Listen to this article
The words “why do I always do that?” are usually uttered, or thought, with an annoyed irritability, a metaphorical – or even physical – stamping of feet. “There I go again. How can I be so stupid? I’ll never learn.”
At such times we may be correct in picking up on a tendency to do something that we know to be unhelpful to ourselves or our relationships. And normally it’s useful to be aware of our patterns of behaviour – clearly much better than acting in harmful ways without even realising it. Once we’ve spotted a pattern we can get on with changing it.
Or can we? In practice the question “why do I always do that?” is not always followed by constructive reflection about change. More often, it leads to harsh self-recrimination. You are angry because you’ve done it and angry because you always do it. You make the problem worse by adding another layer of self-loathing.
I blame the word “always”. It magnifies and exaggerates, suggesting a monolithic narrative that is very likely to be inaccurate. Every time you do “it” – whatever “it” may be – you easily slot that behaviour into this rigid pattern, which then acquires more and more substance and fixity as time goes on. It reinforces your image of who you are – somebody who always does x – and stops you from moving on.
“Always” also obscures the fact that reality is usually more nuanced than that. Perhaps sometimes you do it and sometimes you don’t, and it doesn’t help to dwell on only one side of the equation. Over-generalisation is, after all, a well-known cognitive distortion.
Instead you could use the question as a red flag that reminds you that this kind of generalising is simply not useful. It may be worth reflecting on what’s different when you don’t follow the script: what makes that possible, and how can you make those times more frequent? With practice you may be able to wean yourself off seeking an excessively coherent self-narrative when a more flexible alternative will serve you better.
Linguistic pedants often cite “literally” as the most abused word in the English language. I’ve even heard a professional wordsmith say that when tasked with editing an anthology she had been presented with “literally a blank canvas”. There is, however, another word which is often used but rarely literally true: always. We accuse people of always being late, complain that it always rains on bank holidays, even promise to always be there for someone. Almost always, we are just wrong.
However, we ought to be lenient about this technical infringement because, when it comes to the workings of the world, no unqualified use of “always” is ever entirely justified. In science and in daily life, when we posit that something is always the case, we do so on the basis of a limited number of observations. Logically, such inferences are unjustified. “Always so far as we know” does not mean “always, period”. After all, so far we have always managed to survive the night, but clearly that does not mean we will do so indefinitely.
The solution to this so-called “problem of induction” is not logical but pragmatic: we just cannot do without an assumption of uniformity in nature. Generalising from the particular to the universal may be rash from a logical point of view, but in practice it is foolhardy not to do so. Science depends on the assumption that the laws of physics apply to all things at all times, and ordinary life depends on the assumption that water will continue to quench thirst and petrol will continue to power your car.
Over-generalising is thus a basic human need. Little wonder then that we are quick to apply “always”, even to ourselves – whom we imagine to be more consistent and coherent than most of us actually are. Since “always” is the logical equivalent of “never not”, the phrase “never say never” is in theory a good enough reminder to be more cautious. But as the problem of induction shows, habits of thought often have little respect for logic, and for that we should sometimes (though not always) be grateful.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published