How many times have you heard the phrase, “Never say never”? The irony of the saying is not lost, although perhaps the meaning of it is.
I used to hear “never say never” and think that it was a facetious way of conveying that anything is possible. There is no instance where something can never happen. There’s always some sliver of possibility. I do believe this is true.
Now though, I also interpret it a little differently. Rather than understanding it as “Anything is possible,” I understand it also as “Do not speak in absolutes.”
Absolute phrases are something I didn’t even notice until I met with a therapist. I just knew when I would despair, or rejoice, or anything in between, everything would feel extreme in those moments, and my speech reflected it. “I’m the happiest person alive!” I would think. Or, on sad days, I would think, “There’s nothing in this life that can make me feel better.”
Basically, when we think or speak in absolutes, we make bold statements or take an extreme side. Usually, absolute statements can easily be debunked, which is a key indicator that a statement is absolute. For example, rather than just feeling disappointed that more people don’t read my blog, if I were thinking in absolutes, I would say to myself, “This sucks! Nobody reads my blog!” But this is not true. My mother reads my blog every week, so there is no way that nobody reads my blog. I have at least one person that reads my blog every week. (Love you Mom!) In this example, I would be choosing to ignore the beautiful readers that do read my blog, and instead making an extreme statement that only makes my situation sound worse than it is. I could have easily thought, “I’m disappointed that more people aren’t reading my blog.” So why wouldn’t I just think that?
People speak in absolutes for many reasons. Unfortunately, most of these reasons stem from unflattering places within us.
One reason that a person may speak absolutely is that they are trying to skew or influence how others perceive themselves or others. If a person wants others to think very highly of them, they might say, “I never lose my temper! I’m always very patient.” Or, for example, if someone wanted other people to pity them, they might say, “People never notice me, and when they do, they’re always mean.” If someone wanted other people to dislike the same person that they dislike, they might say, “She’s always standing around on her phone ignoring people. She never smiles.”
When you notice yourself thinking or speaking in absolutes, a red flag should go up. Why? Many people speak in absolutes; it’s just our nature, and if a lot of people speak this way, it’s harder to break that habit. However, we should make an effort to minimize our usage of absolute phrases.
For one thing, absolutist statements evoke drama. Think about the difference in these two statements:
- None of my tables tipped me today and I’m not going to make any money!
- One of my tables didn’t tip me today, but all the other ones tipped between 15-18%, so I’ll make less than I could have but still enough to pay my bills.
Who would you feel more sorry for? The answer is probably the first one. But actually, both of those speakers had the exact same day—-the difference was merely their perspective. Whereas one chose to be self-victimizing and absolute, the other chose to be honest and rational. Whereas one made an absolutist summarization of their shift, the other made a more realistic evaluation. Who do you think is happier at the end of the day? The person who viewed their day as a drama, or the person who was content with what they had?
It can be tricky to escape the “absolute” mentality. It is something that we have been conditioned to adopt, because humans love drama. It spices up our lives, especially when we live comfortably with no real threats. When we paint our lives as tragic and unfortunate—-when really, we are considerably fortunate to have what we do—-it makes for a “hero’s epic.” Sometimes, we may view a situation worse than it really is, so that later, maybe when we go home to our spouse, we can say, “Things were so horrible! But somehow, I overcame it.” Our spouse will both feel bad for us and admire us then, because we had a dramatic story that conveyed our valor. This is not a new thing; people have always dramatized their lives to feel grander.
The problem with this is that it can lead to irrational speech or behavior. If we think, “This is the worst thing happening to me right now!” in the moment, we may say something or act in a way that we later regret. Maybe in the heat of despair, we say something rude to someone who needs help. “I don’t have time to help you right now!” we might snap. Maybe this person really needs our help, but we are so preoccupied with constructing a drama in our heads, that we ignore our neighbors in need. Or maybe, in the depth of the drama of despair, we sink into a very bleak mindset because we are only focused on our misfortune, that we do very sad things, like maybe harm ourselves or put ourselves in a dangerous position. Maybe we think, “There’s nothing worth living for.”
