Overcoming Overgeneralization (A Cognitive Distortion)

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Thank you for stopping by for my ongoing positive self-talk series.  Self-love starts with positive self-talk, and all of that starts with you.  Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  You can learn to love yourself by changing what you think about yourself and how you talk with yourself.   

We all struggle from time to time with cognitive distortions; this is just a fact of life. But did you know the healthiest person will struggle with a little cognitive distortion here and a little exaggeration there?  Doing this here and there won’t impact your mental state in the short term.  However, if you start to do it constantly and it becomes your everyday thinking style, your mental health will suffer. 

What does overgeneralization look like?

Making a broad conclusion based on a single negative event as “proof” of never-ending negativity or failure.  For instance, believing after something bad happens once that it’ll just keep happening again and again. As a direct result, this pattern in your mind then becomes “proof” of never-ending defeat or failure. This cognitive distortion can also look like its more extreme cousin – catastrophizing.

This type of thinking is common in people that struggle with anxiety, depression, low self-worth and self-criticism. 

Here are some examples of overgeneralization. 

Deciding that because you didn’t get the job after an interview that it’s “proof” that you’ll never be able to find a job. 

Failing after one attempt and making the conclusion that you will never be successful. 

After running late to get to an appointment you conclude that you can never get anywhere on time. 

How overgeneralization can be harmful.

Overgeneralization limits your potential.  Should you decide after one failure that this is “proof” that you will never be successful. As a direct result, you will have zero motivation to continue to try.  It makes you avoid situations and people where failure may be possible.  Overgeneralizations impact your self-worth.    

How to know if you are using overgeneralizations in your life. 

You might be if…

You are using absolutes to describe yourself, others, or situations.  Absolutes can look like “always” and “never” or perhaps “no one” or “everyone” or perhaps other absolutes that are not entirely accurate?     

How to get out and overcome overgeneralizations. 

  • I.C.E. – and I’m not talking about “in case of emergency.” 

I’m talking about…

Identify the thought. 

Call it what it is – a cognitive distortion or an overgeneralization. 

Explore a new thought to replace it with. 

  • Separate self-worth from fear of failure – Strive for progress not perfection and get away from the shame dance.

Check out Daring Greatly by Brene Brown Ph.D. [affiliate].  Is an exceptionally well-written book all about perfectionism, shame, and how it has shaped our lives and ways to get your life back.   

Daring Greatly book by Brene' Brown Ph.D

  • Introduce shades of grey into your vocabulary – sometimes, perhaps, maybe, at times, etc. 

Let me know your thoughts and what strategies have worked for you for overcoming overgeneralizations in your life.    

A more comprehensive view of Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a Cognitive Distortion

Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  Recognizing how they can guide our actions and interactions with the world around us.  Knowing how thoughts may influence you also helps to recognize how thoughts can influence emotions.  And how emotions can influence how you feel about yourself in your world. 

In a lot of ways, this is about undoing a lot of negative behaviors and programming that you have learned. 

Below you will find common ways in which people will engage in overgeneralization. Making a mental shift offers you the opportunity to choose to do something about it.   

Overgeneralization

Making a broad conclusion based on a single negative event as “proof” of never-ending negativity or failure.  For most individuals, this is how they experience overgeneralizations.  Although, there are times where individuals may engage in the opposite.  And make a broad conclusion based on a single positive event as “proof” of entitled success or that things will be perfect.

This article will be focusing on the more common single negative event of overgeneralizations. Unfortunately, overgeneralization can sometimes look like the more extreme version of catastrophizing.

Cognitive – the way in which you think or perceive.

Distortion – inaccurate, misleading or irrational. 

Three Examples of Overgeneralization

  • Concluding that because you didn’t get a job after your interview you’ll never be able to find a job. 
  • Failing after one attempt and deciding that you will never be successful.
  • After running late to get to an appointment you conclude that you can never get anywhere on time. 

Do you find yourself using absolutes? For example, absolutes are “always” and “never” or perhaps “no one” or “everyone” or perhaps other absolutes that are not entirely accurate? 

This tendency to overgeneralize impacts how we experience people and events in our everyday lives.  Examples of this would be feeling like you hit every red light when you’re running late, and as a result, you become more frustrated during your drive. Or becoming irritated at people for always walking slowly in front of you because you’re in a hurry to get where you’re going. Likewise, concluding that you’ll never find a job because you haven’t gotten the job offer after your interview. And this conclusion resulting in the sense of hopelessness by this overgeneralization. 

Or believing that you are the only person that pulls your weight, and as a result, you find yourself getting angrier over that situation. 

The dangers of overgeneralizing

When we use overgeneralizations, we make ourselves more frustrated or angrier than using more accurate language.  As a result, overgeneralizing people tend to be angrier because they respond to the pattern of events instead of just one event. 

For instance, being frustrated whenever you hit any red lights because you have just decided that you hit all of the red lights. 

Or becoming frustrated with all people because you have overgeneralized that the small group in front of you now represents everyone.  You’re more likely to have a shorter fuse with other people you interact with moving forward.

  • You are setting yourself up for certain failure. 

Meaning that if you view any negative experience that happens as inevitable, where is your motivation ever to try something new?    

  • The pressure is absolutely paralyzing.   

Overgeneralizations lead to skewed conclusions.

Skewed conclusions will impact your ability to make decisions. This is because you may form a conclusion based on just one previous similar situation instead of factoring in all of the information.    

  • A vicious cycle of creating barriers. 

At its core, it is self-sabotage.  By limiting your beliefs and thought processes, you are limiting your opportunities. As a result, of overgeneralizing they can leave you feeling defeated.          

Where can overgeneralizations lead you?

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Self-criticism

Just to name a few. 

Steps to get you out of the trap of overgeneralizing. 

It can be difficult to stop overgeneralizing until you understand how you’re engaging in this cognitive distortion. 

Learn how to identify your thought patterns.

To challenge thought patterns that keep you stuck or scared or angry or struggling with whatever it is. First, you have to be able to identify them as they happen. Second, to recognize it as an overgeneralization through the use of how you are describing the event to yourself.  Third, are you using absolutes and finding yourself responding strongly to the situation? 

Be realistic in your choice of language.

Expansive or colorful language tends to make the situation or event worse. Again, are you using absolutes to describe the situation or the event?  Try changing out your absolutes for shades of grey. Here are some examples of shades of grey:

  • sometimes
  • now and again
  • perhaps
  • occasionally

What is the evidence?

Is there evidence that disproves this overgeneralization?  Do you really get stuck at every red light?  Are you relying on actual evidence, or are you being driven by your feelings on the matter?  Feelings tend to really color an event or situation and impact our thoughts and conclusions.

What is a more accurate interpretation? 

If you were to present this thought to others, would they formulate a similar conclusion?  Or would they raise an eyebrow and give you that look of “do you seriously believe this?”  This can be really helpful as you learn how to challenge overgeneralizations. In the beginning, try to write down your original thought and the other interpretations that you come up with. And from there, you can really start to challenge your overgeneralizations.     

      

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