I enjoy a good sci-fi movie, although admittedly I’m no expert on the genre. Like most Americans, though- and in fact most of the world, I love Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of my favorite characters. He’s smart and delivers a lot of great one-liners. One of the best is when he tells Anakin Skywalker in Episode III (before Anakin falls into hot lava, later to be reborn as Darth Vader), “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”. He is reacting to Anakin’s statement, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”. Ironically, Obi-Wan’s is an absolute statement (the key word being ONLY), but that is beside the point… Here is the scene in case you’re not familiar with it. And if you’re into sci-fi and psychology, a more sophisticated blog on the subject can be found here. It’s written by a friend of mine, Dr. Ali Mattu, also a psychologist. He not only presents at psychology conferences, but at Comic Con and all sorts of other Cons, so he’s got a lot more cred than me when it comes to science fiction.
So why am I talking about this Star Wars scene, and what does it have to do with psychology? A LOT…and you’ll see what I mean. You probably hear and/or make absolute statements every day, like:
“You ALWAYS do that”… as in you “always” forget to put away the milk.
Or, “You NEVER understand me”… like there is never, ever a time when you get exactly what your partner is talking about.
Or, “You ONLY do what you want to do”… as in your teenager “only” does what he feels like… plays video games, texts, plays sports, eats… but never anything else, like go to school, do homework, or clean up his room.
Sound familiar? The issue here is that when you make absolute statements, you are saying that something either does or does not occur, without exception, either zero or 100% of the time. Very, very few things happen or don’t happen at that kind of rate. You can say that the sun “always” rises in the east and sets in the west, but I won’t believe you if you tell me your partner NEVER understands you. If that was true, then why did you like him in the first place, and why are you still together? I will also have a hard time believing that your child has NEVER once done homework. Sure, I have met kids who very rarely do homework, but I would bet it has happened at some point in their school career.
I hear these kinds of statements every day- at work, in my personal life, on TV. We all do it, but the problem is that saying these things becomes a big part of how we communicate- and when it does, it can lead to a tremendous amount of frustration on both sides. Most of us absolutely irritate our partners sometimes- we fail to do something we tell our parents, our boss, or a friend we will do- or we forsake work or chores to do something more fun. And sometimes we’re aware of it, and sometimes we’re not. But the key word here is SOMETIMES.
When you make absolute statements you are not giving credit for the 90%, 60%, or even 10% of the time that someone else does something right- or does not do whatever it is that might bother you. And that is very frustrating for the other person. You’re not reinforcing the good things that she does, but rather you’re telling her, “you always mess up and you’re basically a failure, so why try?” And that is not only going to lead to an argument, but it’s going to make it a whole lot more frustrating for you. Or if you make these statements to your child, he or she is certainly going to give up, feeling a sense of learned helplessness.
If you make these statements often enough, you start to believe that they are true. First, they’re not (some or much of the time), and secondly you are going to become super frustrated. This kind of belief is known as a cognitive distortion or cognitive fallacy– a way of thinking that is just not true. And third, in doing this, you’re stressing yourself out unnecessarily- because you’re not noticing the times that your belief doesn’t hold true- the times your partner does put down the toilet seat, when your child does not get in trouble at school, or when your boss does give you credit for a job well done. It’s an all-or-nothing mentality, and again, very few things in life truly are this way.
So if you notice that you do this even one out of eight times, what can you do about it? Here are a few ways that you might communicate just what you mean in a more effective, less harmful way.
1) Stay calm- or go calm down if you need to. It’s extremely frustrating when we feel as though we have to keep saying the same things over and over, or when we feel ignored by someone important to us, but it’s just not productive to yell at or belittle people. It’s hurtful to them, it only leads to arguing, and we may regret it later.
2) Instead of making absolute statements, express your frustration more directly, saying something like, “You know, it really bothers me when you interrupt me when I’m talking. It makes me feel unimportant and not heard”. This should make your partner less defensive, and if he cares about you, he should apologize and try not to do it the next time. Sure, you feel like this always happens- and maybe it happens a lot, but expressing that is only going to get a defensive reaction.
3) Suggest an alternative action, like, “I’d really like it if you started your homework before you go out to play”. Here, you’re giving a directive and telling your child what would be better, instead of an unhelpful, accusatory statement like, “You never do your homework!”
I hope this is helpful. Try to notice when you find yourself making any absolute statements, or if they are made to you. If someone else makes one, it may not be the most helpful thing to educate the other person about it right then and there. Just try to stay calm and respond appropriately back. Personally, I try to picture the other person standing there in a Sith robe like Darth Sidious or Darth Maul. That tends to lighten my mood. Or, you can respond, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” I supposed reactions to that would vary, depending on the other person’s knowledge of Star Wars. Perhaps later, when everyone is calm and not arguing, would be a better time to have a conversation about this.
And as always, if you find that this is too difficult to change or some relationship is suffering, personal therapy, relationship or family counseling can help. Reach out to a psychologist.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.