Over-generalizations are one type of cognitive distortion that can impact mental health and well-being. What are they? Over-generalizations are, in essence, making assumptions about something that we do not really have enough evidence or knowledge about. Often it is a sweeping statement about things that might not be fair to assume (Martin, R., 2019). Making over-generalizations can get us into tough spots emotionally and mentally because it can lead to beliefs about a situation, ourselves, and others that might cause increased emotional distress, or reactivity, but again are not completely true. When we are thinking in over-generalizations, we tend to use ‘sweeping’ statements or words, like “Why does this ALWAYS happen to me?” Or, “Things NEVER work out the way I want them to work out.” This can influence heightened levels of emotional reactions about a situation, ourselves, or others than what is more accurate regarding the situation. Personally, I notice I begin to feel more defeated, increased hopelessness, anger, or anxiety about a situation, if I have an over-generalizing perception about it. That makes a difference in how I might respond.
I once heard it described that we all have filters in our thoughts to sift through what information we are receiving and putting out. Sometimes we can filter these thoughts and more accurately isolate the incident that might cause us to overgeneralize. Yet, at other times, maybe it’s been a more stressful day, or maybe life has been really tough and it is harder to use the filter to test whether it’s valid or irrational. The reason these thoughts are important to take hold of and identify, is because it really can impact our responses to events, and likely in less effective or helpful ways.
For example, if I am at home and let’s say I notice my husband left his dirty laundry on the floor, an over-generalizing thought would sound like, “Ugh, he ALWAYS forgets to put his stuff away.” When I mentioned over-generalizations not being necessarily fair this would be one of those scenarios. He does not actually leave it on the floor often at all (probably as often as I do, in all transparency!)—this is a slippery slope because I am going to notice more anger and resentment toward him about the situation, and potentially respond in a passive-aggressive manor if perseverating on this thought. However, if I observed the laundry and, although maybe annoyed, acknowledge that, “He sometimes forgets to put his things away,” it changes the intensity of my response and reactivity—diffusing the level anger. With a little less emotion and resentment, I might have the capacity to do something more productive about it, like asking respectfully, “Hey can you put that away when you get a chance?” The latter is supporting me feeling equipped to do something assertively about it, rather than fuming about my assumption that he will never put his laundry away and catastrophizing that I am going to feel annoyed about this forever.
I know this is a smaller scale scenario, but the truth is that the more aware we are of this type of cognitive distortion, the more we can respond and change the perception we have about events, reacting less from a place of anger, anxiety, etc. and more from a place of compassion, autonomy and assertiveness about the situation. In this vein, I do want to note that, as Dr. Ryan Martin (2019) cautions, there are times when over-generalizations are accurate. We should not minimize the situations that truly are ALWAYS or NEVER situations. Those are a different and merit a certain accountability or level responsibility. Please do not minimize those situations, if occurring.
In my own practice of this, I think of the Bible verse that states “take every thought captive” (English Standard Version Bible, 2001, 2 Corinthians 2:5). Holding a mindful and present space to notice our thoughts, emotions, and reactions to situations enables space to catch these thoughts when occurring. If I am running on auto-pilot and not leaving space to think about my experiencing of the world around me, I likely won’t have the space to notice and observe this thought pattern. Testing this thought—is this really accurate, “Do I really never get anything right?” or thoughts like, “When did I notice my partner do something helpful this past week?” These are examples of how me might ‘challenge’ the thought for its validity. The brain is incredibly good at learning and finding new ways of thought; the more we practice, the more it becomes habit. May we give ourselves grace and allow space for the ups and downs of growth in the learning process.
Want to learn more? Check out the first blog of the series here.
. . .
The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).
English Standard Version Bible. (2001). ESV Online. https://esv.literalword.com/
Martin, Ryan Ph.D. (2019). “What is Overgeneralizing? How it’s defined and why you should never do it.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-the-rage/201908/what-is-overgeneralizing