What Is Overgeneralization?

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What Is Overgeneralization?

Overgeneralization is a type of cognitive distortion where a person applies something from one event to all other events. This happens regardless of whether those events are circumstances are comparable. 

Overgeneralization frequently affects people with depression or anxiety disorders. It is a way of thinking where you apply one experience to all experiences, including those in the future.

For example, if you once gave a poor speech, you may think to yourself, "I always screw up speeches. I never can speak publicly without messing up." 

If you experience overgeneralization, you may view any negative experience that happens as a part of an inevitable pattern of mistakes.

Signs of Overgeneralization

Common signs of overgeneralization include:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Believing that one mistake means that all future attempts will result in failure
  • Negative self-talk
  • Thinking that you can never do anything right
  • Using language like "never," "always," "everybody," or "nobody" to describe events or behaviors
  • Viewing one-time events as consistent patterns

Most people engage in overgeneralization at least occasionally. If you ever find yourself complaining that you're "always" that last one to get picked for a project or that you "never" get any help around the house, then you have overgeneralized.

An example of overgeneralization in everyday life would be assuming that because you didn't get an interview after putting in a job application, you will never be able to get a job. In this case, you would be taking an isolated event (not getting an interview) and overgeneralizing it to all of your future job prospects.

Impact of Overgeneralization

This type of thinking can affect a person in a variety of ways, including reducing motivation, inhibiting self-confidence, and increasing anxiety.

Overgeneralization can worsen your self-image, making you feel that everyone dislikes you and that you can't do anything right. 

A self-limiting overgeneralization is when you keep yourself from meeting your own potential. These are common thoughts like "I'm not good enough" or "I could never do that." They can keep you from taking risks or next steps, harming your career and social life. 

The absolute self-talk that people use when they overgeneralize can make this cognitive distortion worse. If you think that "everybody" "always" behaves in a certain way, it makes it more difficult to see a single incident as an isolated event. Instead, you're more likely to view it as an inevitable pattern.

Evidence suggests that people who use this type of overgeneralizing language experience more anger than they do when they talk about situations more realistically. They also tend to express their angry emotions in more damaging or destructive ways.

Research has also found that overgeneralization is common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition involves generalizing fear from one traumatic experience to future events. This leads to fear responses, anxiety, and avoidance.

Recap

Overgeneralization can have a negative impact on well-being. It can contribute to the onset and maintenance of anxiety disorders. It can also lead to self-limiting beliefs and reduced motivation.

Tips for Overcoming Overgeneralization

While overgeneralization can be a very distressing symptom, there are strategies you can use to manage it and lessen its impact. Controlling your tendency to overgeneralize can also help lessen feelings of anxiety. One way to do this is through a process known as reframing.

What Is Reframing?

Reframing is a process where you identify negative or unhelpful thoughts and replace them with positive and empowering ones. It's a way of changing the way you view something.

Reframing can be a powerful tool in managing overgeneralizations. It is a fairly easy process to learn. With regular practice, many people find that it can decrease the symptoms of anxiety that often accompany overgeneralization.

Identify Thinking Patterns

Recognize when you find yourself negatively thinking about yourself or not doing activities because you think you will fail. Be more mindful of your thoughts. You might even try writing them down in a journal. Once you start recording them, you may notice patterns.

Look Carefully

Take a closer look at thoughts you have written down and ask yourself, "Is this true?" Challenge the thoughts as you review them. Would someone else view your thoughts the same way?

For example, you might find that no one noticed that you were nervous when you gave that presentation. Recognize your achievements, times when you excelled, and moments when you had fun with friends. 

Replace Your Thoughts

When you are thinking negative thoughts, use self-talk to think more positively. Maybe you always think, "I'm a terrible speaker and always screw up!" Try replacing that thought with "I'm more prepared and ready to give a great speech."  

Reframing with positivity can counter feelings of anxiety and help you with the presentation. Instead of overgeneralizing based on past negative experiences, try looking at experiences that cause you anxiety as a challenge rather than a threat.

Overgeneralizations can contribute to poor well-being and increase feelings of anxiety. They limit how you interact with others and can prevent you from achieving what you want to do in your life.

Managing overgeneralization is often done in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained therapist. By working with a mental health professional, you can learn to identify and change your tendency to overgeneralize. A therapist can also help with positive reframing and reduce the harmful impact that overgeneralizing may have on your life.

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