Overgeneralization is a type of Cognitive Distortion.
Cognitive Distortions are inaccurate ways that we perceive the events that happen in our lives. They are negative and often irrational thinking patterns that can really affect our mental health. However, they are also a common issue that everyone experiences at some point in their lives, so you are not alone. I experience cognitive distortions too!
Overgeneralization is when we take the result or conclusion of one event, and then apply it to every other similar event in the future – without any regard for other variables or factors. And because of this overgeneralization, it affects how we behave in the future often in a negative and unhealthy manner.
Signs of Overgeneralization
- Tendency to assume the worst outcome.
- Believing that one failed attempt determines the outcome of all future attempts.
- Frequently use words like, “never”, “always”, “everyone”, “impossible”.
- Have trouble seeing other alternatives.
I will never be good at sports because I tried it before and I was horrible.
You had a bad experience with sport once and because of that, you decided that you will never be good at it
I am a burden because I keep making mistakes at work.
When you feel that you don’t have confidence and because you’ve made some mistakes in the past, so now you have this belief that you will always make mistakes and be a burden.
I will never trust anyone again because he betrayed me.
When someone betrayed you so now you assume that everyone will also betray you eventually.
I will never pass my Mother Tongue exam because I have never passed it before.
When you decide that a task is impossible just because you have never been successful at it before.
Coping With Overgeneralization
First, I need you to understand something really important.
Everyone experiences negative thoughts and it is normal to have them.
Cognitive Distortion is when your negative thoughts evolve into a negative pattern of thinking that starts messing up with your ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis.
That is why I am using the word ‘coping’ instead of ‘treating’ or ‘curing’. I don’t want you to have the expectations that your negative thoughts are going to go away forever. What you can expect is that you will reach a level where you can cope with your negative thoughts and keep them from spiralling out of control.
So here are some specific coping strategies to help you with Overgeneralization.
Awareness of Overgeneralization
Now that you know what Overgeneralizing looks like, start keeping an eye out for it. Pay attention to when you are having a negative thought, and point it out when you realise that you are Overgeneralizing.
You’ll be surprised but simply being aware that you are experiencing a cognitive distortion can be enough to for you to snap out of it.
It’s like watching a magic trick. The first time you watch, it looks like magic because you can’t figure it out. But once someone explains to you how the trick is done, it loses its illusion because you can see how it works.
So start by practicing having the awareness that you are overgeneralizing an event.
Challenge Your Thoughts
Once you have the awareness that you are overgeneralizing, it is then time to apply a more active strategy to deal with it.
Challenging your thoughts is what I like to describe as the process of turning an Absolute Thought into a Maybe Thought.
Absolute Thought -> Maybe Thought
We do this by asking questions like we’re trying to poke holes in our absolute thoughts, as if we’re skeptical and don’t quite believe that it is true.
Absolute Thought: I will never pass my Mother Tongue exam because I have never passed it before.
Poking Holes: Do I REALLY believe that I can NEVER pass my Mother Tongue exam? Will I still fail even if the paper was set really easy? Or what if I consult my teacher everyday after school? Have I really been studying as hard for my Mother Tongue as my other subjects?
Maybe Thought: Maybe it’s not impossible for me to pass my Mother Tongue exam, but it will take a lot of effort to pass.
Notice how the Maybe Thought is still negative, but it is actually a lot less negative than the Absolute Thought? That’s because we are not trying to lie to ourselves. If the fact is that we struggle the most with the Mother Tongue subject, then we are not trying to lie and change that fact.
But by saying that we will NEVER pass it, that is just being unfair to ourselves.
Our goal is to be rational and fair.
Also, the key difference between an Absolute Thought and a Maybe Thought is hope. Absolute Thoughts will leave you without any hope, whereas a Maybe Thought leaves enough room for you to be hopeful that maybe the situation can be change.
Let me demonstrate.
Maybe it’s not impossible for me to pass my Mother Tongue exam, but it will take a lot of effort to pass.
So maybe I can start by asking my friends for help. Maybe I can aim to pass the class tests first or if that is still too difficult, then maybe I can try to just complete my Mother Tongue homework. If I really struggle then I’ll just ask my friends or teacher for help.
What I did there was to gradually reduce the difficulty of the task until it becomes something possible within my own ability. From there, I can start to take action to improve. That begins with a Maybe Thought. Whereas if I was stuck with the Absolute Thought, then I wouldn’t have the hope or motivation to try and change for the better in the first place.
As long as you have hope, you will be able to take action and make a change for the better.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
I mentioned just now that I was gradually reducing the difficulty of the task. This is a strategy that we use in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The goal is to take small steps and experience small successes to build up our confidence. This will allow the client to eventually be confident enough to take on the bigger challenges.
So if your attempts to help yourself isn’t working out, then it would be a good idea to speak with a counsellor.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an evidence-based therapy, meaning lots of very smart scientists have done studies and research and they have found that it really works.
The reason why I like CBT, aside from it being evidence-based, is that it is really structured and methodical. It goes through a process of first identifying your negative thinking patterns (cognitive distortions), learning how to interrupt it so that you don’t sink into a negative spiral, and then how you can change it such that you have healthy and positive thinking patterns instead.
If you’re a student or a youth in Singapore then most counsellors, including school counsellors, will be trained in CBT. Have a chat with them and give counselling it a try. Chances are they will be able to help you.
You can get better.
I have worked with many students over the years and not a single one of them failed to improve. Yes, the improvements come in small steps but each one is still a step forward. Just because they struggled with something doesn’t mean that they cannot slowly improve at it.
You can improve and get better too.
Try the coping strategies that I’ve shared here. If it doesn’t work, go and see a counsellor. Overgeneralization is a common issue that many people experienced and have successfully overcome. You are capable of overcoming it as well.