Thinking in Absolutes: A Bad Idea

by Bill Brenner on December 5, 2010

One of the problems with a mind laden with OCD is that you think a lot in absolutes. It’s one of the first things you need to stop doing when you finally decide to get help. But six years in, I still haven’t conquered that beast.

Mood music:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CpRCc4Jre8&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Thinking in absolutes when your in a good mood is dangerous because you tend to think you’re so much better than you really are. Example:

Someone tells me I’m a good writer.

Translation in absolute: I’m the best writer in the business.

That’s rubbish, of course. But it’s the way someone like me thinks when I’m wearing my stupid hat. Another example:

Someone tells me they really admire how I am with my children.

Translation in absolute: I’m such an awesome dad.

I try to be. But trust me: I’m not.

Someone tells me I’m a great husband.

Translation in absolute: I’m the PERFECT husband.

Sadly, I am far from it.

Most of the time, when I’m thinking in absolutes, it’s on the negative side. Examples:

You missed the mark a bit with that headline you wrote.

Translation in absolute: 16 years into this career, I still suck at writing.

You shouldn’t have let the kids watch so much TV.

Translation in absolute: I’m a horrible father.

That’s what thinking in absolutes is to me. I either think about something in the best possible terms or the worst. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.

When I think in absolutes, I’m thinking outside the box of reality. It makes for some manic mood swings. Lately, I’m realizing that I’m as far away from getting a handle on this as I was the day I realized something was seriously wrong inside my head and that I needed to get help. 

With that in mind, I go thinking in absolutes again: I’m no better a person than I was all those years ago.

That’s not true, of course. I’ve made tons and tons of progress.

But I have a long way to go.

That’s not something that’s absolutely terrible or absolutely wonderful.

It’s just the way it is.

Fortunately for me, my wife, kids and friends are able to see me as I am, and that — for better or worse — they accept me anyway.

I’m thankful for that.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim (a.k.a. @Twalk) December 5, 2010 at 4:10 am

Love this reminder, Bill. I don’t have OCD, but in some areas I’m still prone to thinking in absolutes in unhelpful ways. The worst, for me, are those areas where I lack confidence and therefore tend to see failures as FAILURES.

I have to remind myself that I have many flaws, many strengths, and many neither-flaws-nor-strengths. These don’t rest in a single spectrum, but all over the multidimensional map of my mind and my life.

Lisa December 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm

When I write something and 9 people tell me it’s good, but the 10 th has a criticism, I consider myself a failure. Anytime I try to perfect something and can’t I get REALLY moody. Good post!

Santari January 20, 2011 at 7:46 am

Love what you say, but you can choose where you want to listen from. I find it helpful to listen from a place of impartiality: to treat myself with respect and dignity, knowing that I’m learning every day, and making valuable decisions about how to live my life.

When I really get what people are saying by seeing where they are coming from, then it allows me to respect them as an equal, and so there is no criticism or flaws or lesser-than or good/bad. Just amazing insights constantly popping up, that I can choose to deal with in whatever way that feels right.

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