‘Always’ and ‘Never’
Because there is so much information for our brains to process, our mind takes shortcuts by using past experience and thinking. We all have a mental filter, which is designed to improve efficiency but actually skews the way in which we see the world.
When ‘I always’ or ‘I never’ features in our thinking and self-statements, it indicates over-generalisations and often, a pessimistic thinking style. The problem with thinking in this way is that it often results in unhelpful emotions and actions. For example, thinking “I always fail exams!” results in anxiety and perhaps avoidance of study. We would say this thought is skewed because it is likely you are remembering the times you performed lower than you wished in a few exams rather than all the other times you performed well (and the fact that you have never actually failed).
Rephrase your self-statements
The best way to rephrase thoughts that involve ‘I always’ or ‘I never’ is to spend some time looking at the facts of the situation. Ask yourself: ‘What is the evidence to say this is accurate? What is the evidence to say this is inaccurate? What is another explanation? How else can I look at the situation?’ After doing this, come up with a more balanced statement that reflects reality and uses specific, accurate language.
This should not be an unrealistic, positive statement as we will have difficulty believing and internalising it. In the above example you could look through your past examination results and make a summary of the facts. Have you actually ever failed? If so, how many times? Was it every time? If you did fail, was there another explanation for this one-off performance such as being unwell?
A balanced, replacement response would be “Although I have sometimes been disappointed with my performance, I have never failed. I am usually disappointed with my performance if I don’t allocate enough time to study. If I want to perform better, I should make sure I have enough study time set aside”.
‘Must’ and ‘Should’
‘I must’ or ‘I should’ are examples of rigid rules that we develop for ourselves. Although we had good intentions when we developed such rules, they are usually outdated (we created them as children) and unrealistic. There is no way we can easily stick to ‘I must never eat chocolate’ or ‘I should be liked by everyone’. It can be helpful to spend some time reflecting on your own rules and whether these are realistic or even attainable. If not, take some time to look at how you could loosen your rule to be more balanced. For example, ‘I must never eat chocolate’ could become ‘I will aim to eat healthy and look after my body most of the time’. ‘I should be liked by everyone’ could become ‘It is important to me that I put effort into my relationships. Although It is nice to be liked, it is impossible to be liked by everyone.’
Balance it out
Although our rules and automatic thinking help us to streamline the information we process, it can prevent us from being balanced in our evaluations. To overcome this, be more curious. Practice observing your thinking and the rules that guide your actions. Take a step back and try to make new, balanced evaluations that are based on facts. You need to keep catching yourself and balancing out thoughts and rules to create a more lasting shift. Consistently practicing this is a great way to break old habits, challenge our comfort zone, improve our sense of self and to develop a more open, appreciative approach to life.