2. Generalisation

I’m writing a new series on common thinking traps that people can find themselves in and the ways that we can overcome them. Last time I wrote about catastrophising: thinking the worst case scenario every time. You can read about that by clicking here. I would encourage you to read the first part of the article since it sets the context behind how to overcome the thinking challenges. Yes, thinking in a different way will have an impact on your words and actions but different thinking based upon a more helpful set of beliefs will have a profound effect on your life.

All of the thinking traps have strategies that can be used to help avoid those traps. Today’s thinking trap and how to avoid it is the thinking trap of Generalisation.

Generalisations are scenarios where we perceive choice has been removed. We therefore feel compelled to act in a certain way. Phrases such as: “Have to…”, “Must…” and “Can’t…” dominate our thoughts and resultant actions. We have generalised that there is no choice: we simply must or absolutely can’t act in a certain way. This represents a challenge to us since freedom to act in another way is perceived to have been removed and this is not a healthy way of living.

It is critical to understand, however at this juncture, that the rights to freedom come with the responsibilities of that freedom. I might believe that I have the freedom to act in a certain way but with that freedom comes the consequences of whatever actions I choose. A healthy society can’t have rights without consequences: the former must live with the latter.

If the Challenge to the thinking trap of Generalisation is “I have to…” and “I must…” then the Opportunity is to say the same key word but as a question.

“I have to…”
“Have to?”

“We must…”

Sometimes, the very opportunity to say whether it does have to be the case is enough to bring about a change in thinking. Invariably, we haven’t stopped to consider whether we do need to do whatever it is. Perhaps, that is the crux of the point too: we haven’t considered. To consider requires cognitive strategies: problem-solving, decision-making, weighing-up. The “Have to…” response is often an emotional response not involving the thinking part of our mind. Responding to life’s challenges emotionally over and over again is not a long-term helpful way of living. It’s emotionally draining, overly stressful and often leads to illness and health complications.

Another question opportunity that can be asked is: “What would happen if I didn’t?”
This type of question is interesting in that it offers an opportunity in reverse, as it were. Not, what if I did but what if I didn’t do (whatever it is)?

When we offer the opportunity of not doing something it can give the means to offer alternatives. I like alternatives! The more alternatives I have the greater the flexibility and opportunity for creativity and win-win solutions.

A useful Reflection opportunity is to recognise that Generalisations remove the freedom and choice that I want to have. So, to say, “What would happen if I didn’t?” provides cognitive decision-making opportunities and not emotional responses. It may well be that I reach the same outcome in the end but I have actively chosen that outcome. Emotional response doesn’t involve actively choosing.

What might you Say to yourself if you find yourself Generalising a lot?
“I have to… (whatever it is)
Have to?
I don’t have to… (whatever it is)
I choose to…(whatever you choose)”

In summary:
Challenge: “Have to…”, “Must…”, “Can’t…”
Opportunity: “Have to?”, “Must?”, “Can’t?”
Reflection: Generalisation removes choice and freedom.
Say (Change the key word to whatever is the Generalisation and make a question): e.g. Have to? (Must? Can’t?)
I don’t have to…
I choose to…”

See what happens and notice your responses, as a result.

Further personal thoughts

The following thoughts are based upon my Christian thinking. You are most welcome to read them if you so wish.

If we stop to think about it how many things are there where we ‘Have to’ do something? I would argue that there aren’t any. I don’t ‘Have to’ go to work. I don’t ‘Have to’ drive at the legal speed limit. I don’t ‘Have to’ show respect to others. However, in these, and in all other cases, there are consequences if I don’t: I won’t have any money, I could get a speeding ticket, and cause an accident; and people are unlikely to respect me. So, I choose to go to work, I choose to drive at the national speed limit (mostly!) and I choose respect others. I don’t have to. It’s a choice. I believe that having choices is essential for every human being and for a healthy society; so is the full acceptance of the consequences in making those choices.

As Alfred A. Monapert once said:

Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.

Personally, I choose to live a Christian life with all the actions and consequences of those actions that living a Christian life brings. And it’s a choice I’m glad that I’ve made.

Further, I choose to believe that everyone is of the same intrinsic worth simply because they are a human being made in the image of God. With that belief I choose to treat everyone with the same respect and value irrespective of what they think, what they have and what they do. I might not like what they do. I might not agree with their views or even their actions but the intrinsic worth for that person never wavers. I don’t have to think this way: I choose to think this way; I find it both liberating and immensely empowering. If I’m honest though, I find it challenging when I hear and see the way people treat each other so badly. People make those choices; people must accept the consequences of those choices.

Can Generalisations ever work for you?

I believe that they can! I believe that the intrinsic worth of every human being can’t change. It is permanently fixed. Nothing can change it. It can’t get less or more! It remains unaltered by thoughts and actions. Its worth is unconditional and a given to all human beings.

The above paragraph is full of Generalisations such as ‘can’t‘, ‘permanently‘ and ‘nothing‘. However, they work for me. They give a benchmark that values a human being for who they are; not what they do or have. I might not like what they do or say; in fact I might find it abhorrent, but their worth, as a human being, never alters.

For me, my faith tells me that ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.’, and, ‘Nothing can separate us from the Love of God.’

I find believing in those Generalisations worth doing. What do you think?