*often, not always (see what I did there?)
I’ve been becoming more aware of how I interact with people and myself, and the kinds of thought-patterns I have. And it’s pretty scary to have that awareness, because I’m starting to see how badly I communicate with the people around me, and even with myself, when I use the words “never” and “always.” Both in the things I think and say. It’s stopping me from having meaningful conversations, and reaching productive outcomes when I’m faced with a problem, a challenge, or an insecurity.
This post is about why they have that effect, and how I’m trying to replace “always” and “never” with “sometimes” and “often”
Why they suck
“Always” and “never” are extremes. They’re absolutes. They don’t allow for leeway or alternatives. “Never” means not ever (like, ever), and “always” means without fail, every time.
But when I’m upset, angry, or frustrated, these words seldom reflect reality (few things in life are absolute), and they generally don’t help me or whoever I’m talking to work through that emotion, or understand what I’m actually communicating. This is true when I say it to myself, and when I say it to other people.
For example, when I throw out something like “You always do that!”, it’s highly unlikely that whatever I’m referring to is always true. In most cases, it just happens more often than I’d like it to, and I make an emotionally-charged evaluation in order to make a point.
This causes a few problems:
- I make things seem worse than they are: Sometimes I know that I don’t actually mean “always” or “never”, and that I’m just being dramatic; but often it’s a knee-jerk reaction. I catastrophise problems because I don’t know how to solve them, and it’s easier to think that it’s just not possible (not better, just easier). Thinking “I’m never going to get that promotion” or telling someone “You always assume the worst” creates a really negative situation out of something that isn’t actually that big of a deal, or that big of an obstacle. Things feel harder than they are, and it’s more likely that I won’t try to solve it.
- I don’t acknowledge the actual need I’m expressing: By defaulting to absolutes, I ignore what I actually feel or need. “I’m always running late” probably means “I feel disappointed in myself because it’s important to me to show people that I value them by arriving on time.” See how much more depth there is?
- I put unfair responsibility on whoever I’m talking to: Also, by creating that absolute, we’re putting unfair responsibility on the person we’re saying it to, to figure out what we mean, and what to do about it. Instead of saying “I need you to be more focussed”, we blurt out “You never listen to me!” — this not only places blame on someone, and makes them feel like they have to figure out how to fix something, we’re making them do the heavy-lifting of understanding what we feel, and what we need. This is true even if we say it to ourselves: Instead of figuring it out, we just expect ourselves to “be better”, without properly understanding the emotion or need behind the words.
- I screw over my future-self: These absolutes also colour our recollection of experiences. If you have an argument, be it with yourself or someone else, and you shout things like “you never…” or “you always…”, we rewire our brains to remember those experiences as absolute. You may have a week of arguing with someone about how they “never” return your calls; and, even if they actually return some of them, your memory sees that as a characteristic of how they’ve always been. You create a false reality that you can’t shake.
When we let our emotions get the better of us, we act out, and generally get distracted from figuring out what’s actually going on.
This is something I’m learning about myself, and I’m trying to figure out ways to pause, take a moment to understand what I’m really trying to communicate, and change my language, so that I can understand myself better, understand other people better, and communicate more meaningfully with those around me.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
First and foremost, mindfulness. I’m practising to catch myself in the moments I say or think “always” and “never”, and taking a second to just stop. To just pause.
The first part of changing our automatic behaviours is becoming aware of them. There’s a mindfulness to this process that requires just acknowledging what’s happening, seeing that, and taking a step back to work through and unpack that.
If you catch yourself thinking it, and saying it to yourself, stop what you’re doing. Narrate what’s going on out loud if it helps: “I am thinking in absolutes. I need to breathe, pause, and figure out what need I’m not expressing.” This is what I’m doing, and it’s helping a little already.
If you catch yourself saying it out loud to someone, you need to figure out what you really want to say to them. It can be helpful to vocalise what’s going on, so that you can take the time to understand what you need in that moment.
