Overgeneralization: Cognitive Distortion #3
In this cognitive distortion, overgeneralization, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.
Overgeneralization says one thing went wrong once, so everything like this event will go wrong in the future. It’s the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Overgeneralizations are helpful in some ways and at some times, for example, running out into a busy street is ALWAYS a bad idea. But they can hurt us in others.
Here’s a story to illustrate the overgeneralization.
Mary loved her job and took pride in doing it just right. She arrived early and stayed late. She was the model employee. No one else worked as hard as her.
Then one day she had an encounter with Ted from accounting. He was critical of her work and let her know how she was mistaken. Mary took the criticism to heart. She obsessed about her mistake and couldn’t let it go. She just knew Ted was going to find something else wrong, so she worked even harder to make everything perfect. Everyone must be criticizing her behind her back. No one could like her anymore. Everything she did was wrong.
Ted, on the other hand, forgot the event almost immediately. He knew Mary was a good employee and worked hard. He didn’t question her abilities at all but had just wanted to give her a heads up about one small issue. Ted had no idea how personally Mary took his criticism or how it impacted her work.
Mary started to take much longer to complete tasks. No one understood her problems. Mary even started not finishing jobs. Everything was so hard. She would leave her work for the next day and the next day until it was too late. Deadlines passed and Mary became more and more guarded about her work.
Finally, Mary’s supervisor asked what was going on? Why was Mary, a former model employee, suddenly not completing work? Mary confessed her confidence was shaken to the core by Ted’s conversation. She didn’t know how to carry on now that she didn’t trust herself not to make mistakes. Everything she did was sub-par. Nothing was good enough.
Thankfully Mary’s supervisor pointed out all the good Mary had done in the past, and that Ted’s criticism was one bad thing in many years of positives. All was not lost.
Mary eventually learned to take the good with the bad. She realized that one mistake does not ruin a career. People make mistakes and so could she. She learned to say, how can I move forward? How can I learn and grow? How can I recover quickly and focus on the positive?
If you find yourself a victim of overgeneralization, there are some tricks to help you stop. Remove certain trigger words from your vocabulary…
Replace those trigger words with these words:
In this case
A few people
Go back and read the story looking for the trigger words – Always, Never, Everyone, No one. Try replacing these trigger words with gentler phrases – Sometimes, In this case, Some people, A few people. How does the story change?
Overgeneralizations are helpful in that they help us recognize patterns.
Recognizing patterns is helpful for learning the world around us and putting certain tasks on auto-pilot. For example, a hot stove is ALWAYS dangerous. Don’t touch it.
But overgeneralizations get us into trouble when we let them run our human interactions. Not all people are bad all the time. Some people are bad at some times. Taking a more nuanced approach will help with your mental health because you’ll be able to see the Good along with the Bad.
Seeing the Good more often will keep your focus positive and allow you to live a happier life.