under the right stressful circumstance anyone can find themselves at either end of the spectrum.   

Here are a few relationships where this pattern can arise:  
  1. In Romantic Relationships:  Romantic partners can find themselves caught in this relational pattern during conflict or arguments.  For instance one partner may be worried about finances, their ability to make ends meet, to pay the bills, to save for children's college funds, retirement, a new house, etc.  As the worry builds for one person, the other may find themselves downplaying the financial stress and minimizing the need to worry all together.  This can cause great instability in the relationship and trust in the other person's judgment. 
  2. In parent/child relationships: Parents, teens, and children often get caught in this pattern of relating to one another.  An example is a parent staying up, calling, texting, worrying, and counting down the seconds until their teen walks in the door past curfew only to be met with the indignant response, "It's no big deal. Calm down. You're over-reacting!" Conversely, I have seen very young children throw tantrums that last way longer than expected because a well-meaning parent doesn't "want to indulge" their behavior with attention.  As the parent ignores, minimizes, or disengages, the child's tantrum or emotions escalate. In this case, full resolution never occurs - just an exhausted child who falls asleep, throws up, or gives up and a parent who feels completely helpless.  
  3. In friendships: Even friends can get caught minimizing or maximizing one another's experiences.  An example of this could be one friend sharing that their child is biting other children. Thy are met with the response, "Oh, no --- she could be thrown out of preschool! You better nip that in the bud.  Have you ever had her tested for learning disabilities?!"  As one friend maximizes the child's behavior, the other may find himself downplaying his struggle, regretting the decision to open up, or changing the subject all together.   
In any of these situations, the end result is a loss of connection either emotionally, physically, or mentally.  So, what can be done instead? 

Empathize.  

The answer is to neither join the chaos (maximize) or downplay the experience (minimize).  

Neither choice is genuine, authentic, or helpful.  Two panicked people is worse than one and lying about your concerns for the sake of another person is not a solid foundation for a relationship.    

In order for true connection to take place...
  • Minimizers must validate a maximizer's feelings and experiences so as to decrease the need to plead their case for concern.  
  • Maximizers must give their counter-parts the benefit of the doubt in attempting to calm and decrease overwhelm. 
  • Each person must acknowledge the truth in their counterpart and take small steps in the direction of the opposite perspective in order for re-connection to occur.  
  • Parents to minors are responsible to take the first step towards resolution as the adult in the relationship.  We cannot expect our children to bear the emotional weight or responsibility for the success of the parent-child relationship.    
Next time you're caught maximizing or minimizing a situation - 

Pause. 

Ask yourself: what can I say or do to validate my spouse, child, or friend's experience? 

After all, everyone deserves to be heard.



Heather is married to a funny blue devil, mom to three lively boys, and singer both on stage and in her child's ear. She is the owner of Kaloupek Counseling, LLC a private practice offering mental health services to children, teens, and adults in Decatur, IL.  You can read more about her, her blog, and counseling practice here.  Want to reach out? Send her an email!  She would love to hear from you!




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