Managing the Cognitive Distortion: Overgeneralization

You might be wondering exactly what cognitive distortions are?  Cognitive distortions are “ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” (Grohol, J, 2019)

Since cognitive distortions cause us to feel bad about ourselves and our lives, they induce feelings of shame and unworthiness as well as thoughts of inadequacy. John Bradshaw author of, “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” refers to cognitive distortions as shamed based distorted thinking.

The first type of shamed based distorted thinking that I will discuss this week is overgeneralization. Overgeneralization is a very common cognitive distortion experienced by children, adolescents and adults. Most people overgeneralize at some point in their lives.

What is Overgeneralization?

In this thinking distortion you make a broad generalized conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. For example, if you are learning to play tennis and keep missing the ball, you might think to yourself, “I will never learn to play tennis.” If you decide to start dating online but no one connects with you, you might think to yourself, “No one will ever like me!” If you have a performance evaluation and get 3 out of 5 for teamwork, you might think to yourself, “I will never fit in here. I should quit.”   

Overgeneralization can lead to universal qualifiers like:

  • “Nobody loves me.”
  • “I’ll never get a better job.”
  • “I will always have to struggle.”
  • “Why can’t I ever get it right.”
  • “No one would love me if they really knew me.”

Other cue words are “all,” “everybody,” and “every.”

Another form of overgeneralization is called normalization. In normalization “a process is made into a thing.” For example, if you say, “My marriage is dysfunctional,” you are engaging in normalization. Since marriage is a dynamic process, only some aspect of the marriage is dysfunctional not the entire marriage. People also regularly overgeneralize about the government. For example, people might say, “Our government is in chaos.” But the government involves multiple processes, dynamics, and people, and only some aspect of the government is chaotic not the entire government. 

Overgeneralization can contribute to a more and more restricted thought process and lifestyle. This form of distorted thinking intensifies feelings of shame and unworthiness as well as induces anxiety.

How to Overcome Overgeneralization

To work through overgeneralization, take time to write out answers to the following three questions:

  1. What is the evidence for my conclusions?
  2. What is the evidence against my conclusions?
  3. What is an alternative conclusion to consider?

Final Thoughts

When we overgeneralize, we can create a shame spiral and experience overwhelming anxiety. The sooner we recognize that we are overgeneralizing and make efforts to challenge our distorted thinking, the less stress, anxiety, and shame we will experience.

Contact me. If you would like to schedule counseling or coaching sessions to help work through overgeneralization, please email me through my website.

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