Beware of absolutes!

June 25, 2015

At some point in our lives, we experience that sensation of feeling that something is "always" a certain way, that someone "never" does what we ask, or that we do this one thing "every time." Our minds seem to find themselves drifting into the space of assuming our current feeling or experience is this way all of the time, especially when we are stressed or overwhelmed. This generalization, and often self-defeating, process is called absolute thinking. Take a moment to recall the last argument you remember having with someone. Did you blurt out "You never..." or "You always...?" Well, don't beat yourself up if you did. We've all done this. Our brains are wired to do it, which is why it takes so much work to alter this way of thinking. 

 

Though this process is normal for many people, we must be aware of its presence, and learn to mindfully minimize it. The result of such thinking patterns, if taking place often enough, is the emergence of  anxiety, depression, and general distortions of perception. Rationally, a teenager knows that his or her mother does not say "No" all the time. A mother knows that her son has cleaned his room on occasion, meaning that "You never do what I ask" is a bit inaccurate. Likewise, a husband may feel like his partner always nags him, but what about the many times she doesn't? 

 

What we need to be aware of in these thoughts is how we begin to shift our perception of the interaction, or even the person with whom we are interacting. Though a particular piece of an interaction may feel incredibly familiar, it likely doesn't happen in every interaction. The trouble is that we begin to associate every interaction with the absolute thoughts we've allowed ourselves to maintain. This starts to shift our perception of the person, potentially leading to resentment or negative expectations. If we expect that the teenager will never do what we ask, we enter the interaction with that expectation, and project this belief in such a way that influences our communication - verbally and non-verbally.

 

"Since you never clean your room when I ask, I don't expect you to listen this time." 

 

"I'm not avoiding you. You just always nag me, and I don't want to hear it."

 

Our projections create what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically, this means we influence our environment such that the anticipated outcome we were trying to avoid ends up happening, because of our fixation on it. The expectation that he never cleans his room influences how you approach him, which likely makes him defensive. Good luck getting a teen to comply when he or she is defensive, and wants to prove a point. The man who feels like his wife always nags him begins to distance himself, which leads her to question his aloof behavior in effort to understand what is wrong. To him, this may confirm the belief that she is "always" nagging. 

 

When we are mindful of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are much more likely to accurately interpret what is happening, and project what we mean for others to interpret. When you notice these absolutes creeping into your consciousness, simply ask yourself, "Does she always do this? Does he always yell, or am I feeling vulnerable and linking past times to this one?" If you're stuck, allow yourself to think of times where something different happened. 

 

You may also find it useful to ask yourself if you are in any way influencing the interaction. After all, the only person we can control is ourselves. If we make effort to respond differently, or more appropriately, perhaps the other person in the interaction will mirror this gesture. If both of you are yelling, or avoiding, or complaining, the cycle will continue as such. One of you has to break the cycle, which requires a mindful awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how they may be influencing others. If you don't know, ask in a calm and genuine way, inviting a calm and genuine response. 

 

As with any change, altering our absolute thoughts takes work. Start by practicing focusing your attention to the trigger words, like "never, always, every time, completely, absolute, etc." The more you are aware of these cues, the more likely you are to stop yourself, and more accurately assess the situation.

 

 

 

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