When we find ourselves thinking and speaking in negative, absolutist ways, maybe this is a sign that we are not focusing on the right things. If we think, “Nobody has reached out to see if I’m okay! Nobody cares about me,” maybe this is a sign that we are not paying enough attention to the small, good things that others do for us. Maybe we didn’t notice that a stranger smiled at us because we were so busy thinking about how no one is nice to us. But if we had been fully present in the moment, our heart would be warmed by this small random act of love.
As a quick side note, a lot of what I have discussed also ties into the toxicity of the victim mentality—-something I have written about before, which you can read here. The victim mentality is when we cast ourselves in the role of “victim” in situations where we are not the victim, but we merely and unnecessarily choose to feel helpless and weak.
A major way I have noticed that the absolutist mentality is destroying our country is with politics. I see people post claims on Facebook like, “Democrats are stupid, snowflake socialists!” I hear people say, “Republicans are racist hillbillies!” Making absolute generalizations like this is detrimental to society and wedges a log between both “sides.” How are we ever going to make progress if we refuse to listen to each other, ignore the truth, and make phony, absolute claims that escalate tensions? It would be way more productive to say, “I have met many people who identify as Democrat who seem to want a socialist nation,” or “I have met many Republicans who have said racist things.” These statements are more conducive to beginning a conversation in which both groups can evaluate what is going on and find room for compromise or understanding. Speaking in absolutes merely divides people further.
When we speak in an absolute, we are choosing to ignore some part of the truth, of the beauty of all the incredible complexities in this life. I have learned that very little in this life is black and white. Instead, we live in a world with limitless shades and tints of all sorts of vibrant colors. When we have that urge to say, “Today was horrible,” we are ignoring how miraculous it was for us to wake up at all. When we want to say, “Nobody loves me,” or “I wish I was as perfect as she was,” we pay attention to a false reality we have created in our mind. Our perspective influences our lives, and if we’re paying attention to the wrong things, or perceiving things through a distorted, exaggerated fun home mirror, we lose touch with the real, actual phenomenon of life.
We have to be honest with ourselves. When I catch myself thinking, “No one appreciates me,” I have to stop and address this. By saying “no one,” I’m blatantly ignoring the people who very much do appreciate me, which is rude and ungrateful. Perhaps in that exact moment, they’re not demonstrating their appreciation in the exact way I want them to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate me, or that no one else does. Rather than projecting my insecurity or need to feel bad for myself upon others, I need to find the root of this bad feeling and change my perspective. Let myself feel grateful for what I have rather than fixate on what I do not.
All of this is not to say that one should never speak an absolute phrase. That idea alone negates everything I written here. Absolute statements do exist; for instance, unless one day mathematicians prove otherwise, all squares are rectangles. Perhaps truly nobody in a certain social setting asked you how you were feeling. It’s not that absolute situations don’t exist, it’s that we should be careful not to jump to them as a reflex.
Our thoughts and speech very much affect how we feel and grow. If we are constantly fixated on the bad, we will miss the good. But if we do our best to work with ourselves and consider all angles of a situation, we are less likely to fall prey to harmful thought cycles. And with rigorous practice, we may find our lives drastically improving just based off of what we choose to pay attention to.
One of my favorite ideas is “Always do your best.” This is kind of ironic, given my attempt to avert absolutes, but every day it is a goal of mine to do my best for that given day. I implore you to strive to your best, too. If you find yourself thinking in absolutes, that’s okay—-the first step is to recognize the habits we have adopted from our culture. From there, be patient with yourself, and kindly redirect your thoughts. Think, “Well, maybe things aren’t actually as bad as I first thought.” We can only do our best. Do your best to be your best today. Because today is our miracle.
For more articles on mindful living, self-love, focusing on the present, empowering yourself, and improving your emotional intelligence, check out the Mindful Living page on Slanted Spines. <3
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