I’m currently studying to be an Intuitive Eating Facilitator, and came across something in the book, Intuitive Eating that made me sit up and pay attention. The material in the book focuses on how we can change our approach to food by changing how we think about our body, including a lot of information about the ways we think about ourselves based on patterns that have developed over time that we may not even be aware of.
Absolutist thinking was a pattern I wasn’t aware I was immersed in, but reading about it helped me to wake up to this phenomenon. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the authors of the book, describe absolutist thinking as the belief that if I behave in a particular way, that behavior will irrevocably result in a predetermined outcome and that if I don’t choose a particular course of action, something “awful” will happen. Tribole and Resch call this “magical thinking” because in reality we don’t control life in this way.
I found myself in absolutist thinking around one situation, and then another, and then another, and realized that I’ve been under the spell of this magical thinking without even realizing it. Enchanted by my own spell, it seems. Absolutist thinking told me that if I didn’t respond to that one email right now then something awful would happen; that if I didn’t get that paper to my colleague TODAY something awful would happen; that if I asserted a boundary with this other person, something awful would happen. The thread is that the “something awful” is generally a fear of being rejected for not doing the right thing. Absolutist thinking seems to have as its close cousins shame, the inner critic and perfectionism.
If you want to make god laugh, make a plan (or employ absolutist thinking!).
Ironically, there’s no real proof that the “right thing” will actually result in the outcome of not being rejected. There’s no proof that not responding to that email today is going to affect my relationship with the other person one iota. There’s no proof that if I don’t get this paper to my colleague today that it’s going to effect the cascade of events I’ve created in my mind. There’s no certainty that if I set a boundary with this other person that it’s going to lead the other person to recoil and reject me. Sure, I can use some of my past experiences to predict the outcome of potential actions, but I can’t have any certainty. Life just isn’t like that. If you want to make god laugh, make a plan (or employ absolutist thinking!).
Absolutist thinking leads to anxiety because while you feel you understand the cause and effect laws, you never really know if you’re right. You might calm the inner critic when you get that email sent off on time, but then there will surely be another thing that has to be done and you’re off reacting to absolutist thinking in that area as well. Or the email is sent off and then you’re left checking your inbox every 5 seconds to see if your actions did, in fact, magick the right situation into being. Neither the inner critic nor the absolutist thinker ever stop giving their bad advice or identifying tasks to attend to to prevent catastrophe.
When we notice we are shoulding on ourselves, it’s a beautiful act of self-compassion to follow that thread to see if it’s leading back to magical thinking.
How do we know when we are engaging in absolutist thinking? Inevitably we feel a sense of panic, anxiety, doom, and overwhelming responsibility and words like “should,” “have to,” “must,” “supposed to,” “need to” and “ought” are in our internal vocabulary. When we notice we are shoulding on ourselves, it’s a beautiful act of self-compassion to follow that thread to see if it’s leading back to magical thinking.
What can we do in response to absolutist thinking? Bring in some rational permission-giving thinking. The simple act of realizing that we’re engaging in magical thinking can take a lot of the power away from it. The moment I say to myself, “Will getting this email off right now really lead to my certain retention in the tribe?” and the answer is, “No,” I redirect my negativity bias away from that catastrophic outcome. “Will getting that paper to my colleague today effect the outcome I am magicking into existence?” “No.” “Will my boundary setting leave me cast out and adrift in a sea of derelict emotions and loneliness?” “No.” Just as shame cannot survive when you talk about it, absolutist thinking cannot survive when you inquire into it. Try it. While you’re at it, you can notice how painful it is to have been so anxious around the fear of this awful outcome. You can offer yourself some love and kindness because of the pain of absolutist thinking. Maybe you’ve been experiencing this pain your whole life. That’s a lot of self-compassion you’re owed – it’s time to give that to yourself.
How do you know if you are successfully demystifying your magical thinking? You’ll likely feel as if you’re seeing things with a different perspective; that the pressure of shoulding on yourself has diminished or even dissipated completely; you might even wonder how you got so worked up about that thing you were certain would unfold if you didn’t do the thing required to control it. You might also feel confused, especially if absolutist thinking was part of your way of understanding the world and believing that you had the power to control parts of it. You might feel a sense of emptiness, a wondering about your identity, a feeling of blankness – these are all signs that you are changing your identity, starting to carve new neural pathways, changing your understanding about the world, and these changes can be unsettling. But releasing magical thinking is an amazing act of creating your own liberation.
You are the one steering this ship. You get to decide which way to go. You might need someone to remind you that the ocean is vast and there are many different directions you can choose to go in, but know that your potential is just there, waiting for you. Go on – do it!