Beware Always and Never

Most if not all of us have a tendency to use certain phrases almost by rote. We may not use them on purpose, mindfully, but as a matter of habit. My mother had one. Almost invariably, when she could not find or had misplaced an item she said: “Somebody stole my…”. When I realized I had picked up this habit, I began curbing it.  I was making it more difficult to find the missing object. After all, if someone stole the item how could I ever find it? This is one example of a catch phrase, one that often becomes habitual.

Another example is the use of “always” and “never” when either complaining or scolding. “You always forget to shut off the light,” for instance, or “you never let me know when you’re coming.” Using these words is counterproductive and unnecessarily critical. They do little to no good to communicate what a person is trying to get across. Furthermore, they are probably not accurate, but are actually an expression of feelings rather than being a fact. Most everyone, whether they use them or not, probably remembers someone who consistently does or did.

I certainly heard these words from my mother over and over again. For most, especially parents, they are simply a habit of speech. What is important to remember is that they do not help. They often make things worse. They usually make the person addressed feel defensive, and then they are apt to deny doing or neglecting the act in question all the time. Too, the words, instead of helping to resolve the situation being discussed, will usually perpetuate the negativity of the conversation.

How often growing up did one or both of your parents use the words “always” and “never” to describe some act they hoped to correct. How did it make you feel? Did you feel criticized, perhaps unjustly? When another adult uses the same words, it is even worse. I try hard not to speak them because I don’t like how I feel when someone says them to me. They feel to me like a judgement of my character or my efforts. They feel unjust and arouse a sense of protest, making things worse for me and for the other, as well. If I make an effort to be conscious of what I say when I am speaking, it is easier to stop unhelpful but habitual words and phrases from being spoken aloud.  

Too, these words can cause hurt. There is no need for them. Instead of being an honest statement of how someone feels, they are an apparent criticism, pushing the argument along. What might be better and more effective would be to say, “When you forget to lock the door, it makes me feel …” or “When you forget to turn out the light, I get upset because it is a waste of energy—or drives up the electric bill.” This approach helps to heal the situation, not make it worse. When we become aware of this habit if speech, we can communicate more effectively, and everyone benefits.