Overgeneralizing is a cognitive distortion that has the potential to cause us a lot of unnecessary emotional pain. When we draw a conclusion about something based on just one piece of evidence, we are overgeneralizing. This can take many forms. We may, for example, predict the outcome of something based on just one previous instance of it: after interviewing for a job and not getting it, we might overgeneralize by thinking we’ll never get a job, and as a result feel quite hopeless.
Overgeneralizing is ineffective, mainly because it is usually highly inaccurate, and it is very limiting. Take another example, going out on a date and not being asked for a second date. Were we to use distorted thinking and overgeneralize, we may come to the conclusion that we will never successfully find a romantic partner. If you really believe this, it can feel devastating. Even worse, believing the distortion to be true, it would be unlikely that you would put forth any effort toward achieving your goal of romance. You might stop chatting casually with people you don’t know, delete your dating site profile, and even turn down invitations of dates. Then your prediction would turn out to be true!
Usually when we experience setbacks, painful emotions go along with them. The stronger the emotion, the more likely it is to influence our thinking and result in us falling into believing a distortion. Luckily, usually all it takes to turn this pattern around is to examine our thinking to come to a more balanced, rational perspective. The following questions may be helpful the next time you think you may be overgeneralizing:
What are the costs and benefits of this prediction? If this is costing you more than you are gaining, what are other, more effective ways of thinking about the situation?
What is the evidence for this prediction? Are you basing it on a lot of relevant data, or just one or two data points?
Based on the current facts, do you think everyone would draw the same conclusion? If not, consider why not, and whether other conclusions might be more effective in you coping, or in achieving your desired outcome.
Pick a friend. If this friend came to you and told you the same thing was happening to him/her, what would you say to him/her? Is it different than what you’re telling yourself right now?
Do you think you are relying on the actual evidence, or is it possible you are letting your feelings guide your thinking about this matter?
Identify examples in which this conclusion is not true. Now identify some more…
Considering a number of alternate ways of thinking about things usually helps us to soften our attachment to cognitive distortions. The best way to use these questions is to first identify the situations in which we usually engage in this sort of distortion, then plan ahead, and rehearse these questions both before and during the situation. And don’t feel you have to be totally convinced for it to work. Just the act of taking on new ways of thinking can result in our emotions settling down.
Cognitive therapy is devoted to identifying similar patterns of thinking and helping people develop healthier thinking habits. Click here to learn more about cognitive therapy.
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