Can you remember times when you’ve been so beside yourself with someone, so overwhelmed with disappointment in them or with anger towards them that you made a statement along the lines of, “You ALWAYS do such and such..!”, or, “You HAVE ALWAYS..!”, or, “YOU’RE ALWAYS..!”?
Or maybe it was more like, “You NEVER such and such..!” (listen, care, understand, etc.), or, “You’re ALWAYS GOING TO…!” (be this way or that way, do this or that, make me feel this way or that way, etc.)?
Or perhaps you LABELLED the person with statements such as, “You are such a [blank]..!”, or, “You’ll never be [blank]…!” (jerk, responsible, etc.)?
I call these statements “generalizations” and they can be destructive not only to the relationship, but, and especially when used with children, to the other person’s self-image and self-esteem.
For example, if I say to my child, “Put your bicycle back in the garage please”, but then I also add, “Geez, you never listen!”, or, “Come on, I’ve told you a thousand times!”, now I’ve made a generalization which does two things: First, it tells them more about me and my overwhelmed internal state than they need to know and therefore puts us at risk for role reversal, i.e., them having to take care of me emotionally instead of vice versa, since I’m the one freaking out, and, second, it “labels” them as a “never listener” so to speak.
In one fell swoop, I have lost some of their trust in me and my ability to handle myself and to guide them in life (remember Emotional Credibility?), and, at the same time, I have begun to undermine their self-esteem and self-image by labeling them.
The funny thing about acting out our pain on others this way, (i.e. by making generalizations), is that it makes the other person ultimately trust us less and it also tends to make them act out more in reaction to our generalization. In fact, they will often do so in ways directly related to the label we’ve given them.
So, for example, if we tell them they never listen, guess what? They end up listening LESS.
If we tell them they are a jerk, guess what? They end up acting more like jerks with us.
If we tell them they ALWAYS do something which annoys or angers us, …you get the gist.
What we need to remember is that when we turn a person into a generalization, we are effectively putting a separation between us and them. In other words, we are becoming more distant from them, not more emotionally intimate.
Think about it for a moment: If your tendency is to say things in a tone which is upsetting to me and all I do in return is to yell at you stating that you ALWAYS use that tone with me, what have I accomplished?
Maybe in the small minority of cases, you would learn that I don’t like that tone and you’d change it, no questions asked. Fat chance though.
The majority of the time, you’d get defensive OR you’d pull away from me. AND I’d get even more of that behavior from you because nothing really ever got resolved with my generalization.
If, instead, I focused on the present example of this behavior which bothers me (i.e. your tone), I am now simply pointing out your behavior to you in the present and what it does to me. I am not attacking you by labeling you or telling you how much you s@%k (insert popular adolescent and pre-adolescent word here–one which neither you nor I would EVER use of course.)
Make no mistake, when we generalize somebody, we’re attacking them. It’s a counterattack more than a communication. We are frustrated or otherwise hurt by them, but we are not saying that to them, and we are NOT working through the issue with them in the present when we generalize.
And, assuming that they are a human being, they will likely react, and if it’s a human of the little child variety, then they’ll also internalize the generalization and it’ll become part of who they eventually are as adults. Not good.
Don’t believe it?
When you are in the privileged position that I am in, day in and day out, and are allowed to share in the stories of thousands of wonderful people each year, you learn:
The fifty year old procrastinator was once a twelve year old child who was repeatedly LABELLED a procrastinator.
The forty five year old expert at self-sabotage was repeatedly told that they were a “screw up.”
And, in the case of marriage and marital-type relationships, you’ll lose Emotional Credibility with the other person, which, as you might recall, equals trust + actually being liked by them and them wanting to have you around.
So please, don’t generalize with your loved ones, communicate with them instead. Stay in the present with the behavior that’s happening right now, not in the past or the future.
And, above all, good luck and be well.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.