For example, you could say: “I noticed that I expressed something that wasn’t necessarily true, in an emotional reaction to what you said. I need a few minutes alone, in order to understand what feeling I’m trying to communicate with you. And it’s important to me to communicate that to you just now.”
However you do it, catch yourself in those moments, and create a space to pause.
Observe: What do I feel? What do I need?
Once I’ve paused, I try to filter through the emotions running around in my mind and dig below the surface. “Always” and “never” may not be useful ways to communicate, but they can be useful indicators for our needs and feelings.
At the moment, I’m trying out a CBT technique to achieve this. You can either write it down, or just think it through, but the process goes as follows: Thought, observations, feelings, needs, request. The idea is that you note the thing you thought or said, and work through the rest as what you change in the thought pattern and communication.
For example, after noting the thought, you make some objective observations about the situation to separate emotionally-charged feelings from actual data you have, and then go through your feelings, your needs, and the request you’d like to make based on the need you are trying to express. You throw away the thought, and communicate the observations, the feelings, the needs, and the request.
Here’s what it looks like in practice with some examples:
Pro-tip: Make your request specific! Saying “do stuff more often” is a lot less helpful than “do X once every week.” By being specific about what you want, it’s less likely you’ll misunderstand each other and less likely you’ll be back here again in a few days’ or we†eks’ time.
Change what you say
Once I’ve worked through the thought, I can actually communicate the above table with whoever I’m talking to — even, and especially, when it’s with myself. Those kinds of chats tend to be remarkably more meaningful, and offer greater depth and understanding to the conversation. It’s harder, but it’s so much more rewarding.
Since we’re human, we’ll probably not get it right the first person. So, changing how I communicate sometimes happens proactively, and sometimes it happens retroactively.
Proactive changes: Here, I’m thinking before saying what I want to say, and catching myself thinking “always” or “never”, so that I can say “often”, “sometimes”, or the specific amount of times that thing occurs. This is hard, especially when you’re in the middle of an emotional moment, but it isn’t impossible. Practising mindfulness can help develop a keener sense of this awareness. I use Headspace, and recommend it to everyone.
Retroactive changes: Since we’re all human, we’re going to fall victim to our emotions and we’re going to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean it’s too late to change how we communicate, though. Changing how we communicate retroactively takes vulnerability. It requires me to acknowledge that I’ve just said something I didn’t really mean, explain the feelings and/or needs that caused that reaction, and reframe or rephrase what I said so that it’s less provocative, and more meaningful.
For example, in the heat of a moment, I might shout “You never ask me how I’m doing!” This is obviously not true, and I realise it as soon as I say it, or even only after someone points it out. In that moment, I can choose to acknowledge that (“You’re right, that was unfair to say”), explain what feelings or needs might have provoked that reaction (“I’m feeling really angry” or “I really need you to check in with me more often”), and then communicate what I actually meant (“I was really sad yesterday and today, and you have been preoccupied with other things, and haven’t asked me how I am”).
Retroactive, although less ideal, can be wonderful opportunities to help you and whoever you’re talking to learn more about each other. If you practise retroactive changes often, my guess is that you’ll get better at being proactive. That’s what I’ve noticed more and more often in myself, anyways.
Cool, so now what?
Now, I practise more, and become more aware of what my triggers are for using “never” and “always.” I’m trying to write it down somewhere, even if I don’t look at it again, just so it sticks in memory a little more and so I have a physical action to associate with recognising the trigger.
Other than that, it really just is a learning process — so be kind to yourself! And ask those around to you to be supportive. Tell them you’re trying this. Tell them that you need them to point it out so that you can work on correcting it. And tell them that you’d like to point it out too, so that you can support them in the same way. This is a reciprocal and two-way street: If you can point it out to other people, you also learn a great deal about how you communicate.
I’m no pro at this, but just realising it has already shifted the way I think and communicate with others. It’s a powerful skill to develop, and I hope this post has given you a place to start! 🙂