The trouble with absolutes

Absolutes refer to polarised positions, viewpoints or concepts i.e. right versus wrong, good versus bad, success versus failure.

The nature of absolutes is that they are fixed, safe, immovable. They offer an alternative from ambiguity, uncertainty and unknowing. The trouble with absolutes however is that, while they are fixed, we -as fluid, complex human beings- are not. If we get too embedded in an absolutist position, we can struggle.

Take the absolute of ‘success’.  It may require a good deal of effort to maintain being or feeling a success, or hit the benchmark of what success means to us. Thus we may put pressure on ourselves to over-achieve, compare ourselves unfavourably to others, struggle to embody our own achievements, set perfectionist standards that we cannot meet. We may feel that however much we do, it isn’t good enough. We may become stressed, find it impossible to relax, or engage with the present moment. It may affect our work, our personal relationships. Before long, ‘failure’ looms. Absolutist thinking and behaviour always swings between one extreme and another.

Absolutist thinking is survivalist, reactionary thinking; it is rarely a creative, compassionate or relational place to occupy.


In mental health terms it is not the being ‘success’ or ‘failure’ that is the point but the ability to tolerate the grey area between these, and other, absolutes, within ourselves.

The function of absolutes in the psyche is to maintain a position of control over the conflicting feelings that exist in this middle ground, the territory of change. Absolutist thoughts such as ‘I must be a success’ (or, conversely ‘I am a failure’) can involve survivalist, reactionary thinking.  When we are in survival mode we attach ourselves to simplistic core beliefs that may have been helpful for us as children but are no longer serving us well.

Absolutist thinking can also stifle our ability to be relational, creative, reflexive, compassionate. More than anything it hinders our ability to change and evolve; i.e. to find ourselves somewhere other than the familiar patterns of conflict and difficulties we are used to.

Change often requires the ability to tolerate a grey area rather than a black and white one. For instance how would it feel to be good-enough, rather than an absolute success (or an absolute failure)? How would it feel to be both right and wrong at the same time?

Absolutes tend to be our habitual, go-to places when confronted with people, things or scenarios that provoke horrible things in us like fear, anger, rage, shame, sadness, helplessness. With the right resources however we can challenge the impulse to occupy an absolutist position. The middle-ground, or grey area, is a territory of change; an unfamiliar pathway but one that might lead somewhere new.