Always? Really? That can’t literally be true. In the branch of philosophy called logic, words like “always”, “never”, “nothing”, “everybody” are called Categorical Terms. But most of us aren’t all that logical, and so we find ourselves using these words when we don’t really mean it literally. ‘No I haven’t seen your keys, I never move your stuff.’ (Never? Really? Not even once?)
Pointing out that these statements are of course exaggerations may just seem a bit pedantic. But when you find yourself using these terms, it can tell you something useful about your state of mind.
Psychotherapist Eric Berne wrote that categorical terms like this tend to feature more in our speech when we are feeling disempowered and helpless, or angry and accusing. This is a state he described as ‘Child’. (And if you have anything to do with children, you will know that they are often quite dramatic like this. “Everybody hates me!!” “I’ll never be able to do long division!!” )
And yes, when things have gone wrong, perhaps in ways that they often have gone wrong before, I may feel a bit like I felt when I was a child. I may feel that there is nobody who can help me, that there’s nothing I can do to help myself, and that I’m always going to be unlucky, and never get what I want. Children lack the knowledge, experience and autonomy that adults have, so when faced with problems that they may not even be able to describe easily, let alone resolve, their sense of despair and helplessness is actually understandable.
We are sometimes critical of ‘childish’ behaviour. And yet it is a very natural and common response to stresses like anxiety, fear, disappointment. Few of us are proof against these feelings all the time. And because we are upset, or angry, or afraid, we can get ‘stuck’ in this childlike state, without noticing.
This is where knowing about ‘never’ and ‘always’ comes in useful. If you find yourself using these words when talking about whatever has upset you (or just in your thoughts about whatever has happened) it is a great signal that you have got stuck in a ‘Child’ state. And if you are stuck in this state of mind, you will not be able to see a way forward until you change your mindset. But how to do that?
Well, one way, is to notice whatever thought you have had containing the word ‘never’ or ‘always’, and restate it using more moderate words: “This always happens to me” becomes “This sometimes happens to me”. “I never move your stuff” becomes “I don’t usually move your stuff.” Similarly, ‘I’ve looked everywhere’ becomes ‘I’ve looked in a lot of places’, and so on. Whether you say the new versions out loud in a conversation, or just in your head, the very act of re-thinking the sentences helps to move you into a more adult mindset, that usually feels less despairing and more rational.